04/03/2012 05:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2012

Wealth, Weddings, Poverty and Philanthropy -- A Weekend Rolling in American Philanthropy

I was in Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday for two friends' wedding. Weddings are those wonderful opportunities to see friends in the context of their families, local community and colleagues. You come together in a cross generational event that reminds you that you and they are part of a particular history and gene pool.

The night before I was at the Yale Law School dinner for the "Executive Committee" on which I serve, and arriving late after teaching my seminar on philanthropy at Yale could find no place to sit. After seeing me go from table to table without securing a seat, the kindly Yale Law School's Dean, the lean and bespectacled Robert Post asked the server to place a chair next to him and squeeze me in.

What luck! Because Dean Post is also a scholar of academic freedom! But more on that later.

I looked over the gathering as we waited for John and Heather to take their vows of marriage and spotted just the person I wanted to see, another friend from Yale Stephen L. Brown (accompanied by his wife Sheronda, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the school founded and endowed by Benjamin Franklin).

I had learned something about Stephen's employer and I wondered if he knew. Stephen is the director of corporate governance and associate general counsel for TIAA-CREF. Stephen works to enhance the governance of companies held within TIAA-CREF's investment portfolios. And these are hefty portfolios with $440.7 billion in combined assets under management. On its website TIAA-CREF states that "The firm is a leader in helping those in the academic, medical, cultural, governmental and research fields plan for and live in retirement."

So much is hidden in that description because TIAA-CREF transformed Ivy League education, and education around the country and not only in the way that some people think. You see most teachers know that their pensions and annuities are held at TIAA-CREF. But most don't know that it was Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who endowed their pensions. And anecdotally I know this because I asked civil rights icon Julian Bond who is a distinguished history professor at both the University of Virginia and American University -- and I asked Dean Post, who also claimed lack of knowledge.

It's a wonderful moment when you get that rare opportunity to know something that some of world's most brilliant people don't know... (Now Stephen -- of course -- knew of Carnegie's money in TIAA -- it's his job afterall. But there was something else that he didn't know... )

Back in the 1890s when Carnegie served on the Board of Cornell University he recognized that the faculty earned less than his white collar workers at Carnegie Steel. The business and insurance worlds were embracing pension systems and he sought to bring this to higher education.

But Carnegie did something else also that is little remembered, and that allowed folks like me, Stephen and (and the bride and groom John at this wedding) to go to places like Yale and Columbia, Brown and the University of Chicago and thousands of other places. We could attend or teach there, regardless of our religious affiliation and we could study sciences. (The groom John is one of those widely talented people who having gotten his law degree from Yale, had decided to now go to medical school).

The Carnegie strategy was to make the pensions paid by his Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching dependent on colleges removing from their charters denominational requirements (such as requiring that trustees, officers, faculty or students to belong to any specified sect or imposing any theological test).

Olivier Zunz writes that the Carnegie Foundation successfully turned pensions into tools of secularization. One by one colleges across America complied despite angry and vocal dissent from Methodist Northwestern, Presbyterian Princeton and Baptist Brown. In 1908 Carnegie extended the program to public universities and in 1917 it became the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Associate (TIAA), the parent company of the plan that most university professors currently use. (And where Stephen serves as associate General Counsel).

Universities now were transforming medical education and research as well as developing science departments.

Carnegie's foundation published a report calling for revamping medical education, one that would have a full-time faculty totally free from constraints not directly related to the education mission. And now Carnegie's fellow philanthropist Rockefeller got into the action putting vast resources to lead doctors to accept full-time faculty positions. It is not surprising the amazing school that is John Hopkins University was the first beneficiary of this philanthropy. And Yale's own William Rainey Harper, left Yale to become the first President of the University of Chicago -- another Rockefeller investment -- once he was given the assurance that he would bring to this Baptist institution the best talent irrespective of their religious affiliations and even beliefs.

It was a departure for Rockefeller who maintained the funding for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, both for blacks, as genuine Baptist institutions. And as a sad departure from his policy of not yielding to Baptist pressure, Harper yielded to their grassroots pressure to limit the admission of blacks so as to attract white Southerners.

Rockefeller's gifts, building on Carnegie's, created the catalytic leaders of the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Julian Bond among them from Morehouse) and the amazing University of Chicago that shrugged off its local and sectarian origins to become emblematic of the more liberal Protestant perspective that would be the hallmark of the 20th Century American Philanthropy at its most effective. Philanthropists were invested in turning institutions more ostensibly liberal through reforms and their purse.

Why is John and Heather's wedding and what John's studying now important? Why is remembering the philanthropic investment in transforming and liberalizing education so important?

We live in an era where we fail to draw connections and where we hear some of the same old theocratic rhetoric from candidates running for the American presidency, but now recognize the rhethoric's place in American and philanthropic history. We use simplistic and absolutist arguments against wealth holders -- when we owe them so much for transforming and liberalizing America.

I didn't know, when I ran New Jersey Head Start ten years ago and the Bush administration changed federal policy to permit organizations receiving federal funds to be able to hire and fire based on religion, that Carnegie and other philanthropists had a century before rejected that argument and privately persuaded colleges to do the same.

In the era of Obamacare with a promise to transform the health and wellbeing of children and families across America it helps to understand the problematic and discriminatory compromises that philanthropists and government made to accommodate segregationists in the South and religious zealots who rejected the teaching of science a hundred years ago.

Wealth is not the enemy -- distribution and ignorance is. Just as Carnegie and Rockefeller set in motion liberalized policies that allowed Heather, John, Stephen, Sheronda and me to go to Ivy League Schools, and trained a civil rights elite at Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, philanthropy can again be transformative. Building allies again -- as Julian Bond's father Horace Mann Bond did with Dr. Barnes, and a later Rockefeller did with Harry Belafonte, we can move forward. And the change agents of so many generations present at the wedding in North Carolina gives me more than hope that we can get it done.