Donor Influence on the Academic Experience

Donor Influence on the Academic Experience

July 15, 2021

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What if your professors weren't chosen by your college? What if the courses you're taking weren't conceived by the faculty? What if the research you're involved in isn't driven by the pursuit of truth?

Chances are some of this is happening on your campus.

At colleges nationwide, wealthy donors are influencing who teaches, what is taught, and what new knowledge is developed and shared with the world.

A Benefactor Meddles With Tenure

A recent tenure battle at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill illustrates the power donors sometimes wield.

Walter Hussman Jr. pledged $25 million to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019, and the university renamed its School of Journalism and Media in his honor. When the school appointed the Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to an endowed chair position and recommended her for tenure, which the position normally entails, Hussman voiced his concerns.

"I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project," Hussman Hussman wrote in an email to UNC-Chapel Hill officials, referring to Hannah-Jones's Pulitzer Prize-winning work in The New York Times on slavery's role in American history.

Not long after, UNC-Chapel Hill's board of trustees failed to approve the tenure request, putting the decision on hold and sparking widespread outrage around race, politics, academic freedom, and donor influence. The trustees eventually awarded Hannah-Jones tenure, although she declined the offer in favor of a position at Howard University.

If you come and tell us who to hire and who not to hire, this is an overreach that nobody would appreciate.
Deb Aikat, Associate Professor of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill

"Walter Hussman gave us a lot of money, and we appreciate it," said Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism at the school. "If you come and tell us who to hire and who not to hire, this is an overreach that nobody would appreciate."

But a significant portion of Hussman's pledge is yet to be paid, leaving some to wonder if he might renege on his commitment given the Hannah-Jones situation.

"We can't have donors influencing decisions like this," an anonymous UNC-Chapel Hill trustee said. "We also don't want to poke them and have them withdraw their contribution."

Hussman, however, said he'd honor his pledge.

"I don't think donors should have a say in who gets hired or who gets terminated in the faculty," he said.

Billionaire Donors Dictating What Happens on Campus

Donors often do use their power, however, to influence the academic product.

In a celebrated case from the 1990s, Yale got into a row with a billionaire alumnus who donated $20 million to expand the university's Western civilization curriculum. The gift, from the oil magnate Lee Bass, was part of a series of contributions from the Bass family totaling $85 million.

When Bass insisted on having a say in who could teach those courses, Yale, instead of bowing to his demands and compromising its integrity, returned the $20 million.

More recently, St. Louis University (SLU) professors took umbrage with a $50 million gift that stipulated the donor's right to choose the faculty. "If institutions of higher education are to seek truth and advance common goods," wrote two SLU professors, "they cannot also be peddlers of influence, trading donations for special privileges."

Political interests often lie at the center of such controversies. The billionaire Charles Koch, through his foundation, has promoted libertarian scholarship on campuses nationwide — most notably at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, the "world's premier university source for market-oriented ideas."

For years, Koch and his brother David, co-owners of Koch Industries, have had a hand in choosing candidates for the faculty positions their philanthropy supported.

For years, Koch and his brother David, co-owners of Koch Industries, have had a hand in choosing candidates for the faculty positions their philanthropy supported. After Mason was ordered by the court to make donor agreements public, students felt violated.

"I mostly feel deceived and disappointed," said Kaily Adkins, a sophomore. "GMU breached my trust and sense of security in my education."

She's not alone. A watchdog group called UnKoch My Campus sprang up to investigate the "relationships between wealthy donors, corporations, and educational institutions." The primary target of their enmity, naturally, is Charles Koch, who has overseen $458 million in grants to colleges nationwide "with the explicit goal of creating intellectual fodder for his network of political interest groups, and recruiting and training students to integrate into that network."

Elsewhere, donors have inserted themselves into matters pertaining to university governance and athletics. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, several donors threatened to withhold millions of dollars in contributions over the potential firing of the university's president. Donors at the University of Louisville rescinded pledges over the termination of the school's basketball coach and athletic director.

And the founder of Nike, Phil Knight, has been criticized for using his wealth to transform the University of Oregon's football program, gaining control of hiring and firing decisions in the process. Nathan Tublitz, an Oregon biology professor, claims Knight has "forced the university to accept the strings attached to those donations, and he has had a significant effect on the direction and the integrity of the university."

Corporate Influence on Teaching and Research

Knight's Oregon escapades are captured in a book titled "University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education."

"Maybe the most surprising thing I learned was how widespread all of this is and how vulnerable our public universities are as institutions," said the author Joshua Hunt. "They're very, very vulnerable to any corporation with money and have been increasingly vulnerable because they're getting less and less government funding."

Given the heightened scramble for philanthropic support, perhaps it's no surprise Western Carolina University accepted the terms of a $1 million donation for business education from the BB&T Charitable Foundation, the grant-making arm of the bank now known as Truist. The bank's gift required the university's College of Business to require students to read "Atlas Shrugged," by the Tea Party hero Ayn Rand.

A journal article titled "BB&T, Atlas Shrugged and the Ethics of Corporation Influence on College Curricula" details similar demands at 63 colleges and universities.

When corporate-sponsored research appears to include a conflict of interest, it's a safe bet ulterior motives are in play.

Corporations also fund academic research — again, with strings attached. A sponsoring company might dictate the nature of the research and block publications presenting their products in an unfavorable way.

"While the right to publish is a mainstay of academic freedom," notes one professor, "research contracts often include clauses that give the funder the final say on whether the research can be published."

When corporate-sponsored research appears to include a conflict of interest, it's a safe bet ulterior motives are in play. For example, the author of a paper titled "Tobacco Industry Manipulation of Research" has concluded, "Studies show that industry sponsorship of research is associated with outcomes that are favorable for the sponsor."

Last year's revelation that the chemical giant Monsanto secretly supported academic research favoring glyphosate, a company product shown to cause cancer, should have come as no surprise.

The truth will come out as long as it advances a corporate narrative and bolsters the bottom line.

Safeguarding Against Undue Donor Influence

Universities often adopt gift acceptance agreements to safeguard against contributions threatening to harm or compromise the institution. At UNC-Chapel Hill, its "Policy on Gifts Affecting the Curriculum" warns against "any effects that the proposed donation may have on academic freedom," yet we've seen what has transpired nonetheless.

Virginia has gone so far as to require public colleges to establish policies for accepting philanthropic gifts with deleterious strings attached. Time will tell if other states follow suit.

Meanwhile, as public funding for higher education declines and universities increasingly turn to private philanthropy to fill gaps, donors will continue to hold undue sway on the academic experience and shape the education of countless students.

Feature Image: Yuji Sakai / Stone / Getty Images

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