Campaigners fear growing donor influence on US campuses

University fundraising income continues to grow, but comes from shrinking group of wealthy benefactors

February 8, 2020
Source: Getty
The art of giving: Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels (left) with Michael Bloomberg, who donated $1.8 billion to his alma mater

A growing skew towards wealthier benefactors in US university fundraising is heightening concern for academic independence.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case), which represents institutional fundraising officials, said total donations to US higher education jumped by 6.1 per cent in the academic year ending June 2019, reaching an all-time high of $49.6 billion (£38.3 billion).

However, the value of gifts from individuals declined by 7.9 per cent, with growth coming from donations from family foundations.

Examples include the biggest gift of the fiscal year, the $1.8 billion that Michael Bloomberg gave to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, through a foundation, said Brian Flahaven, the senior director of advocacy at Case. “There is more and more coming from those larger and larger gifts,” he said.

Some academics have warned that US universities will grow more and more dependent on a small number of companies and individuals as public funding for higher education wanes.

Such a situation would result in even more advantages for already established and well-off universities, departments and programmes, said Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychological science at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the effects of wealth gaps across society.

With state support for higher education flat or declining, the US’ ability to maintain institutions and programmes that served overall social priorities, including boosting historically under-represented students, was declining, Dr Piff said.

It was “a most troubling trend, though not necessarily surprising given all the other domains of public life in which elites and corporations have undue influence”, he said.

Case itself might actually be exacerbating the problem, said Ralph Wilson, an activist who studies corporate influence in academia, by advising colleges that they can count money from outside parties as a tax-advantaged gift even when the donor receives some services in return.

“Their work is not rooted in protecting academic freedom, but in fundraising campaigns and public relations,” Mr Wilson said of Case. He is a former research director at UnKoch My Campus, a group that says the influence of the right-wing Koch brothers on campuses is harming academic freedom.

Mr Flahaven acknowledged that universities might face some equity challenges in soliciting donations, because of the nation’s overall income divide and the 2017 tax legislation championed by the Trump administration, which increased incentives for charitable donations by the very wealthiest Americans and reduced them for most others.

“That means overall you’re seeing less broad-based support over time,” he said.

Along with documenting the increasing share of wealthier donors, Case’s data show US colleges and universities experiencing a decline in their proportion of unrestricted gifts, Mr Flahaven said.

But even if big-dollar donors can impose more conditions, universities remain generally welcoming of them, Mr Flahaven said. “A lot of institutions benefit from that type of giving,” he said.

The chief example, the Bloomberg donation, was so large that, without it, the total one-year increase in giving to US universities of 6.1 per cent would have been only 3.4 per cent. It also remains a Rorschach test in the philanthropy debate. While it allows Johns Hopkins to cover the full financial need of any student it chooses to accept, experts argue that $1.8 billion could have had far more substantial equity benefits if directed elsewhere.

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Reader's comments (1)

Watching the traffic when donation to Alma Mater is being discussed an awful lot of middle 30's upwards graduates don't want to know, often due to their own living expenses, though more and more often in reaction to the ideologically driven agendas. The phrase 'get woke, go broke' seems to be appropriate, as so many US universities and colleges seem to have dropped meritocratic standards in favour of 'equity' and enforced diversity, with the loss of 'academic freedom' and 1st amendment rights to free speech being attacked by the ideologues being regularly quoted as a reason not to support the perceived growing left wing indoctrination power base within.