The most influential American universities rely on the generous philanthropic donations of powerful corporations and individuals to thrive. Most of the time, it is safe to say the root of those donations stem from the belief in the value of the receiving institution. Societal growth increasingly relies on education through exposing citizens to new ideas, while providing the means to enact global change with that knowledge. Besides simply equipping students for professional success, education sets the foundation for individuals’ morals and ideals.
Ideally, philanthropy would always come from a place of genuine selflessness, yet it also inherently serves as a way to empower the donor. That, of course, is not necessarily bad—I tend to believe most people are inherently good—but it muddies the waters of the donor’s power over an institution in shaping its operations, values, and social sphere. Universities should not just blindly accept large donations for the sake of money, but should be mindful of what the donor represents, their ethics, and how their presence could affect the school as a whole.
While philanthropy “might seem an uncontroversially good thing, a mechanism for the wealthy to return some of their wealth to society,” describes Stanford scholar Robert Reich, “philanthropy is an exercise in power—the direction of the private assets of wealthy people toward some public influence … Too often philanthropy is not just giving.”
The extent of consideration when accepting a donor’s money can thus seem unclear—I propose universities should be more transparent about how and from whom they accept money. Analyzing that other end of the exchange should hold just as much weight as the money itself. Foreign governments can employ philanthropy as a type of political act. In this case, what is being exchanged becomes even more unclear.
A stark example of when to reject philanthropy resides in the donations in Saudi Arabian financial ties to U.S. universities. Saudi Arabia has given to dozens of U.S. universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As reported by The New York Times in 2018, MIT students rose in collective protest against the Saudi Prince’s campus visit, by “calling attention to the Saudi state’s financial ties to MIT—and at least 62 other American universities—at a time when the regime’s bombing of civilians in a war in neighboring Yemen and its crackdown on domestic dissidents were being condemned by human rights activists.”
Around that same time, Saudi Arabia signed three contracts with MIT for a total of $23 million relating to research projects. Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, among others, were also recipients of Saudi Arabian money. The country funneled about $650 million to Ameican universities between 2012 to 2018—why were American universities not questioning why such a corrupt government would want to support landmarks of democracy and liberation?
Some people may not see a problem with colleges accepting the Saudi government’s philanthropy— money is money, right? But more thought needs to be devoted to the long-term effects of such a donation. The country benefits massively, reaping in heaps of soft power. As Michael Sokolove writes in The New York Times, “Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, hostile to women’s and L.G.B.T.Q. rights and without protections for a free press or open expression, but its associations beyond its borders can make it seem almost like an honorary Western nation.” Its philanthropic acts serve, in part, to soften its image and to turn attention away from these egregious human rights violations.
Richard Lester, an associate provost who oversees MIT’s foreign partnerships, spoke out against Saudi Arabian suppression of human rights. Referring to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Lester addressed Saudi influence as “an unwelcome and unsettling intrusion into our space, even though evident only in retrospect.” This is exactly what schools need to be careful of. Those who fund schools are inserting their wishes, their interests, and themselves into the institution—whether it be beneficial or detrimental, as in the case of MIT.
After the news of Khashoggi’s murder broke, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, released a pressing editorial addressing Saudi involvement at Harvard. The Crimson wrote, “By associating itself with the Saudi regime, Harvard—one of the best universities in the world—runs the risk of legitimizing both the authoritarian nature of the regime and the brutal policies it carries out abroad. By continuing to strengthen this relationship, Harvard turns a blind eye to Saudi atrocities.”
Saudi Arabia’s donations to such prominent schools may seem like an outlier example, but the underlying sentiments relate to all types of university philanthropy. Schools need to weigh the long-term benefits of a donation with who gains influence on their campus. The values of a school should never be compromised for a donation. Unconditional donations have been increasingly championed as a way to reduce paternalism.
That said, if universities began to reject donations based on blemishes in a person’s life or professional work, schools would never receive any funding. Every person makes mistakes and people are multifaceted. Especially in such a politically polarized time, institutions must remain cautious of pressures to reject donations that could greatly benefit the student body based on individual political views. However, there are some moral failures that cannot be ignored, and my above example stands as one.
I simply urge colleges, including Boston College, to keep the influence and special interests of donors in mind when accepting donations. BC was not named as one of the recipients of the Saudi government’s money, but can still learn from others’ mistakes. Maybe BC’s unique incorporation of ethics and messages like “Men and Women for Others” already instills the values I have urged other prominent American universities to follow regarding philanthropy. BC does not publicly release information about its investments, so at this time, I cannot render judgement on the University about this topic. This, however, does not exclude BC from its moral obligation to police its funding sources.
Philanthropy creates so many new opportunities for education, but when it’s not properly aligned with a university’s values, it can have unforeseen effects and moral implications. The integrity of American education should rise above all else—the preservation of our society, and our colleges, depend on it.