Politics & Policy

The Donor’s Dilemma

What the Koch Foundation dustup at FSU teaches about college endowments.

My first call for help came more than ten years ago. An elderly gentleman was on the other line, and he was beside himself with anger. His father had given a large gift to a private university for the study of free-market economics, and he’d just checked the CV of the professor holding his family’s endowed chair. Imagine his surprise when he discovered the professor was an avowed Marxist.

“My father came from nothing, worked his way to the top, and owed everything to this country and our free-enterprise system,” he said. “Now his wealth is used to denigrate everything he believed in.”

The next call came from a campus minister, outraged to see that a lecture series endowed for the very purpose of an annual lecture in Christian ethics and theology had just featured an atheist keynote speaker.

Over the years, the calls kept coming in. Designated funds disappeared into general funds, faculty members used grants for radical left-wing advocacy, buildings constructed for one purpose were used for another — the list goes on and on.

I wondered, were leftist donors facing the same problems? When the Saudis gave their millions to fund Middle East Studies, were universities hiring pro-Israel scholars leading their field in efforts marginalize Hamas and Hezbollah in the international community and vindicate Israel’s right to self-defense?

Were donors to the University of Washington’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies concerned the center might become a haven for scholars whose research and advocacy advances right-to-work policies and an end to collective bargaining for public employees?

Is the Ford Foundation concerned that its various funded diversity programs will be used to end affirmative action and advocate truly race-blind admissions and hiring policies? Or is the foundation relatively secure in the knowledge that its grant recipients will broadly reflect its values and goals?

The academic Left increasingly approaches donor funds with the attitude captured in the old proverb of the selfish spouse: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” Restricted giving from the Right constituted an opportunity to be exploited, while restricted giving from the Left created true and long-lasting partnerships.

I was reminded of this reality by the recent tempest at Florida State University, where the Koch Foundation, quite sensibly, had taken some rather modest steps to ensure that its generous gift to the university was not squandered. In an arrangement approved by the president of the university and by faculty in the economics department, a three-person committee (with one person appointed by the Koch Foundation) reviewed candidates for newly funded faculty positions. So far, two candidates have been hired, both from a list recommended by the faculty.

In response to the foundation’s prudent (and university-approved) safeguard, leftist protesters responded with typical hysterics, and wailed about threats to academic freedom. If academic freedom is the real concern, where is the outrage when foreign governments fund ideologically uniform and sympathetic Middle East Studies departments? Where is the outrage when labor unions fund academic programs that funnel workers directly back into the union?

We’re long past the time when conservative or libertarian donors could trust universities to uphold donor intent. In dealing with the Soviets, Ronald Reagan coined a phrase: “Trust but verify.” With universities, there should be no trust — only verification.

In an era of dwindling state support for public universities, there exists a window of opportunity for intelligent, shrewd giving to make a real difference in breaking the leftist ideological monopoly. But to have any lasting impact, prospective donors should consider a few simple principles:

First, short-term gifts are less susceptible to abuse than endowments or other forms of long-term investment. If the institution is asking for a renewal, it’s going to have to account for its ongoing stewardship of your designated giving. The incentive to comply with donor intent is very real.

Second, for smaller donors, consider investing in ongoing, successful free-market or other conservative or libertarian programs. Don’t waste your donation by dumping your dimes into vast and wasteful general funds.

Third, if your gift is substantial, always consult with legal counsel before signing any grant or donor agreement. Through multiple and longstanding quirks in the law, your ability to safeguard donor intent once the check has been signed and delivered can be quite limited. In fact, of all the calls I’ve received, only once or twice has there been a plausibly actionable legal claim against the offending university, and even then the odds were long.

While there does exist a theoretical danger that overly restrictive giving can compromise academic freedom, conservatives have far too little influence over academia to approach that level of control. Simply put, large public and private universities will not agree to gift terms that cede too much ground to the Right. The danger to academic freedom comes from the University’s close partnership with the Left, where funded programs will often brook no dissent — not by formal agreement, but by expectation and practice.

The Left’s attack on the Koch Foundation is a preemptive strike, an act designed to deter other philanthropists on the right from doing anything other than writing a check and shaking hands. In reality, the Koch–FSU agreement (and resulting controversy) isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s a model to follow.

— David French is a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He contributes regularly to NRO’s Phi Beta Cons blog.


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