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Should Wealthy Individuals Be Able to Buy Influence Over University Programs?

Academic Freedom Under Attack

I have previously blogged about “The Selling of American Universities” that points out the increasing trend of private donors like Nike, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola influencing sports programs through their donations. A more pernicious situation has raised its ugly head, whereby uber-wealthy individuals donate funds with strings attached that raise ethical questions about their ability to exercise control over academic decision-making. Three examples are BB&T the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), and George Soros.

Let’s start with BB&T, a major bank holding company based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The bank donates large sums of money to promote capitalism courses through their “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” program, which requires the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. This includes reading books such as Atlas Shrugged, a defense of capitalism as a rational economic system. Objectivists promote the laissez-faire concept that government should stay out of business and let it create wealth that, presumably, will trickle down and improve the well-being of all citizens.

Putting aside the obvious conflict between capitalism and various brands of socialism espoused by democratic candidates for President, the promotion of capitalistic theory in universities as the quid pro quo for financial support creates conflicts of interest because BB&T expects in return that the values of capitalism will be taught. A primary value is the pursuit of self-interest, or egoism, an ethical approach that holds individuals should act in their own interests. Objectivism eschews philosophical theories such as Deontology, which holds people should act out of moral duty to others.

Turning now to the CKF, donations by that organization do not focus on specific courses but creating Koch-affiliated centers and institutes on university campuses and staffing them with instructors who reflect the CKF philosophy. The CKF philosophy is decidedly conservative. It refers to its program through the innocuous but misleading term “Structure of Social Change” program.

Charles Koch is a well-known libertarian who believes in small government, minimal business regulation, and little environmental regulation. Obviously, these philosophies are attractive to right-leaning political candidates. Without debating the merits of these positions, it does seem there could be undue influence over academic decision-making by donating money to establish academic institutes with selected faculty members and targeted objectives.

The amount of donations by the CKF are staggering. According to a story in U.S. News & World Report, George Mason University received $117.2 million during the 2008-2017 period. Charles Koch was awarded an honorary doctorate from George Mason in 2002, which certainly accounts for his generosity. The university that received the second most in funding during the same decade was Utah State ($6.9 million).

Questions have been raised recently about the George Mason donation and influence-peddling by CKF. A NY Times story published on April 26, 2019, reports that the Foundation was given input in some personnel decisions leading the school to tighten its rules governing agreements with donors to ensure they don’t infringe on academic freedom. Allowing donors to have input over hiring and tenure decisions is anathema to the long-standing tradition that university departments, colleges, and administrators solely control hiring and tenure decisions.

There are left-leaning donors that exist as well. The largest is George Soros, Chairman of the Soros Fund Management. Soros’s Center for American Progress has given $60 million to Bard College for its “Center for Civic Engagement” to promote progressive causes Soros endorses. He also funds other programs on a much lower level including to study the role of money in the democratic process (Fordham University; a $400,000 grant). He also helped establish Central European University, which, in turn, uses its resources to promote his personal goal of an “open society.”

It does appear that the donations by BB&T and the CKF more directly influence curricula decisions and academic hiring than those by Soros. Nevertheless, there are unintended consequences of all these kinds of donations in that the appearance of bias exists and the process for making curricula and faculty decisions linked to the donations may not be transparent. ACADEMIC COMMERCIALISM

I have to wonder what message is sent to students when they see a wealthy person can buy influence over what should be sacred – academic independence. Shouldn’t they rightfully question what is being taught and why? Moreover, doesn’t it send the message that influence can be bought? Aren’t students left with the feeling money talks even at our hallowed academic institutions?

The reason given by public institutions of higher learning for taking donations from private sources is the lack of adequate state funding for public universities, and then there is the increasing financial needs of private universities. I believe the root cause goes much deeper. Over the past twenty years or so the purpose of a      university has changed from largely teaching institutions to research institutions with the goal of bringing academic visibility to the institutions through faculty publications and fundraising to develop and carry out initiatives (i.e., biotechnology research and development).

Funding these activities has become a high priority. The need for high-priced faculty to run them and foster their mission has increased substantially. At the same time, these faculty are given release time from teaching to do their research, apply for grants, publish, etc. That means other faculty need to be hired to teach their classes, and that costs money.

It’s a fact of life in academia today, both in state-supported and private universities, that external fund raising is critical to the mission of the institution. Unfortunately, it seems to have spiraled out of control and it’s the students who suffer the most because tuition levels are, in many cases, unconscionable.

These are ethical questions because we are dealing with whether it’s right or wrong to accept such large donations and commit to establish programs/hire certain faculty in return. Is this good or bad for the institution? For society? We need to debate these issues openly.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 7, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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