Endowed Chairs

The practice of ‘endowing a chair’ in a University or institution of higher learning goes back a very long way and is now culturally established in many countries in the world. Some say the practice began in the Roman Empire with Marcus Aurelius.

To explain it simply – a wealthy person for one reason or the other decides to give money to a University as an endowment. Usually the gift is to a specific field or topic of research, say robotic engineering, to use a random example. However the money isn’t simply given, it is endowed. That is – say the rich guy gives the school $10m. He can then reasonably expect that if the money is invested very conservatively, it should generate returns of say 3% every year ie, $300,000 every year.

Let’s say the going salary for a decent Professor is $100,000 per annum which can be paid out of the $300,000. A decent research assistant can be hired for $50,000 per annum. There’s still $150,000 to play with which can be spent on research and maybe even hiring another assistant for the Professor. The key thing to note here is that the actual $10m is not spent. The original endowment is made to work and whatever returns from it is then spent.

These are random examples and is by no means the only way academics are paid in the western world. To illustrate the point, here’s a random list of the highest paid professors in America I found from a Google search. Roughly half of them are chaired professors as described above.

To take it further, my interest is economics and some of my favourite professors I’ve learnt the most from (on the internet) are chaired professors. Professor Tyler Cowen is the Holbert L. Harris Chair at George Mason University and Professor Dani Rodrik is the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard, to name just two.

Here in the UK, one of the most prestigious chairs is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University which began in 1663 with a donation by Henry Lucas. Today, the chair counts Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking as professors who have held the chair.

Earlier this year, the hedge fund billionaire, John Paulson endowed Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with $400m. The school will now be renamed after him and part of the money will go toward building a new campus as well. Remember, the $400m is not going to be spent lau lau – it will be made to work. This is how Harvard came to have a $33bn endowment that paid out $1.5bn for the University’s use in 2013.


The point of all this is to show that this is a clear and established system of funding universities that has been in place for thousands of years. It is a system designed to be as sustainable as possible and does what it says on the tin – expand the frontiers of knowledge. I am able to learn from professors over the internet who are paid from such endowments even though I don’t have a clue who endowed them. It also means that funding for Universities doesn’t suddenly dry up because someone no longer has money to ‘donate’ as they used to every year.

Bearing all of that in mind, I saw this interesting story in the Nigerian papers this morning:

The Vice-Chancellor of Kano State University of Science and Technology Professor Shehu Alhaji Musa, has disclosed that the university  Chancellor, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, has pledged to recruit 15 professors for the university.
He explained that the aim of the business mogul to recruit the professors  in the university is to boost the science and technical educational in the state.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Musa told journalists in his office in Wudil, Kano yesterday that, “Dangote also pledged to pay their salaries if recruited as part of his contribution for the improvement of education in the university.”

According to him, the chancellor of the university would also construct 15 houses for them in the university and promised to support the university with industrial borehole to boost portable water supply.

Professor Musa added that Dangote also donated the sum of N100 million  cash to the university which was used to address some of the challenges militating against its smooth operation.

Have a nice day


7 thoughts on “Endowed Chairs

  1. If there are no successful Industries in a country, R&D will never be given priority. Successful countries use research and knowledge to drive their growth. The more Nigerian owned businesses remain successful, the more the need for efficient processes to improve business. Currently, their biggest challenges revolve around providing basic infrastructure not made available by the Government, and dealing with punitive extortion regimes in place in the country. Funds that should ordinarily go to R&D are spent on fuel and other items that squeeze margins.

    When the Government begins to provide an enabling business environment, and organisations are not constrained by current challenges, R&D investment to improve processes and efficiency is a no brainer. We are still far away from this, and shaming Nigerian Billionaires into endowment fund donations will not work, as they have a cheaper system in place that gives them Honorary Doctorates.

    Alhaji Putin is an economic terrorist, however, his heart is in the right place for this one. A more savy School Administrator would have coined the words of the interview differently. We must crawl before we walk.

  2. Thanks for highlighting the need for more monetary endowments as source of funding for higher education in Nigeria. I am aware Chairs and prizes have been endowed at the University of Ibadan by individuals and organizations since as far back as the 60’s and 70’s. I remember there used to be a long list of these in the convocation brochure and from time to time such information is provided in one of the weekly Official Bulletins. It’s been almost twenty years now so I don’t know if the school still include them. The only issue with the amounts quoted in those days was that the endowments had depreciated in value due to inflation over the years.
    Since endowments are made for specific uses, it is possible BUK may have become heavily indebted in areas where no such fund is available, and the grant or subvention from the owner government is inadequate or not available. Therefore, Mr. Dangote deserves some thanks for helping out during this dire period.
    The situation also occurs at Harvard. I heard Drew Faust, the university’s president in a podcast interview state that Harvard although they have the largest endowment funds in total value, per capita they have less than Yale. She also stated that the fund includes endowments specifically for arts museums in the school and one in Italy, and the funds could only be used for such. So, her school still needs additional funds.
    In the mean time, governments in Nigeria need to realize it is expensive to run a university and should not establish one if they can’t assure the availability of funds. Maybe the NUC should ask for such assurance as part of the licencing process.

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