No blank check for donor intent 

When has a donor overstepped the line? When are “strings attached” no longer appropriate? And when do the “strings” constitute a violation of academic freedom that gives outsiders inappropriate control over what happens in the university?

Those aren’t usually “watercooler” topics. But they are being debated these days in light of recent publicity surrounding a gift agreement between the Charles G. Koch Foundation and Florida State University.

It is obvious that the gift has become controversial because it just happens to come from one Charles Koch — the American left’s least-favorite billionaire.

In this particular case, Koch agreed to fund economics professors at FSU on the condition that an advisory committee — mutually agreed to by the department and the foundation — vet and approve a pool of eligible candidates.

Now, because of hostile press coverage, the gift is under attack, with some faculty members claiming Koch has violated their academic freedom. Who is right? And what is a donor to do?

These are questions that drive the second edition of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving,” hot off the presses.

Colleges rightly reject efforts to make them comply with someone’s particular political, religious or personal agenda. But donors rightly do not want to support programs they don’t believe in. After all, it is their money.

Universities like FSU have come up with a solution. So long as the university retains the ability to appoint faculty, a donor has the right to provide advice.

The university can accept the advice or reject it. If it agrees with the donor, the donor’s money will be available. If it doesn’t, then the university is free to make the appointment with its own funds.

In the case of FSU, three economists — including two FSU economics professors — serve on an advisory committee agreed to by the foundation.

They review and select eligible candidates for FSU’s final decision. The university’s established procedures for promotion and tenure will apply to those appointments, just like any other. Thus, donors advise, the university decides.

Did Koch put some strings on the gift? Sure he did. And are there approaches that would have aligned better with customary academic practice? Yes, and those are outlined in the “Donor’s Guide.” But “strings” are, as the late Yale Provost Frank Turner wrote, “the lifelines that link colleges and universities to the marketplace of ideas within a democratic society.”

Alumni and foundations can identify opportunities that students ought to have — and provide for them. If the university disagrees, or doesn’t like the string, it is always free to decline the dollars.

Academic protocols such as shared governance and academic freedom exist for a reason, and donors should not violate these norms. But there have been simply too many cases of donors’ intent thwarted or ignored — as pointed out in “The Intelligent Donor’s Guide.”

The day has long since passed when a blank check makes sense.

John Horak is an attorney with Reid and Riege and advised the American Council of Trustees and Alumni on “The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving,” available for free download at goACTA.org.

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John Horak

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