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Donations should not be conditional on student speech

A tiger statue is seen in front of the orange and green trees.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

In the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, many wealthy donors have pulled or threatened to pull their donations to Ivy League schools. A non-profit organization founded by billionaire Leslie Wexler announced it is breaking ties with Harvard University, arguing that it cannot support an administration that has been “tiptoeing” around the issue of terrorist attacks. Similarly, at the University of Pennsylvania, former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman condemned the university’s “silence” about the attacks, and said he would halt his family’s donations to the school. Princeton has largely steered clear of this controversy at the moment because of President Christopher Eisgruber’s forceful denunciation of Hamas’ attacks, as Aidan Gouley ’27 noted in a recent column. However, watching the monetary fallout of political turmoil at other schools should cause both donors and the administration to reevaluate how much influence wealthy individuals should have on Princeton’s operation and educational mission. 

Donors can, and always should, have the ability to donate or withhold their money to any organization or university — it is their money, and they get to choose how to spend it. However, when evaluating the decision to make a donation, donors should not factor in student opinions on controversial issues. Rather, donors to Princeton and peer institutions must understand that the University’s commitment to free speech, free expression, and academic freedom will inevitably lead to students expressing views that donors don’t agree with. Rather than resent this fact, donors should be proud of the fact that they are donating to a university that prioritizes free speech and academic freedom. 

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The University’s gift policy states very clear guidelines on what donors can and cannot expect to influence with their money. Gifts to the University do not provide donors with any say over the use or administration of their gifts, and thus cannot be made in order to impact the direction of the university. This is good policy on Princeton’s part: In order to remain committed to academic freedom, the administration cannot be beholden to the wishes of donors. Recent complaints have made it clear how crucial this policy is: A large donor argued in a recent article that Eisgruber has not fulfilled his wishes for how he wants his money to be used, expressing that he thought his donation made it so the University should prioritize his desires over their commitment to academic freedom. In order to avoid situations like these, the University ought to be wise about which donations they accept and ensure that all donors understand what their donation does and does not entitle them to. 

It’s true, however, that universities fail to foster a commitment to academic freedom in their donors by issuing statements on various controversial social issues themselves — Princeton included. Princeton takes sides and adopts official positions on so many controversies (such as police brutality, the war in Ukraine, and affirmative action) that when it fails to adopt an official position on a controversy, or adopt positions that don’t align with donors, it causes problems. Donors come to expect certain politics from the University and may believe that their donations further those commitments, becoming rightfully angry when those stances change or become inconsistent.

Further, by taking official positions on issues, universities such as Princeton indicate to donors and students alike that the preservation of free speech and expression is secondary to expressing the opinions of the administration. This process further stifles student expression by suggesting that the right answer has already been decided — no need for student input or critical thought.

It suggests that universities do not allow students the freedom to figure out the correct answer for themselves. This leads to donor unhappiness, as donors will come to believe that they support a school for its politics, not its educational commitments. When Harvard and UPenn hesitated to issue statements about the Hamas terrorist attacks after making quick statements about police brutality and the Russia-Ukraine war, donors assumed the worst and became incensed at the delay in condemning terrorism. Ivy League universities would better serve themselves by adopting the University of Chicago’s approach. Based on its 1967 Kalven Report, UChicago expresses the view that “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Using this approach, universities should remove themselves from controversies and allow the students to speak their minds and present their views.

Once a university demonstrates its commitment to freedom of thought among students, it can expect the same commitment in its donors in better faith. Donors need to understand that Princeton students are growing, learning, and making mistakes as they go and Princeton’s job is to foster that learning and critical thinking. Princeton’s success at accomplishing its underlying mission of promoting academic freedom, which enables rigorous pursuit of the truth, should be the criteria donors use to determine whether to give money. This should remain the criteria even if it means students will sometimes voice viewpoints that donors disagree with, and if students occasionally make statements that are emotionally charged, uninformed, and flat-out wrong. While donors, of course, have the right to withhold their money from universities because they don’t like what their students say, they would be better served by remembering the role of the university is not to solve political controversies, but to teach students how to think and problem solve for themselves. Donors honor Princeton’s mission by following the adage attributed to Voltaire: “While I disagree with what you say, I will defend to your death your right to say it.” 

So far Princeton has dodged the donor controversy that has plagued other Ivies on the Israel-Palestine issue largely because of the administration’s forceful denunciation of Hamas. However, I believe that all universities that issue policy statements on every social issue do so at their own peril. As the controversy with Harvard and Penn has shown, issuing statements (or not) will eventually lead to problems with donors. Just because Princeton evaded donor unhappiness in this situation does not mean that they will avoid controversy with future issues. Princeton would better serve itself, its students, and its donors by remaining neutral on controversial social issues and letting students think and speak for themselves. Donors can take pride in the fact that by donating to a university that lets the students speak for themselves, they are serving Princeton’s commitment to academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. 

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Jackson Baldrate is a first-year columnist from McLean, Virginia intending to major in economics. He can be reached by email at jb1837@princeton.edu.

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