‘Beware of oysters’ and other remedies for donor threats to academic freedom — University Affairs

Ultimately, the top three defensive measures are good politics, good communication, and good habits.

Be careful when colleagues order oysters!

In my last column, I examined some of the threats to academic freedom posed by donor funding. I promised to suggest some remedial action in my next one.

When I was about to redeem this Schuldschein, I remembered a lecture I had given a few years ago to a well-equipped inter-university research group. After the conversation, they took me to a good restaurant for dinner. Everyone ordered fancy cocktails. Part of the group ordered large quantities of oysters. All of this was at the expense of the research group.

That was new to me. In my own department, we took the speakers to restaurants that were carefully selected for their affordability, and most of the participants except the speaker had to pay for their own meals. This was different. My host explained that the talk was funded with cooking money; So the attendees were pretty happy to raise the bill.


Also read: The high donation price


I was shocked. I had spent most of my career in a field (philosophy) that had little outside funding. This talk was one of my first in an area of ​​philosophy that is getting more attention from donors. When I accepted the invitation to speak, I didn’t ask about funders because I was so green. It occurred to me too late that the lecture was sponsored from private funds.

Today, whenever I am invited to give a talk or contribute a text, I always do detective work to see who is funding the initiative. If I were not confident and proud to list this promotion on my faculty website or Twitter bio, or in the acknowledgments of my publications, I decline the invitation. Since I would not write “sponsored by the Koch Foundation” on my business cards, I will not take part in initiatives that they support.

With this, as promised, there are several other ways to protect academic freedom from the risks and harms that sometimes come with donations. Ultimately, the top three defensive measures are good politics, good communication, and good habits.

Good politics

Professional fundraising campaigns are based on ethical codes, such as the Ethical Fundraising and Financial Accountability Code from Imagine Canada or, in the USA, the Code of Ethical Standards of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Also, most universities have good and clear donation guidelines. In general, these professional and institutional codes and guidelines aim to protect both donors and beneficiaries from deception, coercion, or other harm.

They also ensure that donations are really gifts and not part of consideration. In particular, donors should not be involved in recruitment, the selection of award or grant recipients, or other operational decisions. In trying to influence how your donation is used, they go beyond defining the general purpose of the donation. A friend of mine who also works in higher education recently observed me about an angry donation: “A gift with conditions is not a gift – it’s a contract.” Good guidelines make this distinction clear.

Within universities, as I mentioned in my previous column, some donations can threaten academic freedom, collegial leadership, or institutional autonomy. Hence, the principles in codes like Imagine Canada’s are only half the story. Good university donation policies and procedures should maintain a careful firewall between fundraising and academic governance to ensure that fundraisers and donors do not improperly interfere with academic mission.

My own university’s donation policy makes it clear that the university can refuse a gift if the offer is contrary to the best interests of the institution. The guideline states that gifts can be refused if, for example, they benefit certain people, are linked to financial liabilities that pose a risk to the university, or “come from a person or organization whose philosophy and values ​​are inconsistent with the overall philosophy and the Values ​​from the university. “

With regard to this last category, it is crucial that collegially appointed academic executives such as chairs, deans and provosts – or collegial bodies such as the university senate – receive sensible advice on whether a donation corresponds to the academic mandate, philosophy and values ​​of the university. In addition, the academic mission must take precedence when there is a tension between the academic mission and a donation. For example, a gift should not be accompanied by a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) if that NDA would compromise the ethical conduct of research.

Other university policies that are essential to avoid undue donor intervention relate to the job security of university staff. Academic staff in precarious and early employment may sometimes feel that they have to finance themselves to keep their jobs. It is important to have fair promotion and tenure standards that do not put pressure on non-retained members to participate, directly or indirectly, in fundraising. Academic staff should also have the academic freedom to criticize donations to the university without fear of reprisals.

Good communication

In an article last spring, Nathan M. Greenfield documented the undue influence of donors at various North American colleges and universities. He pointed out that all of the institutions he discussed “either develop or have strictly formulated policies aimed at preventing undue donor influence”. That is, it is not enough just to have good policies. These guidelines must actually be followed. A large part of ensuring compliance with donation guidelines depends on good communication.

Universities are complex organizations. Many university employees are highly specialized and isolated from members of other units. Very often the administrative side and the academic side do not fully understand each other’s roles or values. Academic administrators such as chairs, deans and directors sometimes only hold office for three to five years and are not given much formal orientation in these positions. In this context, it is easy for staff to become confused or not informed of guidelines.

It is important to support good education and conversations for university staff to ensure that members on both the development side and academic side understand each other’s roles and maintain good, healthy boundaries. Without the right training and the right boundaries, a development officer can innocently pass a donor’s suggestion on to a dean. Again, without proper training and limits, the dean might be inclined to go along with this suggestion. This pair of missteps risks jeopardizing academic freedom, embarrassing the university, and embarrassing the donor.

Universities operate very differently from other types of organizations. So they can be quite puzzling to donors coming from outside of academia. Very often these donors are excited about making a financial contribution to the university and fail to understand how their enthusiasm can lead them to accidentally cross a line. It is the task of development officers and senior executives to orient potential donors to the university standards. Alerting a donor to a strong university donation policy can help them understand the reasons why the university may not accept their suggestions for recruitment, invite them to selection committees, etc. Good policy enables university staff to tell potential donors, ” We “You are so grateful and we are happy that you are passionate about it and want to get involved, but we are bound by this policy and that is why it is important.”

In this section I assume the good intentions of everyone involved in a donation. But as Dr. Greenfield documented and as I discussed in my last column, we must also reckon with the bad intentions of some donors. Good conversations can help you find out the truth about possible sources of funding. Those of us who have been touched by academic donations should ask in-depth questions about the source and purpose of funding, and we should be wary of evasive answers.

A few months ago I was invited to an interesting opportunity at a US agency that seemed to be doing a good job. I did my due diligence and looked through materials online on them to see where their funding was coming from. I learned that one of their sponsors was Stand Together, also known as the Koch Network. I wrote back to the manager, sharing my concerns about accepting Koch funding, and asking how much Koch funding the agency was receiving and why it was accepting it. She gave me a vague, mild answer to the second question and avoided answering the first question. So I declined the invitation and shared my reasons for declining, hoping that if enough of us object to the agency’s relationship with the Koch network, they’ll reconsider.

Good habits

This example illustrates some of the good habits that I believe are essential to reducing the risks associated with donor funding:

  • Do the research;
  • Track funding source of funding source (funding agencies are often Russian nesting dolls!);
  • Make your concerns clear;
  • Encourage others to do the same.

Ultimately, you are responsible – morally responsible! – for financial support that you accept individually or on behalf of your unit or institution. At a time when many universities and scholars are struggling, it can be tempting to accept any funding that comes up and tell yourself that you will not be corrupted by using it for good, not evil. However, it can be easy to fall victim to rationalization and self-deception when money is at stake.

Here are three heuristics I recommend to make sure you get yourself lifted. Ask yourself:

  • Would I want the details of this decision on a national news broadcast?
  • Would I feel safe of this donation if someone requested freedom of information for all email?
  • Would I have this speakerphone conversation with witnesses present?

As important as good policies, conversations, and habits are, universities will remain vulnerable in the end as long as they are forced to seek ad hoc private scholarship support. I am grateful for donors of goodwill who want to strengthen and support the academic mission of the universities. However, when governments cut funding for higher education and force us to seek private assistance, they put us at risk. The best protection against the damage some donations can bring is strong, stable public funding from universities.

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