Donations with Strings Attached

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article entitled: Strings Attached. In the article, author Rick Seltzer details a large donation ($40 million) given by Michael and Marian Ilitch to Wayne State University. The donation, given by the founders of Little Caesars Pizza’s, has caused controversy because of stipulations in the donor agreement that would potentially give the donors undue influence in several areas of the university. The contract stipulates that the business school built with donated funds will carry the Ilitch name in perpetuity, something the article notes is uncommon, as well as stipulations on how much the dean of the business school should be paid. Most controversially, the donor agreement “calls for Wayne State to meet with the Ilitches or their foundation at their request to consult on the curriculum of the business school, its strategic plan or ‘other aspects of the educational experience.'”

Given these stipulations, there has been, quite naturally, questions among university staff and faculty about the potential influence the Ilitch’s could have on curricula and fear that this could lead to an infringement of academic freedom. It is easy to see how accepting large amounts of money with strings attached from donors, any donors, can create at the very least a perception that independence will be damaged. Even without explicit language that donors have a say in how organizations operate, large donations have the potential to influence policy and practice. We are currently witnessing this debate play out in the political arena as well.

Illuminating such a case in action, the article cites an example from Yale University, which returned a donation of $20 million because the donors had requested approval of faculty members for certain courses. This seems to be clearly an infringement of academic freedom. Whether the Wayne State case will turn out to be as well remains to be seen. However, the potential for such infringement is large, in my opinion. The Ilitches have made money in a particular way with a particular business model. Yet theirs is hardly the only way an enterprise can or should be organized. It is easy to imagine that input from the Ilitches would be slanted toward their own business model, pushing aside valid and perhaps better alternatives.

It is hard for me to see why a donor should have any input on curricula or other “aspects of the educational experience,” particularly at a public institution such as Wayne State. Public institutions are, ostensibly, accountable democratically to citizens and not to private donors. Furthermore, donors are not necessarily experts in education, pedagogy, or specifically in teaching in a college classroom. Though there are examples of private foundations effectively setting education policy through their ability to direct large sums of money toward particular models, this does not mean that this is an effective or, equally importantly, democratic way to set policy.

If the Ilitches want their name on a building, I don’t have any problem with that. But, their influence should not extend into university buildings.

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