Primary Source Documents

The Philanthropy Critic as Pain in the Ass: Robert Payton on Peter Dobkin Hall

Editors’ Note: HistPhil is happy to share with our readers a remarkable primary source document, an unpublished essay by Robert Payton, the founding director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, on the philanthropy scholar Peter Dobkin Hall, and on the personal and professional difficulties Hall encountered in developing a career as a critic of philanthropy. The document is accompanied by an introductory essay by HistPhil co-editor Stanley Katz, who knew both men well. A PDF of the original document is available here.

Every once in a while, HistPhil will publish original documents or archival sources when we think they would be of significant interest to our readers or represent key themes or challenges that define our mission. This is one such time. This document, an unpublished essay written by Robert Payton, one of the most significant figures in the emergence of philanthropy as a field of academic study, comes from the Center on Philanthropy/Lilly Family School of Philanthropy records, archived at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) University Library. In this document, Payton discusses his feelings towards, and relationship with, historian Peter Dobkin Hall, another of the founding figures of the scholarly field of philanthropy research in the U.S. Hall, who passed away in 2015, left his records to the IUPUI University Library as well. They have recently been processed, and the finding aid is available here.

I knew both men, and so let me first give some brief context.

Bob Payton was the co-founder of the Center on Philanthropy and its director from 1988 to 1993, but by that time he had already had a long and distinguished career. A paratrooper in World War II, later a jazz musician, he received an MA in History from the University of Chicago, where he developed what turned out to be a lifelong commitment to the ideas of Great Books and liberal education. He entered higher education professionally at Washington University in St. Louis, where he rose to the vice chancellorship of development. He later served as president of both C.W. Post College and Hofstra University, and subsequently served as president of the Exxon Education Foundation. He also served in the State Department as our Ambassador to Cameroon.

Payton was one of the early members of the board of Independent Sector, and he was also the founding Chair of its new Research Committee, established in 1983. This was the context in which I first worked with Bob, since I was one of the original members of the Committee, presumably selected because of my research on large philanthropic foundations. I was impressed by Bob’s deep commitment to working with universities to establish what he called “philanthropic studies” as a generally recognized field of academic research. My own view at the time was that the strategy of the Committee ought to be support of scholars and doctoral candidates in any academic discipline who were willing to do serious research on some aspect of philanthropy, but Bob convinced the committee that it should attempt to promote the idea of departments and schools specifically in philanthropy. His dream was the creation of a doctoral degree in Philanthropic Studies, something he later achieved at IUPUI. Bob had supported Yale’s efforts to fund its Program on Nonprofit Organizations (PONPO), and as the chair of the Committee he was willing to assist any institution trying to establish research or training programs in philanthropy. He had his own clear ideas, based on his education at the University of Chicago, on philanthropy as a liberal arts field, but he was catholic in his general support for philanthropy as a field of academic inquiry. He wrote a couple of celebratory books about philanthropy, but I think his importance to the field comes from his central role in the creation of philanthropy as a subject for serious academic work.

Peter Dobkin Hall is considerably harder to characterize. I think I first met him during the years in which he was an assistant professor of History at Wesleyan University (1974-1982). By then he had already completed his bachelor’s degree in International Studies at Reed College, where he, like Payton, was a musician, and his doctorate in American History at SUNY Stony Brook. He published his first book, based on his dissertation, in 1982 as THE ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE, 1700-1900: PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS, ELITES AND THE ORIGINS OF AMERICAN NATIONALITY. As the title suggests, Peter was always interested in the big picture, and he was from the start willing to chance very large generalizations. My impression was that the Wesleyan department found him slow to publish, and I imagine that some of his senior colleagues were unpersuaded by the breadth of his arguments – but whatever the reasons (and I do not know them), Peter was denied tenure. So far as I know, Peter never held a traditional tenured appointment after this time, but he went on to have a highly successful (if quite untraditional) academic career. He held a position at PONPO after it was founded, and later was appointed to an important position at the newly-established Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations (founded in 1997, now the Hauser Institute for Civil Society). I gather from the available records that Peter also held a position as Professor of History and Theory in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, CUNY, but I am not aware of when that was or what the position entailed.

The important point is that while Peter never had the straightforward academic history career he had imagined, he had a very successful career of research, writing and administration in the field of philanthropic studies. Indeed, he was surely the best-known historian of philanthropy in the United States, and he was very widely respected for the breadth of his knowledge and his deep insight into the origins of the modern philanthropic system. He co-wrote, with the brilliant anthropologist George Marcus, LIVES IN TRUST: THE FORTUNES OF DYNASTIC FAMILIES IN LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA (1992), a highly original and perceptive study of the philanthropy of a few ultra-wealthy families. But I think his most important scholarly contribution was another 1992 publication, INVENTING THE NONPROFIT SECTOR AND OTHER ESSAYS ON PHILANTHROPY, VOLUNTARISM AND NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS. This was in part a collection of the remarkable essays that Peter wrote on philanthropy and civil society in American history, and although I doubt that the volume ever reached the wide audience that it deserved, it is a foundational account of the ways in which a philanthropic “sector” emerged in late twentieth century America. I should also mention that Peter had a longstanding commitment to religion, and he was one of the few scholars of philanthropy to emphasize the role of religion in the American philanthropic tradition. This interest is well represented in the volume Peter co-edited in 1998: SACRED COMPANIES: ORGANIZATIONAL ASPECTS OF RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS ASPECTS OF ORGANIZATIONS.

Throughout his all too brief career (he was killed in an auto accident in 2015), Peter was a productive scholar, and one of the scholars most engaged with working philanthropy. He was also a man of strong, raw and openly expressed opinions. I should know, since I was once the object of his published ire. In 1999, I had published an essay in NVSQ (“Where Did the Serious Study of Philanthropy Come From, Anyway?”) on what I took to be the origins of the recent history of philanthropy, but I soon discovered, in an essay published in response shortly after mine, that Peter thought I had it all wrong. (“The Work of Many Hands: A Response to Stanley N. Katz on the Origins of the ‘Serious Study’ of Philanthropy” 28 NVSQ 1999) His objection was that I had construed the subject too narrowly, and had neglected the long history of social work action that had laid the basis for modern philanthropy. When I read Peter’s essay, my reaction was that he was right about the long-term history, but that he was criticizing an essay that I had not written. So far as I can recall, we never discussed this exchange face to face, and the scholarly dispute never had any impact on our friendly relations. Indeed, I mention this episode only because of its implications for Robert Payton’s document that we publish (for the first time) below.

To have some understanding of the depth of Bob Payton’s harsh critique of Peter Hall, we must recognize that Peter had an “anything goes” style of intellectual exchange. Apart from my own NVSQ experience, I could cite other occasions in which Peter made unfashionably sharp attacks on other scholars or institutions, but perhaps the best example is an op-ed that Peter published in the Yale Daily News (and earlier in the New Haven Register) in 2003, “How Yale destroyed New Haven’s economy.” In the editorial Peter led off by saying that “The destruction of New Haven’s commercial and manufacturing economy was no accident. It was a result of the growth of Yale and other tax-exempt institutions on what had been a flourishing free-enterprise economy.” Peter was writing during one of Yale’s recurrent, ugly disputes with its union workers, and Peter made clear on whose side he stood: “Yale was not being targeted by unions because it is the only game in town. It was targeted because its labor relations, like its property management, are based on the University’s failure to grasp its responsibilities as the city’s largest employer and property owner.” I have a lot of sympathy for Peter’s criticism of Yale’s labor policies, but he knew that they would be resented by the University. I hope it is clear that his critique was of the “damn the torpedoes” variety.

Which brings me to the document at hand. It is an eight page typescript manuscript, entitled “Notes for an Autobiography,” dated September 1, 1990. This document is pretty clearly aimed at Peter Hall, although the subject of the Notes is only described as “a young (40-ish) acquaintance” who is an historian. Peter was born in 1946 and would have been 44 years old in 1990. And for anyone who knew Peter as well as I did, there can be no doubt that Bob Payton was describing Peter Dobkin Hall.

At the time, Bob must have been quite angry at Peter, which I find surprising, since Bob was one of the most equable and even-tempered men I have ever known. I feel pretty sure that if Bob had ever considered publication of a memoir these pages would never have seen the light of day. They are not only angry but unfair, and the public Bob Payton was a determinedly fair person. But these pages say a great deal about how thoroughly Peter had gotten Bob’s goat. The author of these pages was defending a practice (philanthropy) which he believed to be purely good and well-intended against a critic whom he felt to be at best inaccurate and, at worst, spiteful. Bob dismisses Peter as a professional historian and argues that he had deservedly been cast out of the company of tenured scholars. I very much doubt that Bob understood the dynamics of a professional career in History, especially for a scholar who had gotten his doctorate in 1973, just as the period of easy hiring was disappearing in the humanities disciplines. Peter was, I think, caught up in the job crunch of his generation, and one should have sympathy for his determination to remain a professional historian despite his inability to enjoy the traditional career path.

Where Bob Payton is closer to right in these pages is in his recognition that Peter enjoyed “staining other people’s shoes,” and even staining his own shoes. But this critique actually goes to the heart of what Peter and I both felt was a serious dilemma for the professional study of philanthropy by scholars standing outside the field of philanthropic practice. It was, as Peter recognized and Bob did not, very difficult for scholars to get adequate access both to the documents and individuals that might have enlightened us as to what was actually going on in philanthropic decision-making, especially if they had a reputation as a critic. And I shared (and still share) Peter’s sensitivity to the ethical and tactical aspects of taking money from those whose behavior you are interpreting. These pages are important not because they involve a squabble between two significant figures in the field of philanthropy, but because they reveal such important questions about the tensions inherent in the academic study of the humanities – tensions relating to access to data, to power relationships between philanthropists (and philantropoids), and to the scope of permissible scrutiny of the philanthropic process.

But I do not want to say more on this topic; I’ll leave that to the document itself. And I will conclude by saying that it would be nice to see biographies of both Peter Dobkin Hall and Robert L. Payton, two of the truly important figures in the development of the professional study of the history of philanthropy in the United States.

-Stanley N. Katz



A young (40-ish) acquaintance of mine spends a good deal of his time offending people, most of whom are colleagues of one sort or another. He is particularly susceptible to offending colleagues who have in various ways befriended him or who have extended themselves to help him in his thus-far-frustrated career. Over the past year or two he has variously antagonized, alienated, or hurt most of the people he has worked with in the field.

To borrow a barnyard phrase from my childhood, he has a way of pissing on his shoes.

To continue in that earthy vein: The rap on him personally is that he is a pain in the ass.

Professionally, however, some of us have believed that the field needs ambitious young historians and other scholars. In this young man’s case we have been more tolerant than we should have been of his annoying idiosyncracies and ideological biases. The serious rap on him, however, is not that he is immature and frequently inept in his personal relations—he often pisses on other people’s shoes, too—but that he isn’t a very good historian.

He believes, I gather, that whatever may be said critically about him has neither to do with his personal behavior nor his professional competence. By his lights, apparently, the cause of his failure to emerge as an historian—that is, the reason for his failure to find employment as a faculty member at a major or even minor university—is that he is brave enough to speak out against the prejudice that corrupts his field.

My young acquaintance fancies himself a critic of the whole spectrum of philanthropic studies and practice. He writes confidently as a self-styled and qualified “evaluator” of the organizations and people who are most visible in the field. He is especially fond of interpreting the motivations of others.

As far as I know, my young acquaintance has had limited professional experience and responsibility. As far as I know, he has little hands-on experience in grantmaking and in administration generally, academic or philanthropic. That may come, of course; he’s quite young. Lacking such experience, however, it means that he skates on thin professional ice when he infers important conclusions from slender evidence.

Whatever his lack of experience in the practice of philanthropy, my acquaintance touches upon a serious and quite legitimate issue when he raises the question of bias against scholars who want to study the history of foundations. The charge seems to follow these lines: that scholars who do serious historical work in the history of philanthropy cannot find funding because foundations are afraid of them. Scholars worth their salt speak the truth as they see it and when they have access to the right information they can document their conclusions. Foundations would be embarrassed if the truth were known about them. When scholars don’t have access to the information they need, and when they lack experience against which to test their insights, they must proceed as best they can. It is only just if uncooperative foundations are victims of their own lack of cooperation.

It is true, from my own observation, that some foundation executives are indeed overly sensitive to criticism. Some lack confidence in their work, but more often their timidity is based on an understandable fear of offending their trustees. Some believe that it is illogical to provide support for people whose objective it is to second-guess your judgments.

There is reason to believe, I would agree, that some bias of patronage exists among philanthropic foundations. This is a particularly difficult issue for scholars in the history of philanthropy. The bias of patronage is hardly unique to our field, however. I borrow the term from the economist Theodore Schultz who used it in connection with the bias given to research by the origin of the funds for research. His example was funding from the federal government for research in science. In order to get government funds, scientists might pursue a different research agenda than they would otherwise (“otherwise” meaning, presumably, if they were independently wealthy). A former colleague of mine is a political scientist whose special field of interest is recent and contemporary west African politics. Every article he publishes puts him at risk of losing access to the very countries in which he wants to work. Published criticism of political figures will cut him off from the access he needs to be credible in interpreting people and events. Having spent some time in that part of the world, I can readily understand the challenges he faces. Despite the problems he has developed a solid reputation as a balanced and well-informed scholar.

What do allegations of foundation bias say about distinguished scholars in this field who have won foundation support? Another long-time colleague is unfailingly serious and tough-minded in his historical work. As far as I know, he has never been faulted for kowtowing to foundation executives. The bias of patronage in all its diverse forms is a serious and important issue. That there is often a bias of patronage, I have no doubt. That there is often a bias of scholarship, I have also no doubt.

The young historian who is the subject of these reflections provides an example. In his case, the bias has other overtones. The intellectual fashions of two decades ago produced a number of scholars of very mixed reputation. One characteristic – which my young acquaintance exemplifies – is a fatal attraction for “conspiracy theory.” There is an almost McCarthy-like (Joe, not Gene) passion to root out and expose the conspiracy of the Establishment to suppress and exclude and punish those who don’t belong or who won’t play the game by Establishment rules.

The bias of patronage that most fascinates such scholars whose field is philanthropic studies is one that reinforces other prejudices – against wealthy individuals, for example, and against their agents who manage foundations. Attacks on the wealthy enrich a long and honored academic tradition. Thorstein Veblen is the best spokesman for the tradition (especially in The Higher Learning in America), but he finds good company in Harold Laski (The Dangers of Obedience) and Jacques Barzun (The House of Intellect). The tradition persists because of the high quality of the rhetoric. The tradition has not been very helpful, of course, because it offers no clue to the practical requirements of providing financial support for scholars and scholarship.

There seem to be at least two reasons to justify unfairness to the wealthy: the first is that all money is tainted and so if you have very much you must become tainted in getting it; the second is that if you are wealthy you can afford to protect yourself from gratuitous attack.

Those who can test the claims of scholarship against personal experience may share my view that badness is not a class trait of the wealthy any more than goodness is a class trait of the poor. Roughly speaking, in my experience, goodness and badness are randomly distributed throughout the population.

Conspiracy theory as a habit of mind fits well the bias of those of the Vietnam generation who believe that American society is the hapless foil of the rich and powerful. It is the same habit of mind often found in those whose principal guide to human history is the Great Depression. There is something to be said for their doubts; their selective cynicism is another matter.

When such habits of mind afflict historians and other scholars who decorate their claims with footnotes that give a suggestion of impartiality, the consequences can be serious. One unexpected consequence is that young historians who suffer from ideological bias – that is, the bias they don’t even realize they have – often find it impossible to gain appointment in academic departments of high professional standards.

The rap on my young acquaintance as a professional appears to be that one: while much of his work is conceptually interesting it is also empirically slipshod. His opinions color his sentences and he doesn’t check his facts. He seems to believe that he can rescue a gratuitous insult by adding an unsought compliment. An appointment committee reading his work would detect such signs of persistent immaturity. A foundation executive, attempting to check his professional standing before awarding him a grant, would hear what I have heard: that he is not a rigorous scholar.

Despite his continuing failure to win appointments and grants, my acquaintance seems not to have been led to the conclusion that there is anything deficient in the case he makes for himself. Instead, his bias seems to convince him even further that his failures are attributable to the bias of others.

When my young acquaintance recently pissed on my shoes I was tempted to write an angry reply. One egregious misstatement of fact, which he could have easily checked, called my character into question. The essay in which he made that statement (it is an essay rather than an article, despite the footnotes) contained a number of other misrepresentations (along with an equal number of typographical errors and awkward neologisms).

I decided not to reply. Correcting the written record in such matters is a doomed effort. One has one’s reputation and one must hope that it protects one from canards of various kinds. Whenever I read those long, angry exchanges of letters in The New York Review of Books I wonder how many people other than the letter-writers themselves ever make an effort to go back to read the review or essay that triggered the exchange in the first place.

As my young research assistants know, I greatly enjoy editing and evaluating—and, I hope, helping to improve—their written work. Were the subject of this essay a student likely to listen to my advice about checking facts and sources, I would go to considerable trouble to help him uncover errors of fact and prejudice so that he could eliminate them from his work before rushing into print. But, after watching him work for about ten years, I am finally convinced that, young though he is, he is too caught up in himself to listen and he is too old to change.

He will continue to stain his shoes – and the shoes of those who have been unfortunate enough to stand close to him.

Robert L. Payton

September 1, 1990


3 thoughts on “The Philanthropy Critic as Pain in the Ass: Robert Payton on Peter Dobkin Hall

  1. [NOTE: I wrote these recollections up in some detail at the suggestion of the HistPhil editors. Apologies for both the length and the navel gazing.]

    I was the first of the “research assistants” that Mr. Payton (which I called him at the time and still choose to now) mentions in this essay, and I was also the first person to read and discuss this essay with him soon after he wrote it back in 1990. Let me try to explain the context for it, as I recall, in the hopes that this will help us make sense of why he wrote (but never published) it. My recollections here also reinforce Stan Katz’s point that the “serious dilemma” facing philanthropy scholarship has been troubling us for a long time – and that there have always been strong opinions about how serious this dilemma is, and how to get through it.

    As Stan notes, this essay was out of character for Mr. Payton. He banged it out very quickly one morning, in one sitting, in his basement library – as usual with his essays. I say “banged” because he did write it out of anger. He admitted this to me at the time, as one of his frequent “teachable moments” for me as his young apprentice (more on this later).

    His anger had, I believe, one specific and one more general source.

    First, Peter had just written something that claimed (falsely) that Mr. Payton had led the search committee that then selected him (Payton) to be the first full-time Executive Director of the new Center at IU in 1988. This is the “pissed on my shoes” and “called my character into question” that Payton alludes to. I can’t recall exactly where Peter made this claim and can’t find it in any of his more well-known published work at the time. (Someday I’ll visit these new archives and dig it out!) Mr. Payton valued character above almost everything else, and wrote about it a lot throughout his life. A false claim impugning his virtue hit him hard.

    More generally, Mr. Payton was deeply committed to building the field of “philanthropic studies” in higher ed, and doing so in a way that embedded it into the liberal arts – not just in professional disciplines like management. For years, he had been arguing constantly that this philanthropic scholarship, especially in the humanities, required outside philanthropic support, and he had worked hard for years to secure that support – for IU and elsewhere. He also firmly believed – as he explains in the essay – that funders could support scholars who then (at times) could and would criticize funders. He felt he had done this himself while a funder of education scholarship. So while Payton acknowledged this “bias of patronage” dilemma facing the field, he felt it could be managed through good behavior – and good character – on the part of scholars and funders alike. Peter, as Stan describes, was at the time a forceful and frequent voice raising these questions of bias, and asking whether philanthropy-funded scholarship on philanthropy could ever really be anything but sycophantic. In these years, then, the two were clashing a lot – in public and private – and Mr. Payton was increasingly frustrated with the stridency of Peter’s expression of his views. As Stan suggests, Peter preferred to give “strong, raw” opinions and generalizations in his writing, even if in person he’d admit things were more complicated and nuanced. Payton felt this was irresponsible, and hurt the nascent, still-uncertain efforts to legitimize the study of philanthropy in the academy. Again, he was devoting his life at the time to these efforts, and any perceived threats to that work raised his hackles.

    I hope this helps contextualize where Mr. Payton’s anger came from on that morning in September 1990 when he wrote this essay. But let me offer two further clarifications:

    First, the two men remained in contact for years after this, and Mr. Payton continued to point to (and recommend that students read) Peter as one of the leading historians of philanthropy – although, not surprisingly, his go-to historical sources were Curti, Bremner, and Karl and Katz. In fact, in another unpublished essay that Payton wrote in response to the 1999 NVSQ exchange between Stan and Peter, he said of Peter, “All of us in this field are in his debt” (even while again calling him out for letting her personal “biases” occasionally get in his way). Mr. Payton also strongly encouraged me to apply in 1994 for a summer dissertation fellowship at Yale that Peter led, and wrote to Peter recommending me. Peter and I talked that summer about their rocky relationship, and what it revealed about how scholars should confront this ever-present dilemma of potential bias. Out of respect, though, I never asked Peter why he had made that claim that had so angered Mr. Payton a few years prior. Now I wish I had.

    Second, I think it is vital we remember that Payton never published this essay and, to my knowledge, never shared it with more than a handful of people. And I strongly doubt if it, or word of it, ever made it to Peter – though I can’t say that for sure. (Peter never mentioned it to me, I know.) Yes, he did title it “Notes for an Autobiography” but he wasn’t actively writing an autobiography at the time. (Mr. Payton wrote a lot of these “Notes” sort of essays over the years but always said he liked writing the first draft much more than pulling pieces together into a book. So he never did.)

    In fact, given what I recall from our original conversation about the essay in 1990 – a conversation I remember more than others because Mr. Payton was unusually passionate – I think this fact would be a central point Mr. Payton would emphasize if he were alive today. You see, at the time, he used this as a teachable moment to show me how to handle anger in one’s professional life. He needed to write this piece, to lash out and counter-attack, but he also knew from the start he would likely never publish it. He knew it stepped unfairly toward the ad hominem – even though the core points about avoiding the potential bias of patronage were fair ones he often made in other writing. And if he did get around to doing an autobiography, this wouldn’t make the cut.

    And frankly, I think Mr. Payton would say that this is the crux of the difference between Peter and him. He felt he was the sort of person who would write this essay, stuff it in a file cabinet for archivists to find years later, and go back to the business of trying to make philanthropic studies a serious field of study. Peter, he felt, was the sort of person who would write this sort of essay, eagerly put it out in the world, and believe strongly that doing so was absolutely necessary if philanthropic studies were ever to actually become a serious field of study.

    I daresay both sorts of people still work in this field today, and having both sorts in our past has helped the field become what it is today.


  2. Thank you for this exegesis. I knew both men through my own work on organized philanthropy — Paul Ylvisaker was my Harvard doctoral adviser in the 1970s and early ’80s, and beloved mentor/friend until his passing in March 1992 — and find this an accurate and nuanced portrayal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s