Untangling the Strings: The Limits of Acceptable Donor Influence in Academia (guest post by Chris Surprenant)

“Our donors are supporting our projects, not the other way around.”

The following is a guest post* by Chris Surprenant, associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, on the role that those who fund academic programs may have in determining program goals, methods, materials, and staff.

[Gabriel Dawes, “Plexus #36”]

Untangling the Strings: The Limits of Acceptable Donor Influence in Academia
by Chris Surprenant

There has been increasing attention on the role of private foundations in supporting academic programs in the humanities and social sciences at US colleges and universities. Until recently, much of this attention in philosophy focused on the John Templeton Foundation, which far and away has been the largest private funder of projects in our discipline. But now other organizations are getting involved in large, programmatic support, including the recent $3.75M gift from the John Pope Foundation to the UNC-Duke PPE Program, and the Charles Koch Foundation‘s support of philosophy and PPE programs at Arizona and other institutions around the country. These large program grants have generated discussion about how much and what kind of donor influence (if any) is appropriate when it comes to academic programs.

I run a small center at the University of New Orleans (UNO) that focuses on timely issues (especially those relevant to New Orleans) at the intersection of philosophy, politics, and economics. Our activities include events at UNO and throughout New Orleans, an undergraduate fellows program, a high school program designed to help high-achieving students in historically disadvantaged groups receive college credit and prepare them to succeed at our country’s top colleges, academic conferences, support for academic scholarship, and student scholarship support for low-income students.

UNO, like many non-flagship state universities, is resource poor, and so beyond my salary ($52,015/year, with a 3/3 teaching load) I receive no standing financial support from UNO for these activities. As a result, I fundraise fairly aggressively (and fairly continuously) to sustain the program, and have raised around $1.5M over the past 5+ years. This past year, funding has come from 35+ sources, including private citizens and local companies; the State of Louisiana, UNO, and the UNO student government association; and large educational foundations such as the John Templeton Foundation and Charles Koch Foundation.

As someone who runs a program that would not survive if not for external funding, I am aware of the potential dangers of inappropriate donor influence, dangers that I have to balance with the practical reality of needing external funds to do objectively good things for my university, students, and community. My solution is that I solicit and accept funding support from anyone and everyone, as long as there are no inappropriate strings attached to that funding.

This distinction between appropriate and inappropriate strings is important. All university funding–unless it goes to the general fund–comes with explicit strings. Donors may allocate it to a specific department or program, for a specific purpose (e.g., a scholarship for a first-generation college student), or for a specific position (e.g., the recent Chair in Atheist Studies at Miami). In allocating the funding, donors can and do demand differing amounts of influence in how that funding is spent. They may want to sit on the committee that selects the scholarship recipients, vet the candidates for an academic position, or give input in the curriculum in the program they are supporting.

But how much donor input is inappropriate and undermines the principles of the university?

Imagine an extreme case: A donor pledges $100M to a university to offer (1) a program in flat-earth studies, under the conditions that he (2) gets to unilaterally decide who gets appointed to the positions, (3) that the faculty members would advocate publicly for the truth and acceptance of flat-earth theory, and (4) gets to determine the curriculum (courses taught, books read, etc.).

Considering points (1), (2), (3), and (4) can help us pinpoint when donor influence undermines the appropriate truth-seeking and knowledge-advancing mission of the university.

In this example, once we hit (1), we can stop. Flat-earth theory is nonsense science, and even though a handful of professional athletes seem to subscribe to it, its serious consideration has no place within a university. Here, it is important to distinguish bunk science from topics where there may be reasonable disagreement, such as the moral status of fetuses, whether and how to address global climate change, or the economic theories most conductive to human well-being. If the aim of the proposed academic program is to advocate for bunk science (e.g., flat-earth theory), historical fictions (e.g., Holocaust denial), or is otherwise non-scholarly, then it has no place in the university and the funding offer should be declined.

But let’s assume instead that the donor wants to fund a program in climate change studies, and demands that (2) he gets to decide unilaterally who gets to occupy the faculty positions he is funding in this program, presumably subverting existing rules the university has in place that govern faculty hiring. In this situation, the university should decline the funding, not because it’s wrong for the donor to determine who the faculty in the program should be (the donor may have knowledge of who the best people are for this program), but rather because it is subverting the usual process. While what counts as the “usual process” may change from university to university, but what matters here is that everyone plays by the same rules that are known within the community, to potential students, etc.

Assume then that the donor demands (3) that political activism be included as part of the program’s mission. If you believe that the university should be truth-seeking, then it should reject this funding (and all political activism within the university) for reasons Bas Van der Vossen outlines in “In Defense of the Ivory Tower.” But this situation is complicated because political activism—understood broadly to mean any program, department, or faculty member who advocates for some kind of social change, as opposed to dispassionate truth-seeking—has become a central feature of many departments and programs, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Unless a university has a policy forbidding activism and actively roots out all activist departments, programs, and faculty members, then it does not need to reject the funding merely because it will support activism. In fact, assuming that activism is already present in this university, one could argue that the administration should not pick and choose what activism to let in and what to exclude (within certain reasonable limits). While the inclusion of activism in the university may be bad and undermine its truth-seeking mission, the selective inclusion of activism seems even worse.

So, now what’s on the table is a donor-funded program in climate change studies, that has political activism as part of its mission, where the incoming faculty have been approved by the donor and gone through the usual university vetting process. I’m okay with all of this—the activism bit makes me uncomfortable, but I worry that ship has sailed.

Finally, he demands (4) to play a role in determining the curriculum, either in some strong sense (determining the courses that must be taught, the syllabi for those courses, etc.) or weak sense (e.g., requiring that some book or author is read at some point). Any direct control over the curriculum, no matter how strong, strikes me as crossing the line. The only people who should play a role in determining the curriculum are those who have gone through the appropriate university vetting process. He has not. If he makes any demands along these lines the money should be declined.

Some people may claim that there is no significant difference in practice between a donor’s selecting the faculty or funding a program with a specific focus, and a donor’s determining the curriculum directly. But there’s an important difference between telling someone what to do (e.g., establish a program on climate change studies, even with the understanding that it will advocate for positions on the political left) and dictating the specifics of how they must do it. (Legally, this is similar to the distinction between an employee and an independent contractor.) Dictating the “how” due to its specificity in both degree and kind undermines the truth-seeking mission of the university, the academic freedom of the faculty, and appropriate professional standards in a way that dictating the “what” does not.

There is no doubt that money has a significant influence in US colleges and universities: Tuition-paying students frequently try to leverage their customer-like status to demand nicer amenities, new programs, or funding for administrators who can cater to their specific interests; grant-giving organizations, both privately and state funded, determine to a great extent what research gets performed; and, perhaps most significant but often ignored, decisions related to hiring top administrators and faculty tenure are made (ultimately) either by members of state boards of regents or boards of trustees, both of which are made up of wealthy donors.

We should be less worried about where the money is coming from and more focused on what is being done with it. Evaluate academic programs, scholarship, and other outputs on their merits. Even if you believe that money corrupts the truth-seeking mission of universities, these institutions need financial resources to function and resource allocation will always be connected to the “what” being studied. My responsibility, and the responsibility of others in my position who rely on grants or gifts to support their programs or work, is to make sure that we are doing good things and not compromising the integrity of the institution. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is to always keep in mind that our donors are supporting our projects, not the other way around.

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