Skip navigation
Dispatches on academic freedom

‘Beware of oysters’ and other remedies for donor threats to academic freedom

Ultimately, the three best defences are good policies, good communication and good habits.


Beware when colleagues order oysters!

In my last column, I surveyed some of the threats to academic freedom posed by donor funding. I promised to suggest some remedies in my next one.

As I prepared to make good on that promissory note, I recalled a talk that I gave some years ago to a well-funded inter-university research group. After the talk, they took me to dinner at a good restaurant. Everyone ordered fancy cocktails. Some of the group ordered large quantities of oysters. All of this was on the dime of the research group.

This was new for me. In my own department, we took speakers to restaurants carefully chosen for their affordability, and most attendees other than the speaker had to pay for their own meals. This was different. My host explained that the talk was funded by Koch money; so, attendees were pretty happy to run the bill up.

Read also: The high price of donations

I was shocked. I had spent most of my career in an area (philosophy) that receives precious little outside funding. This talk was one of my first in an area of philosophy that receives more donor attention. When I accepted the invitation to speak, I didn’t ask who the funders were because I was so green. It didn’t occur to me until too late that the talk was sponsored by private funds.

Today, when I receive an invitation to give a talk or contribute a piece of writing, I always do some detective work to see who is funding the initiative. If I wouldn’t be confident and proud to list that funding on my faculty web page or Twitter bio, or in the acknowledgements of my publications, I decline the invitation. Since I wouldn’t put “sponsored by the Koch Foundation” on my business cards, I won’t participate in initiatives they support.

Herewith, as promised, are some other ways to protect academic freedom from the risks and harms that sometimes accompany donations. Ultimately, the three best defences are good policies, good communication and good habits.

Good policies

Professional fundraisers are guided by ethical codes, such as Imagine Canada’s Ethical Fundraising and Financial Accountability Code or, in the United States, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Standards. As well, most universities have good, clear donation policies. In general, those professional and institutional codes and policies aim to protect both donors and beneficiaries from deception, coercion, or other harms.

They also ensure that donations really are gifts and not part of quid pro quo arrangements. In particular, donors ought not to be involved in hires, or in choosing award or grant recipients, or in other operational decisions. If they try to influence how their donation is used, beyond establishing the broad terms of reference for the donation, they are crossing the line. As a friend of mine who also works in higher education recently observed to me about a donation that turned sour: “a gift with strings attached is not a gift – it is a contract.” Good policies make that distinction explicit.

Within universities, as I discussed in my previous column, some donations can threaten academic freedom, collegial governance or institutional autonomy. Thus, the principles in codes like Imagine Canada’s are only half the story. Good university donation policies and procedures should maintain a careful firewall between fundraising and academic governance in order to ensure that neither fundraisers nor donors intervene inappropriately in the academic mission.

My own university’s donations policy makes explicit that the university may decline a gift if the offer is contrary to the best interests of the institution. The policy says gifts can be refused if, for example, they benefit specific individuals, come with financial liabilities that pose a risk to the university, or are “from an individual or organization whose philosophy and values are inconsistent with the overall philosophy and values of the university.”

With respect to that final category, it is crucial that collegially appointed academic leaders like chairs, deans and provosts – or collegial bodies like university senate – are meaningfully engaged in deliberations about whether a donation aligns with the university’s academic mission, philosophy and values. Further, when there is any tension between the academic mission and a donation, the academic mission must prevail. Thus, for instance, a gift ought not to come with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) if that NDA would interfere with the ethical conduct of research.

Other university policies that are essential to avoiding inappropriate donor influence relate to the job security of university personnel. Precarious and pre-tenure academic staff can sometimes feel as though they need to fundraise themselves into job security. It is important to have fair promotion and tenure standards that do not put any pressure on untenured members to directly or indirectly engage in fundraising. Academic staff should also have the academic freedom to critique donations to the university without fear of reprisal.

Good communication

In an article last spring, Nathan M. Greenfield documented improper donor influence at various North American colleges and universities. He pointed out that all of the institutions he discussed “are either developing or have strongly written policies designed to prevent undue donor influence.” That is, merely having good policies isn’t enough. Those policies must actually be followed. A huge part of ensuring that donation policies are followed comes down to good communication.

Universities are complicated organizations. Many university employees are highly specialized and siloed from members of other units. Very often, the administrative side and the academic side don’t fully understand each other’s roles or values. Academic administrators like chairs, deans and directors sometimes hold their positions for only three to five years and don’t get much formal orientation into those positions. In that context, it is easy for personnel to be confused or uninformed about policies.

It is important to support good ongoing training and conversations for university personnel to ensure that members on both the development side and the academic side understand each other’s roles and maintain good, healthy boundaries. Without the right training and boundaries, a development officer might quite innocently pass a donor’s suggestion on to a dean. In turn, without the right training and boundaries, the dean might be inclined to act on that suggestion. This pair of missteps risks compromising academic freedom, embarrassing the university, and embarrassing the donor.

Universities operate quite differently from other kinds of organizations. So, they can be pretty mystifying to donors who come from outside of academia. Very often, those donors are excited about contributing to the university financially and do not understand the ways in which their enthusiasm can lead them to inadvertently cross a line. It is the duty of development officers and senior administrators to orient prospective donors to university norms. Pointing a donor to a strong university donation policy can help them to understand the reasons why the university cannot accept their suggestions for hires or invite them to serve on search committees, etc. Good policies allow university personnel to say to prospective donors: “We’re so grateful, and we love that you’re passionate and want to get involved, but we are bound by this policy, and here is why that is important.”

Throughout this section, I have been assuming good intent by all involved in a donation. But as Dr. Greenfield documents and as I discussed in my last column, we must also reckon with some donors’ ill intentions. Good conversations can help to get at the truth about possible funding sources. Those of us touched by scholarly donations should ask probing questions about the source and purpose of the funding, and we should beware of evasive replies.

A few months ago, I was invited to be involved in an interesting opportunity with a U.S.-based agency that seemed to be doing good work. I did my due diligence and worked through online materials about them to see where their funding came from. I learned that one of their funders was Stand Together, also known as the Koch Network. I wrote back to the executive director, shared my concerns about accepting Koch funding, and asked how much Koch funding the agency receives and why it chooses to accept it. She gave me a vague, milquetoast reply to the second question and evaded answering the first question. So, I declined the invitation, sharing my reasons for declining in the hopes that if enough of us object to the agency’s relationship with the Koch Network, they’ll rethink it.

Good habits

That example illustrates some of the good habits that I think are essential in reducing the risks associated with donor funding:

  • Do the research;
  • Trace the funding source of the funding source (funding agencies are often Russian nesting dolls!);
  • Make your concerns explicit;
  • Call on others to do the same.

Ultimately, you are responsible – morally responsible! – for the funding support you accept, either individually or on behalf of your unit or institution. At a time when many universities and scholars are struggling, it can be tempting to accept any funding that presents itself and to tell yourself that you won’t be corrupted by it, that you’ll use it for good and not evil. However, it can be easy to fall prey to rationalization and self-deception when money is on the line.

Here are three heuristics that I recommend to ensure that you are taking the high ground. Ask yourself:

  • Would I want the details of this decision in a national news story?
  • Would I feel confident about this donation if someone submitted a freedom of information request for all the emails?
  • Would I have this conversation on speaker phone with witnesses present?

As important as good policies, conversations, and habits are, in the end, universities will remain vulnerable so long as they are forced to seek private ad hoc support for scholarship. I am grateful for donors of good will who seek to strengthen and support the academic mission of universities. However, when governments cut higher education funding and force us to seek private support, they put us in harm’s way. The best protection against the harms that can accompany some donations is strong, stable public funding for universities.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *