Gregg's memo to Rockefeller Foundation historian Julia M. H. Carson on General Education Board and Rockefeller Foundation
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1948-01-23 (January 23, 1948)
Carson, Julia M. H.
Original Repository: Rockefeller Archive Center. Rockefeller Foundation Archives
Reproduced with permission of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
"Notes on Giving"
January 23, 1948
Dear Ms. Carson:
Though it will make an appallingly long letter, the collection of queries, comments and impressions which might in some way
be useful to you will have so little orderly structure that they might as well go into a letter as any other way. Certainly
I have no thesis to prove, no leit motif, no main argument to support. Indeed if some of the suggestions given serve merely
as stepladders that help you to hang your pictures, they will have served a reasonable purpose as well as providing me with
the fun of trying to put them together.
The most interesting way to look at the history of the GEB and the RF, especially in their formative periods, is to view them
as criticisms of, or reactions to, the then contemporary scene. Behind action life purpose, behind purpose lie values, and,
as Oscar Wilde remarked "all criticism is a kind of autobiography." But before going further exploring foundations
as an interesting form of criticism, it may be well to note what were the only available antecedents in which they could be
Denominational charity in United States had 400 years or more reached out toward schools and hospitals is the best way serving
the community and at the same time making merit for the denomination. When the fortunes of some individuals at the beginning
of the 20th Century far surpassed what their long practiced frugality allowed them to spend on themselves, and when these
millionaires would have developed a distressing retinue of personal dependents, if that had appealed to them, their administrative
experience suggested the organization of an ad hoc group of persons to spend large sums of money. Without other successful
examples they followed the lines of denominational charity. But a new element was added from the business experience and administrative
sagacity of these men who had made the money they were now planning to give: they were going to get their money's worth.
That was a significant change: instead of taking the worthiness of the project in the high-mindedness of the recipient for
granted and then concentrating on how much could be spared, they concentrated attention on the question of the ability of
the recipient (including the soundness of his ideas and the likelihood of his success) and assumed that the amount to be given
was to be governed more by the project's needs than by the donor's financial limitations. That seems to me to have
been something of a landmark in American philanthropy - that now emphasis upon the skill, economy, efficiency of philanthropic
spending. The very size of the new foundations called for responsible, skilled specialists in the business of giving. Almost
a whole chapter could be devoted to the tactics of philanthropy introduced by the ISD and DME, the annual reports, the budgeting
of projects, the use of auditing and meticulous financial control, and the constant legal supervision of forms of commitment
and appropriation. If this emphasis was not entirely new it was conspicuous enough to seem new, or new enough to be conspicuous.
Two other factors influenced the way in which these large reserves of wealth were to be spent. J. D. H. lived during a period
of rapid and dauntless optimism and growth in the United States. He saw opportunities on a continental and even on a world
scale. It was an age when big ideas pay big dividends, provided such bold ideas were pursued with close attention to detail.
Indeed so characteristically were big ideas welcomed by the Boards that a slang term was invented in the office to correct
the defect of that virtue in control of grandiose, the vague, and the all-inclusive type of project. Such projects were called
"SCOPEY" and thus condemned. The other factor in play with the searchlight of publicity, operated in behalf of, and
often directly by, those who feared the power of great wealth. It is probable that in a constant awareness of this publicity,
fear, and mistrusts the early trustees preferred to aid education and medicine rather than go very far more controversial
fields. Education and medicine held values not likely to be disputed by a society are you accustomed closely similar denominational
But the extent to which these comments on the formative influences are valid is of less interest than some questions I'd
like to raise. If what the Boards did may be taken as their criticism of the society of that time what kind of criticism was
it? Was it criticism based on distress at the manifest inequality of education and health in different parts of the country
and the world? Much of the GEB's interest in the South and in the Negro seems to have been just that. Was it criticism
based on dissatisfaction with the best because it was not good enough? How much did the early actions of either Board having
comment with Talleyrand's comment upon a certain form of education, "it is the best that I have seen and it is abominable."
How many of either Board's programs could be called reform or revolutionary in purpose? Were they content with helping
what was good or were they out to attack what they thought was bad? Were any of them reactionary attempts to counteract undesirable
social trends? Did any set out to give deliberately a new trend or a new set of values to contemporary society? I suspect
that some of the activities Mr. Rose based on the idea of partnership between the Rockefeller Boards and the governments of
countries, states, and the nation were at large measure a new trend, deliberately set. When did the Boards discover the very
method itself of discovery - research? And how much time elapsed before support to research became an acknowledged objective
of either Board? The GEB officers were realists but it seems to me curious that for so long they ignored the quintessence
of realism which is research. Were they so preoccupied by the inequalities of educational opportunity that they failed to
give adequate attention to its quality? Did Buttrick's extraordinary flair for what was "doable" obscure his
vision of what research could make "doable"?
After all, what a group of men will do with unprecedentedly large sums of money put at their disposal will depend not only
on the state of society around them at the time but on what kind of men they were, their experience, and to their values and
purposes. How representative of their times were the officers and trustees of either Board? Did they have much historical
perspective? There were no historians on the board (I think). There were no engineers. There were ministers, college presidents,
teachers, lawyers, bankers, and doctors of medicine. Among the officers none, I think, except A. Flexner had had any appreciable
exposure to anything but an American background. Flexner could speak German but none of the other senior officers of either
Board could speak any other language than English nor was anyone of them in the least at home in another culture or with other
values than those of his own country. A. Flexner insisted that they were poorly prepared for worldwide work. But inasmuch
as foundations were new no training could have been expected for their personnel. Most of the officers of the RF had been
university professors but they seemed to me to be either disdainful or supercilious about the quality of American academic
management and as I have later realized very considerably ignorant of any other forms of education "throughout the world".
And yet narrow as has been their experience and inadequate as was their training probably nowhere else in the world was there
any group of men inclined and enabled to take as many and as varied lessons in world citizenship.
How did they work together? Where did the ideas come from? What was the flavor of their working hours? Why did they so generally
evade the task of training younger men? Was it the press of request, and interviews, of making up for absences on surveys
that kept us all so busy, so hurry, so nearly unable to arrive at a well thought out set of values and procedure? Or was it
inevitable that a group of men, each accustomed to being a leader, found difficulty in forming an effective organization in
the absence of a single leader who was in point of mind and forcefulness facile princeps? These are questions I don't
believe I can answer. It is easier to point to certain characteristics of the Boards' work.
To begin with some of the less satisfactory items there were three or four characteristics which seem to me to be almost neurotic,
so passionately did they ignore the realities. One was the fear of building up any kind of tradition. Any organization, even
twenty years old, has tradition. The struggle against tradition has its good side but if you don't know what an organization
is going to do, recruitment of personnel lacks a sound criterion for selection.
I have never seen any evidence that the trustees of either Board explicitly faced the problem of recruitment of staff. They
neither favored nor discouraged the idea of training future presidents or directors of divisions. The result was that when
Buttrick, Rose, Flexner, and Vincent retired there were no successors of equal quality and even approximate training to succeed
them. Now when J. B. Duke asked Watson of the British American Tobacco Company whether he had anyone in China good enough
to succeed him Watson said he had three, any one of whom could take over effectively. Duke replied "Good! You stay in
your salary is tripled from now on." We had none of that kind of foresight. The failure to look ahead resulted in the
hasty search and appointment of Vincent's successor, and in the GEB the promotion of Arnett to post painfully beyond his
abilities. Plenty of appointments have been made of assistants who were not inherently capable of advancement, and this procedure
derived from a strange aversion to think of anything in the organization as continuing. Together with this failure to insist
on high quality of recruits was a considerable fear of making those who were chosen "too dependent" on their jobs.
The cheap device of yearly appointments, and the very expensive practice of "generous settlements" for those who were
dropped appeared to be the price tags of neurotic unwillingness to face the fact that really good foundation officers can
be found and trained if there is some reasonable permanence to their job. The end result was in too many instances an atmosphere
of wary mediocrity.
Anyone familiar with Lloyd Warner's class structure theory of American society would be likely to place the values and
motivations of both Boards as being characteristic of the American upper-middle-class. Fear of blame, uneasiness lest there
be charges of luxurious expense accounts, a driving passion for self-justification, and a passionate pleasure in approval
as well as anonymity, are reminiscent of the class that feels happier in conscientious following of the styles than in confidently
setting them. Compare this "upper-middle-class" flavor of the Rockefeller Boards would be "lower-upper-class"
Carnegie and I think you will conclude that the main advantage in making the comparison is an ensuing candor and reassurance.
Why set out to be anything other than what we are?
In the earlier days there was a livelier sense of the danger of backing controversial issues that there is now. There is more
public approval too. For several years regularly there was brought into the state legislature at Albany a bill to investigate
the Rockefeller Foundation. The effect seemed to me to create a sort of mildly resettable scrupulosity -- an atmosphere that
gave the foundation much in common with Caesar's wife. So averse to controversy was Vincent that in the twenties items
were withdrawn hurriedly by the officers rather than risk a divided vote, especially if the opposer was Simon Flexner.
Of course what I have described as neurotic traits may be explained as the results of the way business men are prone to regard
control scholars -- pick them hastily, fire them if they don't deliver, assume that insecurity is in the long run what
will make them work hardest, pay off the discontents, "reorganize" whenever it seems desirable and don't forget
who gave the money. Certainly with second rate personnel there is much to be said for this point of view but with first-raters
such attitudes made one wince.
Well, enough of the pathological. Let us turn to the more heartening characteristics of the Rockefeller Boards. I'd like
to see attention drawn to the largeness of their ideas, to their patient tenacity, to their steadfast honor in meeting their
promises, to the care with which they studied situations before acting. They nearly always began the examination of a project
with the question, "How good is it?" and not "How much would it cost?" Their policy of giving credit away
to others proved wise as well as decent. Despite differences between certain officers in point of values, purposes and temperament,
there was astonishingly less power hunting and rivalry than might have been expected. I have seen only one trustees' meeting
where decorum was in short supply and in twenty-five only three officers of any importance of whose conduct I was ashamed.
In the GEB there were two divergent currents. Buttrick with the encourager of what to his shrewd judgment seemed good in education
of any kind. Under his influence alone I think the GEB would have been quite prepared to accept the current best in American
schools and colleges and then to spend its efforts in bringing the handicapped South and the bewildered Negroes up to the
levels of the North. In contrast, Flexner's influence with that of a reformer who challenged the existent best because
it was not good enough. He was insistent and fearless in using his Board's power and money to reform medical education
In the RF Vincent was, like Buttrick, the encourager and the supporter of what was good. He believed in fair play, in variety,
and in voluntary agencies. He was beautifully qualified to be the popularizer of the Foundation's essential goodwill and
desire for the welfare of mankind. Rose, on the other hand, wish to get work done by his own staff as an example to governments
and a collaborator with them. Vincent was skeptical of systems, dogma and formulas. Rose believed in building an organization
according to some very clear formulas and he succeeded in showing how much could be done by applying his dogmatic convictions.
As a result the IHD was an extraordinary pioneer in showing how valuable with the application of knowledge already available
in the universities but not yet used by governments. Not until 1929 in the importance of research coming to the true focus
of the Boards' attention -- a rather extraordinary delay which would take long to explain.
I hope at least some of these points will be useful. Doing this has shown me how much larger a theme the whole history could
be than is apparent at first reflection.
P. S. I hope that the idea of a foundation as a form of criticism of its times is clear. Strategy is the art of choosing when
and on what you will engage your strength; whereas tactics is the scale, the economy, the speed and the grace with which to
attain the objectives set by strategy. In these terms it is interesting that the GEB and RF have made apparently as much of
a contribution by their methods of spending money (tactics) as by their selection of objectives (strategy). Their tactical
successes began almost immediately. Their strategical history has been more complicated. At the outset it was intuitive, fumbling,
imitative and at times conflicting. It has continued, in response to very great changes in the world since 1913, to vary.
Essentially the decision of when and what to engage your strength depends on your views and your values -- in this sense policies
adopted are criticisms at work. Perhaps the chief interest of the foundations is that they were so singularly free to be critical.
They had no students to teach and no electorate please. Yet the challenging availability of large resources imposed strategical
decisions. They were freer than governments and freer than universities. If I am right in thinking that the Boards have steadily
run away from the problems of renewing their own personnel than that phase of their critical function in society -- namely
their continuity -- was from the start the principal unsolved problem before them -- unsolved mostly because unfaced.