The Edifice Complex

I’m not sure when the term “edifice complex” was coined. I first heard it applied editorially to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s building spree in Albany followed by the erection of the Twin Towers in New York City. The term implies an unhealthy obsession with building buildings or “edifices” when the question of “for whom and to what purpose?” isn’t clear.

The great embarrassment of the Twin Towers was how long they remained empty until finally Governor Rockefeller coerced NY State agencies to pay out lower cost office leases and move their agencies into the more expensive Towers to avoid further political embarrassment.

The real question here is NOT who is giving what to whom, BUT RATHER who benefits from the gift – the donor or the recipient?

I remember years ago a difficult discussion with a wealthy individual, anxious to leave a big-fish legacy to the small-pond Vermont town in which he lived. He acquired, restored and gave to his town an historic building. It was a generous gift, but sadly one the Town could ill afford to maintain. The donor never asked the town what it needed and simply chose his legacy gift. I tried to make a case to the annoyed donor that the town would need operating funds and asked if he would add to his gift an endowment to ensure its utility and survival. I received the tongue-lashing I fully expected about my lack of gratitude.

The key question of whether a gift benefits the giver or the recipient is especially relevant as we confront challenges facing higher education. The competitive building race at many colleges and universities, often reflecting donor priorities rather than institutional ones, is a significant driver in rising tuition costs. The increased costs to heat, light, clean, insure and maintain donated buildings are not part of the gift. Colleges motivated by market economics rather than educational mission poll students about what they want rather than assuming the educator’s mantel and applying limited resources solely towards educational excellence.

The challenge of college Presidents today is to reprioritize and articulate the future educational needs of their institutions. If, as most education theorists maintain, true learning occurs between great teachers and motivated students, the philanthropic priority shifts to international networks of scholars & researchers, digital libraries, and less fixed-residency learning. And if this occurs, will the profusion of donor-named student centers, libraries, dorms, garages, sports arenas simply become so many donor mausoleums.

Philanthropists have a major role in the well being of our institutions. Our architectural and cultural history is enriched by their largesse. In real giving, however, the priority must be the recipient’s need, not the donor’s immortality angst. As the needs of higher ed. move from campus infrastructure to funding great educators, leaders must educate donors to their changing needs. When a college president is approached by a donor with a plan for his own memorial, I hope he or she will have the courage to clarify their needs and decline the gift that keeps on taking.

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