Donors Beware

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

What colleges do to donors takes “biting the hand that feeds you” to a whole new level of tetanus. “The last two decades have seen a number of major cases in which the intent of the donor has been subverted,” Martin Morse Wooster writes in the study Games Universities Play: And How Donors Can Avoid Them.

In 1991, for example, the Bass Foundation sought a refund from Yale when that university proved reluctant to create a Western Civilization course that Lee Bass, a 1979 graduate of the school, wanted to inaugurate. Similarly, the heirs of businessman Shelby Cullom Davis went to court in 1979, to make sure that the beneficiary of his largesse—Trinity College—maintained the course in free market economics he desired.

“Although donor intent is not necessarily a political issue and has no inherent political label, those most concerned about donor intent are often conservatives and libertarians,” Wooster observes. “Recognizing that most college campuses are dominated by leftist thinking, they often want to use their funds to provide ideological balance and thus are sensitive to the possibility that faculty and administrators could attempt to misuse their funds.”

The urge to divert, though, extends well beyond ideology. Art collections bequeathed to universities have been sold off when the donors expected them to be preserved there.  As well, buildings have been bulldozed and whole schools swallowed up by larger institutions of higher learning, when donors expected them to remain independent.

Wooster suggests a number of strategies donors can follow to avoid these traps:

  • Don’t give in perpetuity. Within 30 years after a donor’s death, the donor’s funds could end up controlled by people who prefer to abandon his or her intentions and spend money on causes they prefer.”(Italics in original).
  • State your instructions as specifically as possible and assume that a college will abrogate your wishes by any means necessary.”
  • “Recognize the limits of donor power. Donors cannot tell professors what to teach or how to teach.”
  • Be entrepreneurial. Find schools with programs you like and introduce yourself to professors.”
  • Don’t limit your gifts to a college. Many nonprofits are trying to help students achieve a good grounding in freemarket economics and traditional virtues.”

Wooster, a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is a veteran journalist who has authored several books. Games Universities Play was published by The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

(Full disclosure: Wooster, a friend of two and a half decades, credits me in the introduction.)

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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