re: Donor Intent

Inside Higher Ed sets up the story with an incomplete description of the “long established norms” in higher-ed giving:

Long established norms in higher education restrict the things a donor may demand as a condition of a gift. A donor can endow a chair, but not specify who is hired to fill it. A donor can create a scholarship, but not name the recipient, and so forth.

In theory, all sides of a controversy that broke out at Florida State University this week agree on the above stated principles. But an agreement the university made with a foundation in 2008 has become the subject of intense debate. The agreement created a donor-approved advisory board for a gift to support the economics department. The advisory board can’t appoint anyone to a faculty slot or set up a new academic program, but it can veto a hire paid for with foundation funds.

Long-established norms have also allowed for quite explicit restrictions on gifts. Indeed, for centuries, donors have been giving restricted gifts to universities — gifts for Christian lecture series, for building stadiums, for studying free markets, for creating schools of diplomacy, and for many, many other things. These gifts are typically given after a series of seemingly sincere promises by university officials, often include detailed grant “agreements” (I use the scare quotes because quirks of the law often render these agreements non-binding), and can sometimes represent the bulk of a donor’s wealth, accumulated through a lifetime of work.

Donors are increasingly aware that universities routinely (and unfortunately) perform a bait and switch. Grants to study free markets create self-sustaining hives of academic Marxists, gifts to create Christian lecture series turn into annual celebrations of atheism, and grandchildren watch in horror as their grandparents’ wealth is used to fund, advance, and sustain values their grandparents would find abhorrent. Simply put, the ideological monoculture has proven that it can’t be trusted with donor money, so savvy foundations are looking for ways to fund education without funding indoctrination.

The Koch Foundation’s veto authority is a sensible restriction given higher education’s mendacious past. The Left, however, is outraged — sensing that its self-created “right” to limitless funding is under attack. But they don’t have a right to limitless autonomy; there is only a tradition. The Left has abused this tradition to the point where conservative donors who follow the old practices are simply throwing their money away. Actually, it’s worse than throwing money away: Conservative higher-ed donors are actively funding the other side.

Given this reality, it’s tough to dispute the Koch Foundation’s reasoning. Here’s Ryan Stowers, the foundation’s program director for higher education:

“There are many examples in higher education where donor intent is altered or ignored,” Stowers said. “For this reason, most of our gifts to colleges and universities are given over short time spans. This provides both the university and the donor more flexibility in their relationship. It also mitigates the risk of donor intent being misconstrued over long periods of time.” (The agreement with Florida State is for six years.)

Stowers said that he believed that the agreement with Florida State was “transparent” and promoted academic freedom. But he also stressed the foundation’s need to watch how its grants are used. “We believe that donors, especially charitable foundations that are legally required to expend funds in furtherance of their charitable mission, should care about how their money is used and that they should structure their gifts accordingly.”

Nicely said. Conservative philanthropists would be well-advised to follow the Koch Foundation’s example.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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