Bill Gates, America’s most prominent evangelist for philanthropy, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that his foundation probably won’t change its grant-making priorities for at least a decade.
“We want to learn, make mistakes, try new things out, find new partners,” says Mr. Gates, whose foundation works to improve health and reduce poverty in the neediest countries, and to improve education in the United States. “And so until we’ve done something quite dramatic, which in the best case would be in 10 to 20 years, we’re not going to move on and do something else.”
In an interview, Mr. Gates stressed his foundation’s emphasis on measuring results. That focus has been criticized by some nonprofit leaders, who say universities, international aid groups, and other charities shouldn’t be run like businesses. But Mr. Gates says it’s important to get a clearer picture of, for example, why some universities succeed in graduating more students than others.
“It’s amazing how little effort’s been put into this,” he says of efforts to assess why some universities perform better than others. “Of saying, OK, why are some teachers at any different level way better than others? You’ve got universities in this country with a 7-percent completion rate. Why is it that they don’t come under pressure to change what they’re doing to come up with a better way of doing things?”
He says that “if you’re against completion and measuring completion then, yeah, we’re a real problem. Because we’re saying, Hey, maybe we ought to look at that. Because budgets are so tight we’re going to have to find best practices there, and if you’re engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that’s a bad thing.”
Mr. Gates says universities are typically evaluated on the competitiveness of their admissions, not their success at preparing young people.
“You’d think people would say, ‘We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers,’ ” he says. “Instead they say, ‘We take people with very high SATs and we don’t really know what we create, but at least they’re smart when they show up here so maybe they still are when we’re done with them.’ ”
Mr. Gates also discussed some of the directions he believes universities are headed toward. One approach he mentioned was the use of a “flipped” classroom in which college students watch videotaped lectures of star professors and use class time to study in small groups.
In the interview, Mr. Gates, who left his full-time job at Microsoft in 2008 to focus on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, emphasized that his philanthropy seeks to finance “change agents” with good ideas, not to dictate how its money ought to be spent.