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Bloomberg.com has an interesting article on the affects of private gifts to universities. It's well worth a read and not just to people in academia like myself.

Of course wealthy individuals and corporations have always given donations to get a building named after them, or to endow a scholarship or something like that. There's nothing new about that. But this story is talking about gifts with major strings attached. As an example, here's the story they start with: John Allison of the BB&T bank set up charity that would donate money to schools - but only if said schools "create a course on capitalism and make Rand’s masterwork, “Atlas Shrugged,” required reading." There are other examples, too, where people donate to a university but only hand over th money if certain conditions are met. There's one story where a mining company made a gift contingent on a list of conditions being met, and some faculty at that school have said it would make them more reluctant to criticize that particular company's practices, to give another example. Or in a case closer to home, Jim Simons wanted to make a pledge to SUNY-Stony Brook - but only if the state legislature freed up the SUNY branches to set their own tuition rates.

I actually have a little experience working with a non-profit. A very little, and I don't want to pass myself off as an expert; but even so, I had just enough that I recognized a lot of truth in these stories. In my non-profit's case I felt the somewhat messy nature of fundraising was justified by the work to be done, but I was not at all surprised by the stories of rich individuals who want control over how their money is used. In my experience it takes a very rare type of person who gives what I would truly call a gift. (By gift I mean a transfer of goods without expecting anything at all in routine.)

And on some level, I don't think people should do that. It's why I give to actual reputable charities I know rather than to beggars on the street; I feel an obligation to make sure what I have to give is actually well used. And yes, used for causes I think are important. So I can't really fault Allison for putting conditions on his endowments. Much though I grit my teeth when I heard my alma mater's library will now have an "Ayn Rand" reading room. Ugh! But if he really thinks that Ayn Rand is a thinker who needs to be promoted, I guess I can't fault him. If I had the money for a "fides et ratio" reading room or something along the lines, I might be inclined to do it. And he's entitled to his opinion, too.

But there's endowments, and then there's the public good. When people talk about lower taxes and less social services provided by government, they tend to think that the people with money will put their money in place where it can do the most good. That they will donate to hospitals or to disaster relief or to colleges or whatever. The problem, as articles like this show, is that the donations come with strings attached. Government funding comes with strings attached, too, but those strings are what a group of people, each with divergent interests, have decided on. And in theory every citizen has a say in deciding who will attach the strings. I had no vote in deciding that Mr. Allison should have the money to promote his favorite ideology. I do have a vote in deciding that a Senator does not represent me, albeit a small one.

I know that special donations will always be a part of education. But when you vote to take a dollar out of the government funding for a university, that's a dollar the university will have to find from somewhere. As often as not, the dollar has to come from a private donor, and that gives the private donor more influence. Same with every other institution. Tax money, for all the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, is simply less prone to these abuses.

Btw, apologies in advance - it feels like I'm being really round-about in how I describe just why things like defunding universities are so wrong. I am mad about these things, but I'm so mad I think I'm a bit scared to let it all out. Which means I've got all these thoughts rumbling around my brain, but they're only coming out in this choked-off sort of way. So if you don't understand why this seems like such a big deal, ask and I'll try again...


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 6th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
Good post! I see what you're getting at, and I think you are right. Donations from individuals that come with strings attached are definitely awkward in the long run.

I also have to say, I love your icon! :-D It's perfect for the topic at hand.
May. 6th, 2011 03:38 am (UTC)
Tax money, for all the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, is simply less prone to these abuses.

It's just prone to other forms of "abuse". For example, funding for scientific research at academic institutions comes almost exclusively from the government, i.e. from money appropriated by Congress and earmarked for research, but Congress decides what should be funded in a sense. So, for example, if the byword of the day is counter-terrorism, then scientific research in that arena will get the lion's share of government funding, and the poor schmuck studying the genetic mutations of the zebrafish will be SOL. (I'm not trying to trivialize zebrafish research, of course. It's where a lot of our understanding of human genetics begins, after all).

My point is, as long as academic institutions are dependent on extramural funding, there will always be conditions attached, and I don't find government any more benevolent (or any less likely to have a vested interest) than a private donor. *shrugs*

Edited at 2011-05-06 03:38 am (UTC)
May. 6th, 2011 05:21 am (UTC)
You're right that it would be better to not need external funding at all. I'd much prefer it be left up to the academic community to determine what projects were most worth funding.

I guess I don't see government as an institution as having a vested interest one way or the other. That's partly because I don't tend to see it as an entity in its own right, that stands in opposition to different parts of the citizenry. (Perhaps that's naive of me.) Of course individual government officials - congressmen or governors or whatever - have their own agendas, but any one individual doesn't have the power to affect a university the way a wealthy private citizen could. Balances of power, the complex legislative process - I always understood the whole point of that to keep any individual from wielding too much power.

But mainly I was reacting against a claim I have seen over and over again from Tea Party politicians: that less taxes necessarily meant less strings attached to money. Even if I'm wrong and governments do have an agenda at play, I'd say that private donors often have their own private agenda.
May. 6th, 2011 08:16 am (UTC)
Hear you. And though I also hear roh_wyn's point that governments have agendas too, governments are accountable to the electorate. A government which pushes the academy to distort the topics - or, heaven forfend, the findings - of research unduly can be held up to scrutiny, challenged and, ultimately, unseated. Rich donors can't.
May. 6th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
I thought you might agree, given recent austerity measures in Britain. It's actually interesting that you posted in, because writing this I was thinking about how various philosophers I know (offline and via a US-based philosophy blog, the Leiter Report have reacted to the AHRC guidelines that research should examine the Great Society. That's caused quite a bit of uproar, precisely because it's perceived as the government setting a research agenda. But it's a very different type of uproar than you see in academia when faced with private donors setting the agenda...
May. 6th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, and with Az. Private donations simply cannot substitute for public funding when it comes to education, because there are going to be more strings attached and weirder ones.

I also agree that the government (in a republic/democracy) is not entirely an entity with its own agenda, independent of the wishes of the citizens, because ultimately the citizens do determine who makes up the government and therefore what it does.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )



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