Higher Education’s Donor Problem

The end of Claudine Gay’s brief and turbulent presidency at Harvard has hardly put an end to controversies about elite university leadership and governance. Bill Ackman, the “activist” donor and Harvard graduate, is calling for further resignations from the Harvard Corporation, while baiting MIT’s President, Sally Kornbluth, with the Shakespearean query: “et tu?” Meanwhile, Mark Rowan, the board member who engineered the takedown of the University of Pennsylvania’s erstwhile president, Elizabeth McGill—the first of the Washington three to step down—has now been pressing his advantage in calling for major reforms of an academic nature at Penn. Philanthropy and academic freedom are colliding in ways that have the potential to undermine the true purpose and mission of our universities.

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As much as these, and some other, donors have appeared to embody popular discontent with those at the pinnacle of higher education, it is easy to forget that not long ago the scandals around these universities had to do with donors who used their gifts as leverage to secure admission for their children, making visible the problematic relationship between some individual philanthropy and private interests. We all called for firewalls then but seem now to have forgotten those critiques of the relationship between private interests and higher education.

As the philosopher John Dewey wrote in an essay on academic freedom in 1902, “the great event in the history of an institution is now likely to be a big gift rather than a new investigation or the development of a strong and vigorous teacher.” Philanthropy is critical to the success of great American universities, but today we are seeing the ways in which it can enable assaults on the university as well. One of Claudine Gay’s predecessors, Charles Elliot, worried as early as 1906 that ill-functioning boards of trustees could “even treat professors’ opinions as common political spoils.” 

Indeed, in 1900, Edward Ross, a socialist economist on Stanford’s faculty who was opposed to the importation of Chinese workers, gave a public speech that got the attention of the chair of Stanford’s board, Jane Stanford. Jane was the widow of Leland Stanford, who had made his fortune using cheap Chinese labor to build his railways and was still the sole benefactor of the new west coast university. Ross had been irritating Jane Stanford for some years, both because of his specific views and because he refused to adopt the kind of non-political public posture preferred by many trustees of American universities at the time. Today, Ross would have ruffled feathers for the racist overtones of his remarks about Asians, but for Jane Stanford, his remarks were the last straw for different reasons, and she implored David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s president, to fire Ross immediately.

Ross’ “resignation” was followed by the departure of a full 10% of Stanford’s faculty, including Arthur Lovejoy who moved to Johns Hopkins. With Dewey, Lovejoy founded the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and helped write its founding document, the 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.” The “Declaration” insisted on three conditions for the university to fulfill its function: first, that in all domains of knowledge (scientific, social scientific, and humanistic), there should be “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.” The second, that even in teaching the“freedom of utterance is as important… as it is to the investigator;” and third, that in the domain of developing expertise in technical domains, there should be no constraint from social or political pressure standing in the way of the scholar’s honest opinions.

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The “Declaration” made clear that the role of trustees is unlike that of a corporate board.   It quoted with approval remarks made by Charles Elliot that there are “numerous boards that have everything to learn with respect to academic freedom. These barbarous boards exercise an arbitrary power of dismissal.  They exclude from the teachings at the university unpopular or dangerous subjects.”

But the AAUP alone could not secure faculty autonomy at times of political crisis.  In 1949 the Regents of the University of California imposed a “loyalty oath” as a condition of faculty employment, and over the next decade, the prosecutions of Senator Joseph McCarthy against communists in government, Hollywood, and universities put enormous, and often successful, pressure on universities to fire faculty with any communist affiliation along with those who refused to “name names” (this was most recently illustrated on the big screen in the hit film Oppenheimer).  While faculty pressure led to the eventual rollback of the loyalty oath in California, many faculty at top U.S. institutions lost their positions due to McCarthy’s crusade.

Today, when Congress takes upon itself the right to adjudicate academic concerns, whether it be research misconduct or the political statements of presidents, we have only to worry about a resurgence of political interference in university affairs. Earlier writings about academic freedom have great salience once again, especially as they observe that interference can come from private individuals as well.  Once again, some donors, whether they are trustees or not, direct their pressure on university presidents, using social media and public pressure to threaten the withholding of their philanthropy, one of the principal currencies of administrative success. Money talks and yes, money has always wielded enormous power. But recent attacks on universities beg the question whether we want to live in a world where only money talks?

Of course, universities are not entirely blameless. There are far too many examples of the failure of universities over the past decade to defend academic freedom when it goes against conventional wisdom on campus. Trustees, administrators, and faculty have the responsibility to ensure that principles of academic freedom are applied across the board. But this should never be confused with the residual interest in replacing one set of prohibitions and censures with another. Case in point: the disingenuity of attacks on universities from critics like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who no sooner decried the absence of free speech on campus than he dictated legislation against the teaching of the role of race in American history, culture, and jurisprudence. Academic freedom is about offending everyone, at some point, regardless of our own political positions.

While most trustees and donors not only understand but are vigilant about the nature of their relationship to university governance, the violence in the Middle East has emboldened some to exert the kind of pressure of yesteryear to dictate their views to university administrations and faculties. The recent pattern of activist trustee taking an outsized role in corporate affairs has provided a model some have sought to follow in the university world. But unlike the corporate world, a trustee’s duty at an educational institution is to uphold a system of governance that has long been accepted as the basis on which the American university has become the gold standard across the globe.

More than that, it is this governance that ensures the pursuit of academic research without fear or favor of government, donors, or other special interests. In light of the recent attacks on the role of universities in society, these institutions would be well served to do more than cite the doctrine of academic freedom and then batten down the hatches. Without a stronger defense of our higher education institutions, along with a re-commitment by universities and their boards to work to adhere to the Declaration of 1915, we risk compromising the role our great American universities play as flagbearers for freedom of thought and expression. Today, we need this role more than ever.

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