Leadership intelligence: how to handle a donation controversy

Generous philanthropic giving brings significant benefits to US universities but poses leadership challenges too, says Ángel Cabrera

January 10, 2019
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US universities raised a record $43.6 billion (£34.5 billion) from private donors in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, Johns Hopkins University announced an eye-popping, record-smashing $1.8 billion (£1.4 billion) gift from alumnus and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in support of student scholarships.

My colleagues outside the US look at these numbers, and the culture of giving behind them, with wonder and a bit of envy.

As a product of European and US higher education systems and a veteran administrator in both, I am often asked overseas about this aspect of US universities. There is indeed much to be learned about how US institutions engage donors and benefit from their generosity. But, as the old adage goes, there is no free lunch, and anyone interested in attracting private support must do so aware of the costs and complications that often come with it.

Two recent controversies at my own institution illustrate this point. In March 2016, we received a $30 million gift to fund scholarships for law students.

The gift came from two donors interested in honouring the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by naming our law school after him. As a young institution with a young alumni body – Mason is indeed the youngest among top tier US research universities – we do not come across gifts of this size every day.

Yet, what should have been an occasion for celebration turned out to be a cause of disagreement that reached the pages of the national media and became fodder for late-night TV comedians (tip #1: watch your acronyms when you rename anything – in this case, the Antonin Scalia School of Law was tweaked to become the Antonin Scalia Law School).

Some of the naysayers took issue with honouring Justice Scalia, whose legal opinions they viewed as too conservative and divisive. Others objected to the ideology and presumed intentions of one of the donors, the Charles Koch Foundation (the other donor wished to remain anonymous). A few lawmakers lobbied the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to reject the naming (it did not).

We accepted the gift – and the heat – because we felt that it was in the best interest of the university to do so. Rejecting the gift on ideological grounds would not only deny hundreds of would-be students much-needed financial aid but would contradict our commitment to freedom of expression and diversity of ideas.

We were not endorsing the ideas of either donor or honouree. We were recognising 30 years of service on the Supreme Court by a man who President Obama had said “will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court”. If Justice Scalia were not worthy of having his name on our law school, who would be? As per the donor, what exactly would constitute an acceptable political ideology for a donor, and who among us would get to decide?

Then, about a year later, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, we found a number of old gift agreements in support of our economics department that had provided donors some say in deciding which faculty members would benefit from their funding.

Even though almost all these gifts agreements had expired, and while the potential influence on academic affairs given to the donors was limited, the fact that one of the donors was the Charles Koch Foundation threw us again into a national controversy that even earned us editorials in The Wall Street Journal (supportive) and The Washington Post (not so much).

To resolve any questions about our commitment to academic independence, I asked our provost to chair a multi-stakeholder task force that spent the summer analysing all existing gift agreements that provide any form of faculty support.

The work did not uncover any egregious cases of donor influence on our academic affairs but it did conclude that our gift acceptance policies should be enhanced to bring more clarity as to what constitutes acceptable donor engagement and to expand public access to gift information (changes we are in the process of adopting).

In December, we celebrated the successful completion of our most ambitious fundraising campaign to date. I’m proud that we exceeded our $500 million goal by more than $170 million and I am grateful to all of our donors, big and small, for the opportunities that they have created for our faculty and our students.

We need to continue to engage in a broad conversation about how higher education can best benefit from private support without sacrificing public trust or the core values of diversity of ideas, freedom of expression and academic independence.

But let us not forget that we are blessed to live in a society in which people care about higher education and are willing to invest in it. Private philanthropy is not easy but is worth the effort.

Ángel Cabrera is president of George Mason University in Virginia.

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