Donors Withhold Contributions Over Campus Free Speech Controversies

Should wealthy alumni use philanthropy as a weapon to shape university policies and dictate the fortunes of campus leaders?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on October 26, 2023
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  • Alumni upset with the University of Pennsylvania's handling of campus antisemitism have threatened to stop giving money.
  • Some have called for the ouster of the university's president.
  • Similar controversies stemming from the Israel-Hamas war have arisen at Harvard.
  • Major donors wield considerable power at universities, especially through their positions on boards.

Some University of Pennsylvania alumni have a beef with their alma mater. That is to say, some very wealthy alumni have a beef. And they're demonstrating their displeasure through their checkbooks.

Controversies surrounding campus politics, free speech, and the Israel-Hamas war have prompted donors at Penn, Harvard, and other elite universities to withhold funds until campus leaders take an appropriate stand on the issue. A few Penn alums are even calling for the resignation of President Elizabeth Magill, who's been on the job for just over a year.

But how much sway do donors hold, especially at institutions already swimming in billions of dollars?

Campus Controversies Erupt Over Israel-Hamas War

At Penn, troubles began when the university hosted the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in September, an event featuring speakers with a history of making antisemitic remarks. Ahead of the festival, more than 2,000 Penn alumni, including several significant donors, signed a letter expressing "deep concerns," according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper.

"The University of Pennsylvania should be doing all within its power to distance itself from the event's antisemitic speakers, make clear that such antisemitism is wholly at odds with the university's values, and take proactive steps to ensure that Jewish students, faculty, and staff are safe and welcome at Penn," noted the letter to Magill.

Magill and other university leaders later issued public statements condemning Hamas' subsequent attack on Israel and confirming the institution's commitment to addressing antisemitism on campus.

Still, it wasn't enough to assuage alumni such as Marc Rowan, who called for Magill and Scott Bok, the university's trustees board chair, to resign. Rowan, a Wall Street CEO worth roughly $6 billion, stepped down from his position as chair of the Wharton School.

Joining Rowan in his quest was Vahan Gureghian, a charter school magnate and former Penn trustee, along with Jonathon Jacobson, a private investor who criticized the university for its lack of "moral courage" and pledged to donate $1 a year while Magill remained president.

"People are just going to turn that spigot off, Gureghian told CNN. "That's a major, major thing for a university of this stature. You're going to see day after day after day major donors pulling their support at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a situation where [Magill] can't survive this."

Meanwhile, some prominent Harvard graduates have threatened to withhold donations and resign from leadership positions over the university's handling of student protests. Alum and major benefactor Kenneth Griffin urged the university to issue a statement supporting Israel after 30 student groups blamed Israelis for Hamas' attack, which it did three days after the students issued theirs.

The slow response was enough to rile hedge-fund manager William Ackman, a Harvard graduate who urged other executives not to hire the students involved.

Alum Lloyd Blankfein, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, also took issue with the university's actions.

"Given the use of Harvard's name by Hamas-supporting student groups," Blankfein told The New York Times, "it was a grave mistake not to condemn the hate messages more quickly and absolutely."

Free Speech Wars Breed Alumni Discontent

Penn and Harvard aren't alone in dealing with such donor backlash. Similar situations at New York University, Stanford University, and Cornell University have materialized, the Times reported.

In recent years, donors have expressed displeasure with their alma maters over various issues. Controversies at Amherst College involving free speech and cancel culture prompted one alum to cut the college from his will and led to an overall decline in fundraising.

Fellow Amherst alum Robert Longsworth told the Times that friends at other liberal arts colleges had "stepped away" from giving in response to comparable situations, adding that refusing to donate "seems to be the only lever that can make a difference."

Donations to Princeton University fell following protests on campus over the removal of Woodrow Wilson's name from buildings and programs in 2020.

Two years ago, alumni at St. Joseph University threatened to stop giving when the institution suspended a professor and coach over allegations of racial bias. Around that time, a Cornell graduate held back a seven-figure gift claiming concerns over "leftist indoctrination" and declining tolerance on campus.

And in 2022, a celebrated tenure battle at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill involving Nikole Hannah-Jones led to speculations that the namesake of the university's school of journalism might renege on part of his $25 million pledge.

Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst's president during the controversy on her campus, suggested disagreements between colleges, students, and alumni, however unsettling, might be the inevitable byproduct of free speech.

"I think colleges are places where complicated societywide issues are always thrashed out, sometimes across generations," she said.

Yet in attempting to quell students with whom they disagree and forcing university leaders to issue statements aligning with their own beliefs, are wealthy donors upholding the values of free speech or, through their actions, serving to undermine that essential quality of a liberal education?

It may just be coincidental that two of the universities embroiled in these controversies, Harvard and Penn, finished last and second to last in the new free speech rankings published by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and College Pulse. Most students at these institutions, the study found, don't believe their administrations protect free speech on campus.

Recent activities won't do much to counter such accusations.

Can Donors Really Influence University Decisions?

What else do Harvard and Penn have in common besides spotty free speech records? They're both fabulously wealthy. Harvard's endowment falls just shy of $51 billion, while Penn's is roughly $21 billion.

Should these universities care about a few high-profile donors threatening to yank their contributions?

"Elite universities are the hardest places to influence or punish," Ross Douthat wrote of the ordeals at Harvard and Penn, "because they're already so rich."

Yet they likely care quite a bit, note Lauren Hirsch and Sarah Kessler of The New York Times. Apart from their direct financial support, these donors influence others to give — or not.

Universities themselves are to blame for creating the connection between financial support and influence, they argue. Board members, often significant donors, do in fact wield considerable power, largely through their collective ability to hire and fire presidents. Even smaller donors might serve on advisory committees, they point out, working directly with deans and other senior administrators to shape programs.

"The job of a college or university president is very hard because, on the one hand, he or she has to keep the trustees happy because they are big givers and because they can fire the president," Edward Rock, a New York University law professor, told the Times. "At the same time, he or she has to make sure that the university's academic mission is not compromised by external forces, whether they be political forces or economic forces."

That's easier said than done, suggests David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy, especially when universities are courting donors for staggering amounts of money. Harvard's last capital campaign netted the university almost $10 billion.

"We have top-heavy philanthropy in higher education with major donors increasingly important to the funding streams of these institutions," Callahan told CNN. "Money buys you the ability to push your own specific interests at a university."

Time will tell if Penn's big donors succeed in removing the university's president from office. Faculty at the university have rallied to her defense, decrying the "intimidation" tactics used by certain benefactors.

"[A]cademic freedom is an essential component of a world-class university," Faculty Senate leaders wrote in a statement, "and is not a commodity that can be bought or sold by those who seek to use their pocketbooks to shape our mission."