Higher Ed’s Dirty-Money Problem!

Dear Commons Community,

Nell Gluckman has an in-depth article in The Chronicle of Higher Education examining the problem of big money gifts and their influence in colleges and universities.  She questions the position of many administrators that “the money is taken for noble ends.” 

She reviews the complexity of the problem as:

“In the modern university, all sources of money, be they gifts from donors, corporate grants, or investments, can be tainted in some way. As one headline after another exposes unsavory billionaires and corrupt companies, students, faculty members, and alumni say their colleges’ sources of funding should reflect better values. They are demanding that universities take responsibility for their role in laundering wealthy philanthropists’ reputations and allowing outside influence on research…

…The intensity around this has amplified over the last nine months, starting with the Varsity Blues scandal, the Sacklers, and Jeffrey Epstein,” says Fritz W. Schroeder, the vice president for development and alumni relations at the Johns Hopkins University. “It is going to be with us for a period of time.”

So how should colleges recalibrate their standards? Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote a post on Medium defending Joi Ito, the former director of the MIT Media Lab, where Epstein directed money. Lessig said that he’d advised Ito to accept the gifts anonymously because it would prevent Epstein from using the MIT connection to burnish his reputation — something he was able to do anyway. In hindsight, Lessig said he was mistaken. The post was widely condemned.

Lessig laid out four different types of donors: Good people who earned their money in an innocuous way, good people who earned their money from companies whose ethics are “ambiguous,” criminal or immoral people who earned their money harmlessly, and people whose money comes from criminal or immoral means. 

The truth is, Lessig said, universities accept all four types. He proposed banning the third and the fourth types, but acknowledged that people will disagree about who fits into which category.”

In my opinion, colleges and universities should stay  away from all of these “pay-for-play” donors.  However, given the financial squeeze of so many of our institutions, it is easy to see the attractiveness of these gifts.


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