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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Daniel S. Goldberg
3 years ago

Although I have no particular comments on the specific arguments herein, as a content expert on conflicts of interest (in health & medicine), it is always amazing to me how conversations on the subject proceed in almost total disregard of the rich cognitive science evidence base on motivated bias.

We do not need to speculate on how the relationships academics form with external funders influence behavior, because we have copious evidence, both experimental and natural, documenting the effects of those relationships.

Also relevant here is the prevalence of blindspot or immunity bias, in which people think their own virtue is proof against the behavior-altering effects of relationships with sponsors and funders. The existence of this bias has also been shown repeatedly under experimental and natural conditions.

Moreover, contrary to what most people surmise, there is very little evidence that disclosing the existence of such relationships is an effective remedy against behavior of partiality. The evidence strongly suggests — and I discuss this at length in what I hope will be a forthcoming paper (R&R!) — that the only intervention shown to be effective in preventing behavior of partiality that flows from antecedent relationships is sequestration (eliminating the relationships that give rise to biased behavior).

Obviously, for the reasons noted in the post, pure sequestration is difficult and morally tenuous in its own right, given the relevant pressures and forces. And the suggestions noted in the post strike me as perfectly plausible.

But, a normative discussion on conflicts of interest ought proceed with a robust understanding of what the cognitive science suggests regarding the subject: deep relationships with sophisticated parties that involve financial exchanges have a pronounced tendency to alter our behavior, often in subtle ways, but at times grossly as well. Trying to convince ourselves that this is not the case, and that our capacities for ratiocination and virtue are proof against motivated bias is IMO not a credible perspective.
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Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Daniel S. Goldberg
3 years ago

I agree with this point. But we should be fair and also explore the various biases that people who are not receiving funding suffer from, e.g., with regard to hiring like-minded people, reinforcing their politics, and so on. It’s not as thought external donors corrupt an otherwise pristine environment; rather, they introduce a new source of bias which in some cases correct other biases, or in others make things even worse. Report

Ryan Muldoon
Reply to  Daniel S. Goldberg
3 years ago

As Jason mentions, we’re not starting from a clean slate. There are a whole host of sources of bias in our discipline, most of which get a lot less attention than external grant support. So it would be good for us to think holistically about these issues. I tend to think that it’s impossible for individuals to cleanse themselves of bias (even though we might be able to make some good faith efforts to reduce it). We can either try and develop processes that reduce it for us, or allow our biases to cancel each other out in a broader contest of ideas. We’re really bad at identifying our own biases, and really good at looking for bias in others.

The other thing that’s worth asking, at least a little bit: what’s the problem that we’re looking to solve, exactly? Are we worried about student exposure to ideas? Are we worried about research output from individuals? Are we worried that the general field will move in directions aren’t epistemically optimal? It’s not clear to me that these are problems, at least in our current environment. In most departments in the US, anyway, students are just going to be limited based on faculty number, and the quirks of their interests in teaching certain courses. Where COI is most likely to enter into the picture is university funding models for departments – probably the bias is going to favor whatever courses get the most seats filled (or at least in expectation). If we’re worried about individual research output, or at least the content thereof, I don’t think there’s a neutral way of evaluating this. Some people have weird interests. Academic freedom ensures that they can pursue those interests. But if we’re worried that individual research agendas need to be protected from outside influence, then we’re already more or less screwed. Untenured people have to worry about generating publications that will look good in a tenure file. Tenured people may be caught up in the habits that got them tenure. People with big teaching loads have less time to think about research. People’s work gets steered by their advisors, or their peers, or by invitations to contribute to a conference or a special issue or an edited volume, or by philosophical fads. All of these shape an individual’s research profile without needing to even look at external funding (which very few philosophers get, nor is it remotely common that they need to for their positions). If we’re worried about the general field moving in non-optimal directions, I’d sooner look to philosophical fads and other more sociological features of the discipline before I looked at whether people were chasing grant money. It is likely true that many universities would prefer that their philosophy departments get more grants, and so this might create an incentive to shape work to where the grants are. But is this worse than focusing on courses where there is most student interest (which likely shapes what research one does), or the papers that are more likely to get published in certain elite journals?

Speaking as someone who has gotten a couple of grants (from the NSF and the Global Sanitation Fund), and applied for several others, I will say that grants are a pain. Each one I apply for costs me at least one publication. However, there were some projects I wanted to do that required resources, so I got those resources to do the work. It might be that I now have a warmer opinion of NSF and the GSF than I had before, but I’m also not really looking to steer my work to be more fundable by them. I don’t need to, because most of my work involves thinking about stuff and writing it down. If I pursue future grants, it’s because there’s a thing that I want to do that I needs money. So if I can get money to do the thing, great. But I don’t need the money to be able to continue to function at all as a researcher. In this way, philosophy (at least in the US) is importantly different than some other fields, like medicine, that require that professors support themselves on grants. It shifts the bargaining position one is in relative to a funding source.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

“Where the incoming faculty have been approved by the donor”.

That bit stuck out to me (it would be a red line for Oxford; I don’t know about USC) and doesn’t get discussed in the OP; I’d be interested to hear more about it.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Indeed, I think that the discussion in the OP slides without explanation from saying that the usual process for vetting faculty should be followed to suggesting that donor approval might reasonably be required on top of the usual process. Perhaps the idea is that if donors are paying for new faculty then they and the existing faculty should have to agree upon who the new hires will be, and maybe that’s reasonable. But it’s a departure from the usual process, not maintenance of the usual process. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

I could imagine a situation where the donor believes (rightly or wrongly) that s/he has relevant knowledge that would make the program s/he is supporting better when it comes to who should be hired. I could also imagine the donor wanting to sign off on the hire in a couple of ways: The donor could say, “Do your usual search, but I want to approve whoever you select for this position before I agree to fund it,” or “Here’s a list of 15 faculty members that have expertise in this area. For the ones on this list that you believe are appropriate hires for the university, if you can recruit one of them for this position, I’ll fund it.” We can probably think of other examples. I’m okay with all of these. What strikes me as important is that the person goes though the standard university vetting and evaluation process. That process shouldn’t include anyone who is external to the university.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Chris, one thing that makes me uneasy about the scenarios you describe here is the (in my experience very likely) possibility that even if it proceeds through the usual channels, the university will choose to hire someone whom the donor would approve of, even if that person doesn’t meet their usual standards, in order not to give up on the promised funding. Is it your view that this isn’t worrisome as long as the hiring process doesn’t circumvent the standard process of vetting and evaluation? Because I think that many will disagree with you there.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  John Schwenkler
3 years ago

John, so, yeah, this is a reasonable in-practice concern. I’ve been kicking this around with some other academics over the past few days. The following “so what” responses have come up. Feel free to address any of those.

1. So what? So a rich donor agrees to fund the environmental policy center if they will hire the hand-picked people the donor wants. The university agrees because they want the money. Universities lower or eliminate standards all the time now, and often for much less money than whatever is relevant in our example. Not a big deal. (I don’t really like this position, but I find it somewhat persuasive.)

2. So what? Same as above, except with the academic concerns (i.e., the bad scholars will try to leverage the university’s reputation to advance their bad scholarship or bad public policy papers). There’s already a proliferation of bad research out there, so what if now there’s a little bit more. At least the university got some additional money that could go to worthwhile things. (Same as above, I don’t really like this one either, but there’s a decent bit of truth here.)

3. So what? This stuff is happening right now anyway. Even if there’s nothing written in the contract, the donor talks with the president or the dean, informs them of what his wishes are, and then the relevant admins act accordingly. For example, even if you’re not looking at direct academic hires, you can get around that by hiring a non-academic staff member with academic credentials, and then that person can be the one who ends up running the academic search, so you get your person. (I find this one most persuasive.)

What motivates your concern is an in-practice objection that universities will compromise their principles for dollars. If that’s the position we’re taking, and if we believe we have good reason believe that they will act this way given past behavior, isn’t the game somewhat lost? That’s my concern here. If these institutions are willing to compromise their principles for money so easily, there’s no real point in discussing best polices for donor involvement. (Is that too hasty of a conclusion?)Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Okay. Being told that the game’s already lost isn’t that satisfying to me. I mean, I’m sure it’s not possible to eliminate problematic hiring practices in universities. But that doesn’t mean we should feel no compunction about giving wealthy donors direct influence over who we hire. I can imagine *some* cases where the cost-benefit ratio might make that acceptable, but I think that as a rule it is not.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  John Schwenkler
3 years ago

I suppose I worry that you’re missing the point a bit of my response. (Or maybe that I’ve misunderstood your position.) Your concern is a practical one, correct? I understand it to be: Universities will compromise their hiring practices and usual procedures for financial gain, and we can see evidence of this in practice.

If you believe that this is a widespread problem, it’s hard for me to see why having a donor involved (formally) in at least some part of the hiring process is even relevant. If they’ll compromise their principles for financial gain, won’t they simply operate under the table if there’s a general rule that donors shouldn’t be involved in the hiring process? Because right now there is a general rule that donors shouldn’t be involved in this way–many have a rule that gifts and hires cannot be coupled–but that rule gets ignored when there’s enough financial incentive to do so.

I suppose that motivates my sympathy to the “so what?” response to this practical objection. I actually see an objection along your lines being far more forceful if it were theoretical and not practical. There does seem to be something corrupting about having someone with deep pockets indirectly shape the academic program. I think that’s what motiving everyone’s concerns in this area. I’m not sure those intuitions are right, but that strikes me as the turning point. Report

Ryan Muldoon
Reply to  John Schwenkler
3 years ago

I honestly am not sure how I feel about donors having an informal role in faculty selection. I think it’s clearly bad for a donor to be able to select faculty themselves (and it would also not count as a charitable donation, so there’s legal reasons for a donor to not do it). But to the best of my understanding, in general these things are structured such that the donor gets to specify an AOS or something like that. This to me is clearly fine. But let’s imagine that the university feels some pressure by a donor to pick someone that they might not have otherwise picked. In this scenario, the hire isn’t taking away a position from someone more qualified, as the position wouldn’t otherwise exist. Should we feel differently about this compared to, say, a spousal hire? With a spousal hire, there’s (non-pecuniary) pressure to hire a particular person, usually into a newly-created position for them, for some other reason than for the person’s talents. That person may well be great, but that’s not why their CV is on your desk. Spousal hires are also much more likely drawing resources away from other hires that go through the normal process. I enthusiastically endorse spousal hiring – I wish universities did more of it. Likewise, sometimes elite professors get to demand that universities create more tenure lines for people in their areas, and usually get to run the hiring committee. Is this problematic? One can easily describe it as the university building on existing strengths, or as the university compromising its procedures to satisfy a fancy processor. I’ve been sympathetic to instances of this and annoyed by instances of this, but usually that’s colored by whether I personally like the research area or not.

I think the practical worry isn’t so much that we’re going to get unqualified people (it’s a ridiculous buyer’s market these days, and it is really easy to get very good people if you have a decent job), but what the process should be for determining what kinds of research happens at one’s university. Outside of pedagogical considerations (we need certain coverage to adequately train students to do the things we claim that we’re training them to do), I don’t think there’s a uniquely correct answer here. Is it bad that the NSF has put up $500 million for neuroscience research, instead of just having a general pot of money that anyone can apply for? Is it bad for universities to strategically invest in particular research areas so they can built up a reputation? Is it bad for a school to decide that a philosophy department would be relatively cheap to buy excellence in, so as to be able to show off to potential alumni donors that the school has one more top department? In general I’m fine with all of these things.

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Douglas Watts
Douglas Watts
3 years ago

The real problem with bias in courses, I haven’t seen any since I was an engineering student, is that the course would be presented as truth. Present it as a point of view rather than something that must be adopted in fear fear of being ostracised otherwise. Report

Craig
Craig
Reply to  Douglas Watts
3 years ago

Having taught engineering students, I found them incredibly resistant to the idea that what was being presented in their engineering courses was some point of view, rather than the truth. But maybe their engineering courses were too sophisticated to be worried about what was true?Report

Clifford Sosis
3 years ago

A few philosophers I’ve spoken to have spoken about Templeton. Some of those remarks might be relevant, here:

Al Mele on Dennett and Templeton (whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/#/al-mele/):

“As I might have mentioned in my reply in Daily Nous, I didn’t take Dan Dennett’s remarks personally. He likes bashing the John Templeton Foundation, and reviewing my book Free – which was one of the many fruits of my Big Questions in Free Will project – gave him the opportunity to do that. Frankly, I wasn’t bothered at all by the remarks you have in mind. People who know my work on free will know that the suggestion that I warped my ideas in Free to cater to JTF is utterly unfounded, and anybody else can easily look into it. The single point on which Dennett suggested I might be catering to JTF has been a feature of my position on free will since 1995 (as voiced in my book Autonomous Agents), long before I knew anything about JTF. As you remember, Cliff, I’m an easy going guy. When my actual philosophical positions are misrepresented in print by philosophers, I sometimes find that irritating. But Dennett didn’t do that, and his suggestion was too far-fetched to take seriously.”

Christian Miller on criticisms of the Templeton Foundation (whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/#/christian-miller/):

“I can’t speak to any criticisms that are more than 8 years old, which is when I first got to know the foundation. But as a general observation, the criticisms I have read do not resonate with my own experience. For instance, I have never once felt any pressure from Templeton to adopt a particular political, philosophical, or religious position. And when we have made funding decisions for our various grant competitions, the staff at Templeton has been completely hands off, to the point that they might not even know who the applicants were for those competitions. This is as it should be, and it is because of policies like this that I have felt very comfortable about our relationship over the years.”

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Brad Hobbs
Brad Hobbs
3 years ago

Brennan is spot on. The approbation or disapprobation effects in academe and its connected grantees are very, very powerful. Status quo has an upper-hand in a world of tenure, state funding, and glacial rates of change.

My comments on this thread?

If one believes that the source of funds has a direct correlation to bias there are at least two considerations that are important to address. (1) What is the direction of said causation? My strong suspicion is that granting agencies fund things they want to see studied. The bias is in the initial questions asked and it exists for all questions asked. They are promoting something and seem to require a proposal that is not outside of their mission (i.e., no grant agency I’ve heard of takes random requests for funding.) But note this: In every non-random case, the grantee has to have expertise, pre-existing interest, and a track record in the mission of the grant organization if the grant proposal has any chance of being considered. (2) If there is indeed this influence tied to fiduciary gains, how can anyone look past the signatory to their paychecks? For those who receive government funding what is the influence of the the state and that major granting agencies of the state? It seems to me that the state has an extremely strong and effective hand to play in the direction of research as a signatory to livelihood. Do those who obtain government grants disagree with this? If so, what is their claim to non-bias and how would they defend that claim? Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
3 years ago

Dear Chris,
Thank you for such a candid post. I hope you’ll forgive me for double checking this but I was shocked that your salary as an associate professor is $52,015. That seems low with respect to AAUP’s posted averages over at Inside Higher Ed:
https://www.insidehighered.com/aaup-compensation-survey?institution-name=orleans&professor-category=1596Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
3 years ago

UNO’s faculty salaries are on the low side nationally. It’s especially difficult for many faculty members because New Orleans is not a low cost of living city. But don’t feel bad for me–I’m doing fine. I mentioned my salary because the salary discussion is an important component of the funding discussion generally for all sorts of reasons. I wish more people in academic positions would talk openly about their salaries.

Something to think about: If my UNO salary were, say, 100k/year and I had access to university funding to support scholarship, travel, etc., and my load was 2/2 instead of 3/3, I’m almost certain
I wouldn’t have been as aggressive about seeking out external funding sources, especially the low dollar stuff (much of which is local). So a bureaucrat might look at this comment and say, “See! All the reason to pay lower faculty salaries! Let them be entrepreneurial!” And there may be some truth to that.

The flip side of it is that under most normal circumstances someone like me would be pretty easy to poach: my salary is low, I’m bringing in external resources to fund student and community-oriented programs (which raises the profile of the university in a way that scholarly output does not, at least the minds of many people make decisions), UNO isn’t likely to match an external offer, etc.

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Peter
Peter
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Hi Chris,
Thanks for the interesting post and comments. I also wanted to thank you for being open about salary. I, too, wish people in academic positions would talk more openly about salaries.Report