fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,
fidesquaerens
marta_bee

the real danger of underfunding universities

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...
Tags: academic, politics
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