Paul Tudor Jones and American public education

Forbes’s December “special philanthropy issue” features Paul Tudor Jones, among others, and his efforts fighting poverty in NYC. The glowing article about Jones poses a question with its title–“Can hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones save America’s public education system?”–that the magazine’s cover had already answered: ”Entrepreneurs Can Save the World.” I found the article via Diane Ravitch’s blog, where commenters found a significant omission in the magazine’s lengthy profile of Jones.

Do you remember the ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan by the school’s board last year? Probably you do, since it was covered by such well-known publications as the New York Times, Washington Post, and more. The UVA Board of Visitors, led by Helen Dragas, voted Sullivan out without warning, citing “philosophical differences.” As opposition grew from faculty, students and alumni, she was reinstated by the board less than two weeks later.  So where does Paul Tudor Jones come in?

Jones is a UVA alum and major donor to the school. He gave $35 million to build a basketball arena in 2006 and announced another $15 million gift to construct a yoga center on campus not long before the ouster. Around the same time, Dragas asked Jones to advise the board on “strategic thinking.” He declined, but recommended his friend Peter Kiernan for the position. Former Goldman Sachs partner and hedge fund president, Kiernan now chairs a venture capital firm, and serves on the boards of the Robin Hood Foundation, founded by Jones, and StudentsFirst NY, where Jones is also a board member. Kiernan had also just resigned as chair of UVA’s Darden School Foundation and sent a mass email about his consulting role expressing support for Dragas and the board. Meanwhile, Jones wrote an op-ed in a Charlottesville paper strongly defending Sullivan’s removal. These public statements fueled sentiment among faculty and students that wealthy donors were wielding excessive power at the school.

Kiernan denies any undue influence on the board’s decision to dismiss Sullivan, while Jones has remained silent since penning his op-ed. In the Times, one former board member offered this analysis of what he thinks happened:

Private-equity and hedge-fund guys typically come into a situation of mediocrity, where rapid change may result in a profit. When you’re talking about a well-established university with a strong reputation that is trying to enhance that reputation, that’s not how the game is played.

The extent of Jones’s involvement in the fracas is still unknown, but his ties to Dragas and Kiernan received plenty of recognition in the media at the time. Even Forbes (yes, the same Forbes) reported on the speculation around Jones’s role. We can’t say whether Jones used his financial position to corporatize decision-making at a public school in Virginia against the will of many other stakeholders, including students and faculty. We can’t say whether he’ll attempt to do that at public schools in NYC. But in a story about Jones’s philanthropy in public education, it seems disingenuous to omit this particular detail.

So how about the rest of the Wall St. crew backing Jones’s efforts to “save” public education? Check out the Robin Hood Foundation’s profile on LittleSis. Some highlights from the Interlocks and Giving tabs:

  • Five Robin Hood board members–Jeff Immelt, Laurence Fink, Alan Schwartz, Scott Bommer, and Lee Ainslie–are also members of Fix the Debt’s CEO Council. The Nation has a great series on Fix the Debt, the anti-tax, anti-spending astroturf group founded by billionaire Pete Peterson.
  • Five board members contributed almost $2 million in total to the Restore Our Future Super PAC that supported Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency. They were joined by nine of their colleagues in donating another quarter million directly to Romney.
  • President Obama received over $300,000, the highest total of any politician (Eric Cantor was a close second). Of the 23 Robin Hood associates that donated to Obama, 11 were also Romney donors, apparently hedging their bets in the political arena.