4 min read

Do higher-education donors have a say in the academic practices of the departments and institutions to which they donate? According to some benefactors, you bet.

Last week, Martin Levine at Nonprofit Quarterly introduced the unique case of Richard Hill. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hill (a Chicago businessman) pledged $6.5 million to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s bioengineering department. So far, Hill has donated $2 million, but is threatening to withhold the remainder of his donation amidst recent controversial actions by the University of Illinois system.

Earlier this year, University of Illinois failed to approve Professor James Kilgore for the Fall 2014 semester “after his criminal past became public and university board members expressed concern.” Kilgore’s criminal past includes having played a part in a 1970s murder while affiliated with the left-wing organization the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) (the same group that achieved fame after kidnapping “media heiress” Patty Hearst). Despite having been on staff since 2010, the controversy surrounding Kilgore only surfaced this year.

According to the Tribune, the board of trustees faced faculty pressure following Kilgore’s firing, thus clearing the way for Kilgore to be rehired. Since this recent action, two departments – the Center for African Studies and the Global Studies Program – have offered Kilgore faculty positions. Responding to these events, Richard Hill wrote to University of Illinois officials: “I no longer wish to be associated with University of Illinois. . . . [T]he Academy at the University of Illinois has clearly lost its moral compass.” As of this writing, Hill has held his ground, arguing, “I will not contribute neither time nor money to such a morally debased enterprise.”

Not unsurprisingly, Hill’s actions in light of Kilgore’s rehiring have prompted serious conversation regarding the role of university benefactors. Most prominently, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial two days ago titled, “College Donors Must Know Their Place,” claiming Hill “will realize he has overstepped here.”

However, this is not the first case this year questioning the role of university donors. Three months ago, Florida State University’s economics department was at the epicenter of the donor control debate. In early September, the Center for Public Integrity released a number of unpublished emails and internal memos between FSU and the Charles Koch Foundation, which revealed that CKF money came with a number of strings attached: the curriculum “must align with . . . libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy”; CKF would at least “partially control which faculty members FSU hired”; and the FSU economics department chair would have to stay on for another term. Although the documents released were from 2007, they are as relevant as ever. Expectedly, this story’s breaking prompted outrage, especially from those on the left like ThinkProgress and DailyKos. With this case, however, it is quite difficult to isolate the “proper role of donors” argument from the penchant for anti-Koch-brothers rhetoric.

Apart from the alleged controversies behind the Kilgore and Koch cases, they curiously introduce a significant question: Should donors have a say at all when it comes to academic practices? On the one hand, it would appear that the bells of academic freedom should forever ring from the belfry of the ivory tower. On the other hand, at some point someone needs to foot the bill. To further complicate this issue, we need to bear in mind that some universities are public and others private -- and even those that are “private” often receive generous public funding (like, for example, Johns Hopkins University taking in $1.9 billion of public research and development grant money last year, 88 percent of its full research budget). Should market forces or the academy determine practice and curriculum? Does the answer to this question change if we’re talking about business schools?

It seems to me that this issue isn’t as a black and white as popular commentary may suggest. To take a look at the first case, it seems that Hill is not doing anything wrong. Though it is unfortunate for the bioengineering department to lose out on $4 million, it is also Hill’s responsibility to donate as his conscience allows. This is not to say that Hill should be consulting with department heads regarding hiring practices, but rather that it is up his discretion whether he wants to donate in light of any controversy. Just as good citizens donate to the charities that they prefer and the churches where they worship, university benefactors also reserve that same right -- however unfortunate or unforeseen the circumstances.

One part of the Kilgore case that struck me, however, was that the popular commentary surrounding the case presumed the university’s actions as immaculate. One is reminded of William F. Buckley’s citation of Harvard president Charles W. Eliot's inaugural address in 1869:

A university must . . . above all . . . be free; the winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all its chambers. . . . The corporation demands of all its teachers that they be grave, reverent, and high-minded; but it leaves them, like their pupils, free.

But as Buckley responds many pages later (in God and Man at Yale):

[I]t is time that honest and discerning scholars cease to manipulate the term academic freedom for their own ends and in such fashion as to deny the rights of individuals . . . academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.

Perhaps Hill, a 1974 bioengineering alumnus, was simply aiming to supervise. Regardless, these cases appear a bit more complicated than most media accounts would suggest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *