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Who gets to pick what we study?

robertson 2 Angel Kuo.JPG
Robertson Hall, the home of the School of Public and International Affairs. 
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

National attention on higher education feels like it’s constantly increasing, with the spotlight shining especially brightly upon elite institutions. It should come as no surprise that after years of casting themselves as the makers of future world leaders, Ivy League schools succeeded in convincing America that they are, indeed, important. When the education of the next generation of presidents, billionaires, and business leaders is on the line, it’s reasonable to expect that the current ruling class would want a say. While this interference can manifest through democratic processes — from campaign threats about taxing endowments to federal investigations over student life — it’s private influence that seems to be sparking the most concern inside universities themselves. Donations to universities take place out of the public eye, with the decisions of a few affecting the lives of a large community. But should this form of behind-the-doors influence be a cause for concern?

This question is playing out in real time at the University of Pennsylvania. In early December, billionaire Marc Rowan emailed Penn’s Board of Trustees a set of 18 questions intended to help the group reconsider Penn’s future in light of the resignation of former president Liz Magill. Last week, professors rallied in opposition to his apparent interference in determining the nature of the university. Dr. Amy Offner, a history professor, worried that this represented the growing “national assault on higher education, an assault organized by billionaires, lobbying organizations, and politicians.” This so-called “anti-democratic” trend, she claimed, seeks to undermine what are classically considered necessities to promote intellectual flourishing and the unencumbered pursuit of truth: faculty freedom to explore and teach according to their judgment, and freedom to self-govern accordingly.

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Yet philanthropic interventions are no less democratic than any other ways in which a university is governed. Indeed, academia is rife with impositions from non-intellectuals. Singling out donors for their interference is not a fruitful endeavor for protecting the cause of intellectual freedom. Instead, academics must demand from university leadership a commitment to scholarly self-governance and systems of administrative management that form donor relationships designed to support academic inquiry.

While imagining the university as a democratic bastion falling under the pressure of the big bad billionaire might make for a pretty picture, it’s far from the truth. After all, as many have recently noted, no one votes the presidents in or out. At Princeton, for example, presidents, deans, and charter trustees are appointed by a small group and not democratically elected, which is to say nothing of the countless administrators who guide student life despite not necessarily being scholars. It’s not the donors that academics should be concerned with, but university administrations themselves. 

The private nature of university administrations makes complaints that donors are outsiders impinging on a democracy all the more perplexing. At the Penn faculty protest, a sign declared “Hands off our university” in the photo accompanying the coverage in The New York Times. This posits a well-defined university community — something which certainly does not exist. “Our” includes far more than those involved in intellectual life — such as the myriad staff groups making research and learning possible —  and it’s not at all clear that a donor can reasonably be excluded from this. Prior to forming a philanthropic partnership, a wealthy individual is nothing more than one more outsider perspective. But upon accepting their generosity (which a university is under no obligation to do), they are recognized as sharing in the mission of the university, and thus becoming a member of its community. For all the claims that donors are “external to the university functions,” they enable many of those functions in the first place.

To cry foul when donors attempt to use their money for a cause they value fails to correctly identify those who are acting unjustly. Why shouldn’t someone use their money for their own purposes? Rather than blame billionaires for failing to meet standards of behavior that don’t actually exist, academics must realize that they are being failed instead by the leaders of their intellectual communities who create conditions under which academic freedom can be challenged in the first place. It’s time to let go of the pretense that universities always tend toward the good, so long as these mean outsiders can be shaken off. In fact, it’s the governing systems that allow non-scholars — be they donors or administrators — to make decisions about educational direction and missions that threaten academic freedom the most. 

The nebulous nature of the university is obvious to anyone willing to look close enough. While academic freedom may be upheld as a sacred sphere needing absolute protection, the truth is that there is no such total separation. By determining when to give their money, and to which projects, donors exert influence over academic policy all the time. Princeton is no different: While the gift policy states that donations must respect the “fundamental commitment to academic freedom,” donors are permitted to include a “gift purpose” favoring the support of one cause over another. Such gifts can result in a prioritization of certain avenues by which to pursue knowledge. 

While allowing influence that prefers one type of inquiry to another doesn’t contradict a commitment to academic freedom, which simply entails the instructor’s freedom to “investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field,” it can certainly constrain (or at least fail to diversify or expand) the academics available to freely study. This necessitates careful guidance from university leaders, working alongside academics engaging in that inquiry, to ensure that the donations accepted highlight appropriate areas of research and instruction areas.

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Donations make all sorts of study possible, from providing housing for students to freely explore their interests to sharing collections of knowledge and art for humanistic exploration. In forming relationships with donors, it’s imperative that universities make commitments they can keep: accepting funding from sources which support free research and align with faculty goals. To do otherwise fails everyone involved. Indeed, Princeton was shown who was boss in 2008, when the University paid over $100 million in a settlement for violating donor intent.

The University settled with the Robertson family after using their endowment to support all sorts of graduate programs at the then-Woodrow Wilson School rather than respecting the original intent of the gift — specifically preparing graduate students for post-graduate employment in government. Is one of these uses better than the other? That it was the donors who determined how to answer that question demonstrates the significant power wielded by external sources. This truth pervades organizations that use philanthropy for their development, as they balance complex concerns as disparate moral, financial, and practical priorities struggle for supremacy.

Philanthropists have always interfered in the lives of the everyday American man. From promoting charter schools to promoting self-selected political causes, social reform is often pushed by high-status individuals rather than the community — as represented by their elected officials. The “proper division of labor between government and philanthropy” is difficult to identify, as Nicholas Lemann noted in The New Yorker last May. Yet one benefit of the undemocratic nature of a university is that the private community itself gets to determine who wields influence upon it (barring federal or state intervention). When a university such as Princeton or Penn forms a philanthropic relationship, it may negotiate the terms prior to the gift’s acceptance. University leaders, then, must be responsible about whom they involve in academic life and to what extent, always returning to the needs, research, and core commitments of the faculty as the driving reason for their future partnerships. 

Last fall, Contributing Columnist Jackson Baldrate argued that donors should contribute in good faith and without restrictions to the academic institutions, and in turn universities should encourage such behavior by honoring similar impartiality in their own governance. While his column contained much good advice, there’s little to leverage against donors who voluntarily support our community. Instead, academics should be concerned with the communities with which they can interfere and focus on ensuring that they and their colleagues are truly upholding their commitment to intellectual freedom, a goal Marc Rowan’s questions on free speech and viewpoint diversity seem to only support.

Abigail Rabieh is a junior in the history department from Cambridge, Mass. She is the Public Editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached via email at arabieh@princeton.edu or on X at @AbigailRabieh.

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