Walter H. Annenberg, who died last week at age 94, built a lucrative media empire, played host to presidents and princes, and established two respected schools of communications that bear his name. But he will best be remembered among educators for record-setting philanthropic efforts aimed at promoting improvement of the nation’s public schools.
Mr. Annenberg’s death on Oct. 1 came at a time when experts are still assessing the legacy of his five-year, $500 million grant to American public education unveiled in late 1993, known as the Annenberg Challenge. Its flagship effort was a series of major grants to improve schools in nine urban areas, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.
As tributes to Mr. Annenberg as publisher, diplomat, and philanthropist poured forth last week, a university administrator tapped to speak on behalf of his foundation voiced frustration that the purpose of that highly publicized gift had not been fully understood. The Annenberg Challenge, which included efforts to invigorate rural and arts education as well as urban schools, has been criticized by some observers as a missed opportunity. (“Annenberg Challenge Yields Lessons for Those Hoping to Change Schools,” June 12, 2002.)
“The story tends to be written as if Walter Annenberg went in and tried to fix American public schools with $500 million, and that is not what he did,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Instead, she said, Mr. Annenberg deliberately structured his gift as a series of “challenge grants” requiring recipients to raise large sums, typically twice as much as the grants themselves, from other sources. The idea, Ms. Jamieson said, was to mobilize communities to ratchet up their own investments in public schools.
“He didn’t expect that he could fix public education,” she said. “He expected that the country could find a way to address the problems in what he viewed as a vital democratic institution.”
Praised for Largess
The Annenberg Challenge was the best-known of a series of large donations to precollegiate and higher education made by Mr. Annenberg during the course of a career highlighted by a stint as the U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974 and close friendships with Presidents Nixon and Reagan.
He was a major backer of educational television, underwriting projects by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that included an initiative launched in 1991 to provide mathematics and science instruction in elementary and secondary schools. Today, the Annenberg CPB Channel, broadcast free via satellite, offers round-the-clock instructional programming in all academic subjects to schools across the country.
Education is the leading beneficiary of the St. David’s, Pa.-based Annenberg Foundation, which the publisher set up to pursue his far-reaching philanthropic interests. Last year, for example, education made up its largest single grantmaking category, claiming 116 of a total of 304 grants, or $95.6 million out of $177.6 million, according to the foundation’s Web site.
Mr. Annenberg’s generosity drew many words of praise last week as word circulated of his death from complications of pneumonia at his home outside Philadelphia.
Vartan Gregorian, a former president of Brown University, called him “one of the most inspiring and visionary philanthropists I’ve had the honor of knowing and serving.” Mr. Gregorian, who is now the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, worked closely with Mr. Annenberg to help shape the challenge, which included a $50 million donation in 1993 to a then-fledgling school improvement center that is now the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown, in Providence, R.I.
“Two things he used to say capture a sense of his character: ‘My country has been very good to me. I must be good to my country,’ and ‘I have always tried to support things that were essential, and few things are as essential as education,’” Mr. Gregorian said in a statement.
At the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., Head of School John Green expressed his gratitude for Mr. Annenberg’s landmark $100 million gift to the private college-preparatory school in 1993. During a schoolwide gathering in the campus chapel Oct. 1, Mr. Green recalled that the philanthropist had returned to the school often since graduating in 1927.
“From all accounts, Mr. Annenberg loved Peddie students, and he frequently stopped to speak with them—even play hackeysack with them—at his often unannounced visits,” the headmaster said.
Mr. Annnenberg, who was born in Milwaukee, ended his own formal schooling when he dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after a year to join the publishing company founded by his father. In addition to The Philadelphia Inquirer and ThePhiladelphia Daily News, Triangle Publications published Seventeen and TV Guide magazines, and owned various TV and radio stations. Mr. Annenberg gradually sold off the company’s holdings, a process completed in 1988.
Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, called him “a true friend of education,” while Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, cited the success of the Annenberg-financed Center for Arts Education in New York City as a particular bright spot.
“It literally brought arts education back to the New York City schools,” she said. “If he had done nothing else, that would have been a great legacy.”