An email showed up in my inbox. It was from Marilyn Kail, who is the associate publisher of Carnegie Mellon Today, along with her many other responsibilities at the university. For me, her job description is simple. She's my immediate boss, so her emails always get priority among those unopened in my inbox. Her message to me in this one was brief and to the point: Robert, this might be good for you to attend.
What she wanted me to attend was an upcoming learning and development session for the university's advancement staff. The topic: "Andrew Carnegie: From Imaginative Immigrant to Pioneering Philanthropist."
I must confess that with stories to edit, layouts to review, and constant incoming emails to answer, I wasn't keen on losing a chunk of an upcoming workday. So, I replied: While I am sure the presentation will be interesting, I'm not sure that my attendance is directly relevant to the magazine. But if you want me to attend, I will.
Nice try, right? A few days later, I was in the audience for the presentation given by David Hounshell, a university professor and historian who has become something of an expert on Andrew Carnegie. During Hounshell's 90-minute presentation, he touched upon many facets of Carnegie's life, including, of course, his vast accumulation of wealth and how he tried to give it away.
I had read Carnegie's famous essay, "The Gospel of Wealth," written in 1889, before my days at Carnegie Mellon. For anyone unfamiliar with it, this sentence by Carnegie perhaps best describes his philosophy: The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced. But Hounshell pointed out that Carnegie never advocated merely giving money away; it should be done with a purpose to help society, not just a particular individual.
"What's OK with Andy?" Hounshell asked. Then, he listed examples: hospitals, libraries, music halls, public parks, scientific research laboratories, and universities. The philosophy of Carnegie is impressively illustrated by how he distributed his wealth—including the creation of nearly 3,000 free public libraries and founding of what today is Carnegie Mellon University.
I'm sure all of the university's gift officers in attendance were heartened by knowing that their work facilitates Carnegie's legacy. But what does any of that have to do with Carnegie Mellon Today, especially considering that I was already familiar with Carnegie's philanthropic ways? Was my attendance ultimately a waste of time? My answer has changed since I walked out of that session.
The change was prompted by this issue's feature, "Revolutionary Road," which profiles Oliver Williamson, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus who is the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. Williamson had concerns about attending Carnegie Mellon in the 1960s because he viewed Pittsburgh from what he says he learned in an old textbook: "a city that you were lucky to see the outlines of buildings through the smoke." Upon his arrival, Williamson was delighted to discover that wasn't the case. It was the case, though, in 1883, when Carnegie invited a British dignitary to a grand tour of "the dirtiest place on earth."
Carnegie, Hounshell explained, was proud of showing off the phenomenon happening in Pittsburgh, dirt and all. The dirt is long gone, but what Carnegie saw lives on, in part, through the accomplishments of Williamson and the Carnegie Mellon community.