Harkness. Vanderbilt. Beinecke. These are names every Yalie knows.
Now this pantheon of Yale dynasties can add another name to its list: Bass. The family patriarch, the late Perry Bass ’37, and his four sons — Sid ’65, Edward ’68 ARC ’72, Robert ’71 and Lee ’79 — all have long historical ties to Yale. Including Edward Bass’s recent $60 million contribution to the Yale Tomorrow campaign, members of the family have given close to $200 million combined to the University. Sid Bass and Edward Bass have both served on the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. And Lee Bass’s very public disagreement with Yale made national headlines in the mid 1990s.
Perry Bass and his sons, who are known in their home state of Texas and in the higher education community for the vast sums of money they have given to charities, owe their large fortunes to the oil business. When Perry Bass’s uncle Sid Richardson died in 1959, Perry Bass and his sons inherited a fortune that they would turn into one of the largest in America.
By the 1980s, oil was just one of the many sources fueling the Bass empire. Investments in hotels and computers, as well as the Walt Disney Company, put Perry and Sid third on Forbes Magazine’s list of the richest Americans in 1982. Currently, all four brothers are on the list and each have fortunes valued in the billions of dollars.
As the value of the Bass’ holdings increased, so did the fortune of their native Fort Worth. Perry Bass and his sons pumped millions of dollars into the city, revitalizing the downtown area and funding the construction of a performance hall that is named after Perry Bass and his wife Nancy.
Yale also benefited from the family’s largesse. During the $1.5 billion Yale capital campaign in the early 1990s, Perry Bass and all four of his sons gave sums of $20 million, which contributed to the the construction of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology, research and professorships in the humanities and the renovation of Berkeley College.
A lasting legacy
Many who know the Basses said their generosity to Yale is a result of their philanthropic tendencies coupled with their deep-rooted connection to the University. Although several people, including Robert Bass, said all four brothers are very independent, many said the entire family shares a deep affection for Yale.
During Perry Bass’s funeral in June, Edward Bass clutched a Yale handkerchief that was given out to attendees of the Yale tercentennial, University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said.
“All of them love Yale,” Lorimer said. “It is a symbolic story about how close members of the family feel to Yale.”
Edward and Lee Bass were unavailable for comment. The Basses are known for shying away from the press, and rarely speak with reporters.
This affinity for the University has extended beyond just financial support. Administrators and Corporation fellows said Sid and Edward Bass’s contributions of their time and insight have been invaluable.
Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, emeritus professor of history, said although the gifts of John Sterling 1864 and of the Harkness family remain the most influential at Yale since the turn of the twentieth century, the Basses will certainly rank among the greatest Yale families. Even though he said he does not think that a desire to form a Yale dynasty was the Bass’ main motivation for being active in the University, he said it could have some role in their generosity.
“The great majority of donors have egos — that’s a human quality,” Smith said. “They want to have buildings that memorialize their generosity.”
A Bass Program in Western Civilization?
Four years after donating $20 million for programs in Western civilization in the 1991 capital campaign, Lee Bass took his donation back from the University. The ensuing controversy caused a stir in the national media and drew both criticism and praise from academics and pundits across the country.
Lee Bass’s gift — which came during the presidency of Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 — elicited objections from faculty members because the funds would go exclusively to the study of Western civilization. Schmidt resigned the presidency as a new Western civilization program was being created. After current University President Richard Levin took over, Lee Bass gradually became unhappy with the way in which the program was implemented. In 1995, the Corporation voted to return the gift.
Levin said the controversy did not significantly damage the University’s relationship with the rest of the family, although the conflict did upset Perry Bass.
“I think that [Perry] Bass was deeply troubled by the fact that Yale and one of his sons had had a major disagreement,” Levin said.
A year after Yale returned Lee Bass’s gift, his brother Robert made the large donation for the Berkeley College renovations and, just six years later, Edward Bass joined the Corporation, from which Sid had retired in 1994 after a 12-year stint.
Service to higher education
The Bass’ contributions to the University have not just been monetary.
Lorimer, who served on the Corporation before assuming her current position, worked with Sid on the presidential search committee that ultimately selected Levin. She said his quiet but perceptive nature was very helpful in conducting interviews and narrowing down the pool of candidates.
“Through his own quiet way, he asked penetrating questions and made very wise recommendations,” Lorimer said. “Sid was a particularly astute judge of human beings.”
Corporation fellows said Edward Bass brings a different selection of talents and interests to the boardroom. He attended the School of Architecture after graduating from Yale College and currently serves on the Corporation’s Buildings and Grounds Committee. Levin said he has been an invaluable asset during this stage of the University’s growth.
Gerhard Casper LAW ’62, who served as president of Stanford University from 1992 until 2000 and who currently serves on the Corporation, said he gave Edward Bass a walking tour of the Stanford campus and the modern buildings completed during Casper’s presidency to give Bass ideas for design at Yale.
While Sid and Edward Bass have sat on the Yale Corporation, Robert Bass has been an active member of the Stanford board of trustees, Casper said. Robert Bass, who along with Sid Bass is a graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business, gave $30 million to the school in 2005 on top of other large gifts to Stanford over the last few decades. Robert Bass and his wife have also given to Harvard and Duke Universities.
Casper said Robert Bass’s interest in higher education has been a tremendous boon to Stanford and all of the other universities in which Bass and his wife have come in contact.
“Both of them understand first of all the importance of the best of American higher education, both in terms of teaching and of course research,” he said. “They are both intellectually very alive.”