Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Educational Tax-Exempt Status = Academic Freedom

In September 25 letters to the presidents of Duke, Harvard, and Villanova universities and Sarah Lawrence College, Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley raised concerns and sought information on the current culture of academic freedom on their respective campuses.  In a recent op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal Grassley raised concerns about the current state of academic freedom in higher education, opining that students' demand for "safety" from "harm" is eroding academic freedom and the very point of higher education.  In each of the letters Grassley elaborated further:

Unfortunately, over the past year I have read a variety of media reports discussing incidents in higher education involving faculty suffering difficulties with or expressing concerns about teaching or researching topics that might challenge or encourage critical thinking about the conventional wisdom or a popular ideology of the day. . .  Students who can work and think critically for themselves are best equipped to tackle the most difficult challenges we face and participate fully and effectively in our democracy. 

A fundamental piece of this democracy-enabling purpose is that college and university professors should be free to teach and research – and students should be free to learn – to the best of their abilities in defiance of an undiscerning "instinct to believe what others do."  The United States’ higher education has long been the envy of the world for its ability to do just that. This letter respectfully requests information regarding the university’s commitment to creating such an educational environment in which its faculty can teach topics and take positions on matters that defy conventional wisdom and challenge orthodoxies in necessary but perhaps uncomfortable ways. . . .

With respect to tax-exempt status, Grassley quoted Bob Jones University vs. United States:  "Charitable exemptions are justified on the basis that the exempt entity confers a public benefit -- a benefit which the society or community may not itself choose or be able to provide, or which supplements and advances the work of public institutions already supported by tax revenues."  He further agreed with a description of tax-exempt purpose as to higher education being "fundamental to fostering the productive and civic capacity of [the Nation's] citizens."

The requested responses from the four institutions are due by October 25, 2019.

[See also Tax Notes dated September 30, 2019, Tax-Exempt Higher Ed Must Allow Academic Freedom]

Nicholas Mirkay

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/nonprofit/2019/10/tax-exempt-status-academic-freedom.html

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