Not Very Tall, But Bigger Than Life | Teachers College Columbia University

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Not Very Tall, But Bigger Than Life

E. John Rosenwald Jr. is not only a master fundraiser, but also a fount of wisdom and a force of nature who can prod institutions to reinvent themselves.

Back in 2009, E. John Rosenwald Jr. brought a proposal for a new academic concentration to the new president of Dartmouth College, Jim Yong Kim.

“[Kim] was a biomedical researcher who spent his life saving the world—working on drug-resistant tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and river blindness,” says Rosenwald, alumnus and Chairman Emeritus of Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees. “So my idea was that we’d have a central building, with wings for the study of terrorism, the environment, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, developing seeds to grow food in areas without water, and so forth. We could build a new major called Save the World. Wouldn’t that have been great?”

Rosenwald shakes his head. “I’m a disciple of [legendary advertising guru] David Ogilvy, and one of his favorite sayings that I’ve adopted is, ‘You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.’ If I say ‘steak,’ you picture cold, red-and-white pieces of meat at the butcher’s. But if I say ‘sizzling steak,’ your mouth waters. And that’s really the major challenge in philanthropy, because people are getting sick and tired of routine asks—a  new tennis court or swimming pool, or to endow money for financial aid. Those are all very good things, but the trick is to come up with something really compelling and different. How do I make potential donors’ mouths water?”

At 82, Rosenwald is an indefatigable five-foot-five dynamo who puts in full days as Vice Chairman Emeritus of JPMorgan Chase. He then heads off to the many business meetings, galas, dinners and other events that fill the calendar of a man whose valued advice, support and leadership have landed him on boards—and frequently at the head of capital campaigns—of an astonishing number of major organizations. These range from the Central Park Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and NYU Langone Medical Center, to Teachers College.

Rosenwald likes to joke that the grueling pace has worn him down. A slate in his office that is engraved with his sayings proclaims, “When I started out in this business, I was six-foot-three with long blond hair.” Yet he seems clearly energized by all of his nonprofit board work, which has prompted fellow board members to regard him as a fount of wisdom, an impact player and a primal force of nature. 

“He’s not very tall, but he’s larger than life,” says Sue Ann Weinberg, a friend since the two were teenagers and his fellow trustee on TC’s board, where Rosenwald, who joined in 2002, oversees the committee on development. “Having him on your team says to anyone who knows him that you’re going to be successful. And a lot of people know him.”

Rosenwald is widely recognized as a master fundraiser. In 2000, The New York Times reported that he had generated more than $2 billion for good causes, using the 10 principles he calls “Rosie’s Rules.” (A sampling: “Nobody is insulted by being asked for too much.” Another: “The sale begins when the customer says no.”)

At the same time, Rosenwald also possesses a skill perhaps even more valued when money is tight and the competition for philanthropic dollars is fierce: the ability to prod institutions to think differently about what they do.

“I’ve been with John on numerous occasions when he’s spoken to boards, and when they say, ‘Well, we need more money,’ he typically asks them, ‘Why? What are you going to do with it? What’s the end route?’” says fellow TC board member Jim Benkard, who is a senior partner at the law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell. “He’s an investment banker, so he thinks in that linear way. And more often than not, he ends up telling his board colleagues, ‘You’re not shooting high enough,’ because he believes that you should always be in capital campaign mode. You never stop.”

Rosenwald himself puts the matter in starker terms. “I was once quoted in a special issue of Forbes magazine, next to Disraeli, saying that the difference between the for-profit and non-profit worlds is that in business, everything is dog-eat-dog, and in philanthropy, it’s just the opposite.”

He grins. “Change is constant, and you need to be flexible. The most dangerous words are ‘We’ve been doing business this way for many years, so there’s no need to change.’ That mindset is cancer in both the nonprofit and business worlds, because sooner or later, economics are going to get you. Take the automobile industry.  Chairmen come and go, boards of directors come and go, but the United Auto Workers—the tenured faculty of General Motors—is always there. Management and unions sometimes don’t get along very well, but every three years they have had to sit down in a room together and draw up a new contract. Sometimes there was a strike, sometimes not, but eventually a deal was cut, and immediately thereafter the board of directors—let’s call them the board of trustees—got together and raised the tuition, or in this case the price of cars, to cover the cost of the new contract. And that was the way business was done until the late ’80s, when an alarm went off: ‘Hey, imports have taken 55 percent of the American auto market.’”

Rosenwald sees an analogous trend in American higher education, where the Ivy League institutions keep raising their tuition year after year.

“For years the Ivies have said, ‘Hey, we get 10 applicants for every available opening, our kids get into the best graduate schools—we’ve been doing business this way for many years and there’s no need to change,’” he says. “But they can’t keep doing that, because there’s new competition out there.  When you read about Nobels being given out, the University of Texas and the University of Washington are right up there with Harvard, Yale and Princeton. And there’s distance learning, too. So, standing still just doesn’t work.”

Rosenwald himself was educated at elite private institutions – Deerfield Academy, Dartmouth, and then Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School of Business. His passion for philanthropy stems first and foremost from a clear-eyed recognition of just how much these educational institutions have contributed to his own success.

“My father never had a lot of money—it was a struggle for him to get us through school and college—but both my parents were involved in charity work,” he says. “I saw the joy my mom got from serving on the board of Mount Sinai, or that my dad got at the 92nd Street Y. So my philosophy—philanthropy is the rent we pay for the space we occupy—comes from them. But if you attend an institution like Dartmouth, you’re forced to look back and say, ‘I must credit my college in some part for my success.’ On top of that, I tell people, ‘Even paying full tuition covered only a quarter of the cost of your education. The rest comes from annual giving and the endowment, and goddammit, you have a responsibility to take care of those who come after you.’”

Rosenwald has been hugely successful in business. He capped his 54 years at Bear, Sterns & Company by serving as Co-president and Vice Chairman of the firm. Now Vice Chairman Emeritus of JPMorgan, he always has made philanthropy an equal priority.

“So many of my colleagues say, ‘I don’t mind giving money, but don’t ask me to ask someone else to give,’” he says. “I’m good at that, and I started early. Hey, someone has to do this stuff.”

He served as class agent for his Dartmouth cohort and headed the alumni fund, a number of capital campaigns and then the Board of Trustees. He joined the board of NYU Medical Center at the invitation of billionaire philanthropist Laurence Tisch. From there, the demand for his services grew, and his dance card became so full that when Teachers College first came asking, he said no.

“One of my closest friends is [former New York State Senator] Roy Goodman, whose wife, Barbara, was then Chair of the board of TC. She invited me to lunch and breakfast with [then-TC President] Arthur Levine, I don’t know how many times.  I kept saying, ‘I have too many things on my plate.’

“Finally one day, I said to Arthur, ‘I’m angry at the statement you keep making that no major urban public school system in the U.S. has ever been fixed.’ And I promised him that with the first board I retired from, I’d join TC’s.”

Indeed, Rosenwald believes that the College’s ability to lead the way in fixing urban schools is the “sizzle” that will make it an inevitable choice for philanthropists who care about the nation’s future. He served on the search committee that chose Levine’s successor, Susan Fuhrman, and is a huge admirer of Fuhrman for her work in launching a public elementary school under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania when she was dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Recently, he gave $1 million in support of the new Teachers College Community School created under Fuhrman’s leadership. In doing so, he was enacting the first and most important of Rosie’s Rules—“Don’t ask anyone to do anything you haven’t done yourself.”

Yet Rosenwald was clearly engaged on a broader level, as well. “Giving our students real experience, on the ground, where they can learn the goods, the bads and the uglies of teaching, is so important,” he says. “When I visited there, I saw a teacher ask a six-year-old, ‘How much is eight plus seven?’ And when the kid said ‘fifteen,’ the teacher, instead of just congratulating him, said, ‘How do you know?’ And he said, ‘Well, I know that eight plus eight equals sixteen, so eight plus seven is one less.’ So the whole business of learning how kids learn, in addition to how to teach, is very exciting.”

(Published 12/07/2012)

Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012