Back when I attended Harvard University, one of the odder graduation requirements I faced was a mandatory swim test. We were told the demand was a legacy of Eleanor Widener, who had donated the school’s main library in honour of her son, class of 1907, who drowned on the Titanic.
The story turns out be apocryphal, but we believed it. Our lives were shaped by the hands of dead donors. We slept and ate in halls built to realise Edward Harkness’s dream of replicating Oxford in America. We took classes in a science building funded by Polaroid camera inventor Edwin Land, that resembled his creation. We even swam the required 50 yards in a pool named after donor John Blodgett.
Since then the influence of plutocrats on US universities has only grown and it is expanding to the UK. This week, Blackstone boss Steve Schwarzman gave £150m to Oxford university not long after quant investor David Harding handed £100m to Cambridge.