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When politics & philanthropy collide on campus

July 26, 2019

In an era of heightened political divide, leaders in the higher education profession find themselves walking a fine line in attempting to remain apolitical.  The political divide continues to widen between many of those who make large contributions to their favorite schools, and those voices of public opinion emanating from the ranks of academe and the student body. 
 
It struck me during my own twenty-year tenure in higher education how some university administrators willingly condoned a restriction of free speech. Some public speakers were approved, because their political views were closely related to those among the faculty and student activists. However, other speakers were banned, boycotted, harassed, or cancelled if their views weren’t in sync with the same groups.  
 
Higher Education should be a forum where differing opinions are welcomed, debated, and yet respected. Not vilified or restricted. 
 
I am reminded of the wisdom of the late Dr. Henry King Stanford, president emeritus of the University of Georgia and the University of Miami. Dr. Stanford liked to state, “The mission of a college or university is to arouse the curiosity of their students, helping them learn how to ask questions. It is not to tell them what to think, but to teach them how to think for themselves.” Stanford continued, “The role of higher education is not to open up a student’s head and pour in the knowledge. The role is to encourage them to seek the knowledge for themselves.”  
 
I recently read the biography of a founder of one of Georgia’s private colleges. It appeared evident to me that this person clearly had both feet on the “right side” of the political fence. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What would they think about “Safe Spaces” and “counseling services for students who were traumatized by the 2016 presidential election? 
 
Really? Have we reached a point in American society where college students need professional counseling as a result of a presidential election? Shouldn’t we be teaching them to face life’s challenges, rather 
than coddle them when things don’t go their way? People don’t receive participation trophies in the game of life.  
 
College should be a formative time when young men and women grow up, learn to face life’s challenges, and mature into adults. Sometimes in life, your team wins—sometimes they lose. Instead, some in higher education seem to be playing the role of indoctrinator and babysitter. 
 
Regardless of your political position, I ‘ve always believed that politics and religion don’t make for good luncheon conversations among strangers. I knew the political perspective of a supporter to an institution that was sitting across the table from me at a recent luncheon. We heard a vice president of the university in a rather animated political commentary. I wondered how the supporter felt when the university vice president opined political views diametrically opposed to the donor’s… so, I changed the subject.  
 
There are numerous stories where faculty, staff, and administrations get crossways with its donor base. This is nothing new in higher education, but the public discourse has changed.  
 
Interestingly enough, the University of Alabama recently returned a $21 million gift to a donor who was inserting himself into the operations of the School of Law where he’d directed his gift. Furthermore, the donor wanted the university to protest a recent a law passed by the Alabama legislature. Correctly, the university determined that it is not their mission to weigh in on the legislature’s voting habits. That is actually the role of the courts. A contributor doesn’t “buy” the right to immerse themselves into the operations of the institution. 
 
By contrast, I am reminded of the Dartmouth case, when a donor gave $5 million to endow a chair in American history. Dartmouth accepted the gift on his conditions, but abjectly failed to abide by them. The donor sued Dartmouth for his donation, and the court agreed with the donor. Dartmouth breached its agreement, and was forced to return the gift.  
 
Few of us ever want to get into a public squabble with a donor over the use of their philanthropy. Returning a $5 million gift, or a $21 million 
gift is not healthy for fundraising, and it certainly may have a ripple effect on the public’s perception of the university.   
 
In an earlier era, we could agree that we disagree on an issue. Some of my best friends have vastly different political views than I do. However, we’re still close friends. Today, with 24-7 cable news and online political blogs, it seems that those who yell the loudest are the only ones who get heard.  
 
Donors who give large contributions rarely give them unfettered. There are usually some strings attached. Part of the job of the institution’s president and the vice president of advancement is to make sure that the expectations of the donor, and the ability to accept a gift with ethical and legal restrictions, are indeed copacetic.
 
 
 
Wesley K. Wicker, Ed.D. is a partner and principal of Columns Fundraising, LLC, a full-service consulting firm headquartered in Atlanta. You may contact him at wes@columnsfundraising.com. Wicker earned his Doctor of Education at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, M.Ed. in History from Georgia Southwestern State University and a B.A. in History from the University of Alabama

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