Today's publicly owned multinational corporations, make no mistake, do perform substantial amounts of charitable work and invest heavily in their surrounding communities. But the geographic and social dispersion of corporate ownership, coupled with the ease with which modern for-profit enterprises can and do move their operations, makes it difficult for today's equivalents of Vanderbilt, Frick, Carnegie, and Rockefeller to invest in a single community. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Paul Allen have all showered their largess near home (and, for that matter, far afield as well). By contrast, universities can move only with great difficulty, if at all. At its best, the research function of the modern university drives civic development and economic growth, often in ways too subtle and too important to be entrusted either to government or to private enterprise.
On a completely different MoneyLaw post some weeks ago, Christine Hurt left a comment that reminds me now to quote Daniel Burnham, the architect of the Chicago's World Fair: "Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood." True enough. Much of MoneyLaw takes aim at the minutiae of academic manageable. Sweating the details is as important as it is difficult. But it also behooves those of us in academic administration -- or those of us who simply observe academic administration from a secure, tenured post -- to reach even higher. The contemporary university is a powerful catalyst of economic growth, even of civic pride.
In short, the slogan that Jean-Baptiste Colbert once claimed on behalf of the state applies with equal force to universities: "Rien de grand sans l'université."