Monday, June 18, 2012

The Abusive Power of Philanthropy: Myth or Reality?

I stopped for a moment to read about the mess going on at the University of Viginia over on Slate this afternoon to find this interesting tidbit on the price colleges, universities and other institutions may have to pay as they are increasingly deprived of state funding and become more dependent on private altruism for their survival.  In case you have not heard, the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors suddenly and without warning fired President Teresa Sullivan.  Apparently, Sullivan had an unknown enemy in the person of Board Rector (or chairperson), Helen Dragas.  Why Ms. Dragas harbors such antipathy to UVA's first woman President remains a mystery but according to a whole slew of media reports, it was Helen Dragas who engineered the vote that led to President Sullivan's firing, all at the behest of wealthy UVA alum and donor, Peter Kiernan .  What I found fascinating in a Slate op-ed piece was this observation: 

So as tuition peaks and federal support dries up, the only stream still flowing is philanthropy. Our addiction to philanthropy carries great costs as well as benefits to public higher education in America. We are hooked on it because we have no choice. Either we beg people for favors or our research grinds to a halt and we charge students even more. I am complicit in this. I enthusiastically help raise money for the university. And my salary is subsidized by a generous endowment from board member Tim Robertson, son of the Rev. Pat Robertson.

The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. So too often an institution that is supposed to set its priorities based on the needs of a state or the needs of the planet instead alters its profile and curriculum to reflect the whims of the wealthy. Fortunately this does not happen often, and the vast majority of donors simply want to give back to the institutions that gave them so much. They ask nothing in return and admire the work we do. But it happens often enough to significantly undermine any sense of democratic accountability for public institutions.

True altruism hardly exists.  There is always a price to be paid.  Apparently, Kiernan thought he had purchased the power to hire and fire UVA's president via his "tax deductible checks" to UVA.  One supposes that the same power might apply all the way down to the hiring of Dean's and even faculty.  Now this is really fascinating, the argument that as state subsidization of public colleges and universities dry up, higher education stakeholders will become increasingly "addicted" to philanthropy -- I always thought philanthropy was a good thing, but asserting an addiction to philanthropy in perjorative terms is like suggesting moderate daily exercise is a bad thing.  And that addiction will make colleges and universities beholden to private foundations.  I have heard this argument before.  Anyway, the writer, a professor at UVA, goes on to suggest that larger donors will increasingly be able to dictate what happens on college campuses and, inevitably, this will lead to the ruination of higher education.  Apparently, though, stakeholder outrage is causing a serious backlash against the power-grab, according to a recent post on the Washington Post Blog.  Big donors and their surrogates are backtracking and apologizing all over the place.  In fact, President Sullivan appears to be in a stronger position now than she was before "big donor" attempted the coup.  It is too soon to start articulating the proverbial "moral of the story," but it appears that philanthropy, itself, is not the problem; that is, there is nothing inherent about philanthropy that ought to make us suspicious.  Indeed, it is more likely that the unabashed chutzpah that donor's sometimes mistakenly assume is justified by their philanathropy will not be tolerated.  So, let's not start adding to the already existing morass of rules and regulations pertaining to private foundations.  It seems to me that the drama will play itself out to a correct conclusion, whatever that may be. 



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