Guest column: Calvin College chooses money over values

When UCLA turned down a $3 million pledge from LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, university officials explained their decision in a statement,  saying Sterling’s “divisive and hurtful comments demonstrate that he does not share UCLA’s core values.”

Yet UCLA is hardly the only university with a controversial donor on its balance sheet. Is there an industry standard for handling these cases, or does it simply come down to a cost-benefit analysis – an evaluation of which is more detrimental, losing funding or losing face?

For the last seven months, Erik Prince has been on a press tour to promote his book “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror,” a defense of Blackwater Worldwide, the private military company he co-founded and led until 2010. The son of Holland philanthropists Edgar and Elsa Prince has remained unapologetic about the deaths of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians at the hands of his men on Sept. 16, 2007. Included among the dead was a nine-year-old boy named Ali Kinani, shot in the head as he sat in the back seat of his father’s car.

In May the Justice Department filed a new first-degree murder charge against one of the Blackwater guards involved in the incident.

Calvin College and the Blackwater conundrum

As a 2012 graduate of Calvin College, I’m well acquainted with the Prince family. In 1998, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation made one of the largest gifts in the history of the college to begin construction of a conference center in their name. Elsa Prince has served on the board of trustees herself and personally mentored many of my classmates.

Erik Prince has served as vice president of his parents’ foundation since at least 2001, overseeing $4,767,000 in contributions to Calvin College and Calvin Seminary in that time.

Calvin faculty have been vocal in the past about their opposition to the Bush-era foreign policy that precipitated Blackwater’s rise, going so far as to take out a full-page ad in the Grand Rapids Press protesting President Bush’s selection as commencement speaker in 2005 on the grounds that his policies “do not exemplify the faith we live by.”

The continuing relationship between the Prince Foundation and Calvin troubles some faculty and students for the same reason. It feels like a betrayal of our values.

“Being taught to be an agent of renewal to bring justice to the fallen world for the past few years and knowing what the college has been associating themselves with is quite heartbreaking,” said fifth-year senior and Middle East Club leader Priscilla Lin.

Calvin history professor Bert de Vries has spent decades working in the Middle East. Shortly after the Sept. 2007 killings, de Vries wrote an article about Blackwater and other military contractors for Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought in which he speculated that “American society is adapting alarmingly militaristic tenets into its Christian political ideology.”

When I contacted the office of Calvin’s president, Dr. Michael Le Roy for comment on the issue, they referred me to Matt Kucinski, the college’s media relations manager. Kucinski said simply: “We don’t comment on our donors.”

What standard?

The ethics of receiving donations from morally dubious sources is murky, said Dr. Teri Behrens, editor in chief of The Foundation Review at Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center.

“There are no hard-and-fast rules either in higher ed or in (the) foundation world about what counts as unethical or what the appropriate response is,” Behrens told me.

Neither the Association of American Colleges and Universities nor the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities offers guidance on donor relations, according to spokespeople. While the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Governing Boards both ignored my requests for comment.

“I’m not aware that there’s an industry standard. I’ve certainly never seen it,” said Dr. John Burkhardt, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. As former program director for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, he knows philanthropy from both sides.

While Burkhardt agreed with administrators of UCLA that a major donor’s alignment with the institution’s core values should be taken into consideration, he pointed out that not everyone agrees on what those values are. What’s untenable to some simply doesn’t register with others.

That’s certainly been the case at the University of Michigan.

U-M and Taubman money

In 2002, the university’s largest donor, A. Alfred Taubman, spent a year in prison for price fixing, but the university resisted pressure from its own faculty to distance itself from him. His 2011 contribution of $56 million for medical research brought his total contributions to the university to $141 million, and his name continues to adorn numerous buildings on campus.

“While it’s easy to say that institutions should be thoughtful and engage in deep consideration as to both the donor and the gift and what they communicate about the institution and it’s values, I feel very comfortable in saying that most institutions lack the formal processes to do that,” Burkhardt said.

This matters, Burkhardt suggests, because, consciously or not, we look to colleges and universities for guidance on matters of conscience. “Universities are part of a broad set of social institutions that define our moral relationships. In that regard they cannot avoid the scrutiny of how they behave in public ways.”

As costs rise, so does reliance on Big Donors

But these conversations aren’t taking place in a vacuum. Since 1985, college costs have increased more than 538%,  nearly twice the rate of medical costs over the same period. Meanwhile, public funding for higher education is heading in the opposite direction.

When Grand Valley State University’s student paper published an editorial criticizing the school’s practice of naming buildings and rooms after donors like DTE Energy, it earned an acid retort from Karen Loth, vice president of development, and Matthew McLogan, Vice President for University Relations, who asserted that, from its founding, Grand Valley has been supported by private money.

“Perhaps the Lanthorn staff should return their scholarships to the university for reissuance to students who would be more appreciative of our donors,” they wrote in a letter to the editor.

In the next year and a half, West Michigan colleges and universities are planning to spend $335 million on facilities, according to MiBiz, and they’re turning to private donors to do it.

At my alma mater, donor-funded building projects played a large role in accumulating $116 million in long-term debt. The projects, including a sprawling athletic complex, outpaced Calvin College’s fundraising efforts by $30.8 million –– big money at a school with 4,000 students.

To solve the problem, the college went back to its donors, and it appears to have worked. In May, President Le Roy announced the college had successfully raised $25 million for debt relief.

While Calvin didn’t name the donors who responded to its latest appeal, the Prince Foundation did make a $500,000 gift to the school  on Jan. 2, 2013, its largest gift to the college since 2006.

Are private donors as a species bad? No. But do they buy tremendous influence at the institutions they support, influence that can cause administrators to turn a blind eye to even the most blatant offenses? It’s hard to argue otherwise. And in the current climate, the temptation is strong for development officers to ignore the moral mandates of their institutions in the effort to preserve lucrative relationships.

Which is why establishing some commonly agreed-upon principles of practice is necessary. Because, UCLA excepted, having a conscience appears to be a luxury many colleges and universities can no longer afford.

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Carrie Johnson
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 7:38am
Dear Mr. Andrew Steiner, I would like to call your attention to the mention of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in your piece. Neither I nor AAC&U's Director of Development served as spokespeople for this piece. With whom did you speak with at AAC&U? Or, were you citing information pulled from AAC&U's website, Please advise. This is the mention that I am referring to: "Neither the Association of American Colleges and Universities nor the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities offers guidance on donor relations, according to spokespeople. While the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Governing Boards both ignored my requests for comment." If you did not speak with someone from AAC&U, kindly please remove the mention of AAC&U within this piece. Thank you, Carrie Johnson Associate Director, Marketing and Media Relations Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
David Zeman
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 12:54pm
Note to readers: Bridge has supplied Carrie with the name of the spokesperson at her organization who supplied the information that Andrew Steiner used in his guest column, satisfying her inquiry. David Zeman Editor
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 10:32am
Hey Andrew, just curious but how did you pay for the cost of your degree at Calvin? Personal experience was that the bill was pretty brutal, but I suppose you paid the whole enchilada since God knows if you might have different political views or you might have judged the folks who paid to support you there to be your moral inferiors? . I know it's getting deep into summer but Is this the best that Bridge can find?
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 11:17am
Following Matt's comment: how about the ethics of students who enjoy a subsidized education from institutions that accept 'tainted' funds? By the way, lets be careful with broad judgments: Blackwater or Mr Prince have never been indicted or convicted of crimes. It was some of their employees who are (properly in the commentator's views) currently tried in a US court for their actions. The undersigned has been treated at the UoM Taubman UoM Medical Facility and does not feel implicated in Mr Taubman's price fixing transgression (for which he was properly punished.) GD
chris browning
Wed, 10/22/2014 - 8:35pm
They have now
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 11:27am
Is a fund development person at a local non-profit a person with enough perspective to write about college fundraising? Let's say I have my doubts. There's a lot one can say about the Prince Foundation and it's support for education, for Holland, but also its support for social conservative causes. Erik Prince is really somewhat peripheral to that story. Then again, his older sister Betsy DeVos remains an important figure not only on the Prince Foundation board, but through her other well-known connections in West Michigan and beyond. But give Mr Steiner credit for at least this, he had the wisdom not to mention Betsy and kick over that hornet's nest.
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 3:55pm
I think this article raises important points for people of conscience and especially for those who invest significant amounts of their time and treasure to seeking an education in the Calvinist tradition. There are many actions by society and by members of society that are perfectly legal but not in keeping with Calvinist values. It would be wrong NOT to call them to the attention of both individuals and decision-makers; indeed, it is an imperative to be active and vigorous in every area of life, questioning the status quo and seeking sanctification.
Fri, 07/11/2014 - 8:04am
I doubt John Calvin would have much problem with the Princes and their philosphy (except BTW Erik i believe is Catholic). But i'm all ears if you can find it.
Sun, 07/13/2014 - 3:44pm
I am disappointed when someone invokes ‘conscience’ to make a point. Consciences is a personal set of values, it is not something to be used to justify a point of view because it is personal and unique to that person. I support a set of guidelines for public/private organization/government but only as a means of communicating what has proven to be successful and as a vehicle to capture future successes, not as a means to control peoples actions. The reality is people make their choices and some will violate laws, rules, and ‘conscience’ if they are so inclined. Mr. Steiner simply wants to control Calvin College, he shows no interest in what they have or have not done. He offers no examples where they have violate any rules, code of ethics, laws. He cares not at all about what can be accomplished with that money, he simply doesn’t like where some money has come from. He claims it is tainted by what someone has done, regardless of who did it or if those donating had any active participation. We have seen activities in our US government that I feel are unethical if not illegal and yet I am not willing to condemn those who are assisted by government moneys. I wonder if Mr. Steiner concern of ‘consciences’ extends to the government based on what individual government employees do. It seems Mr. Steiner is more about invoking his will on others than he is about having an open discussion on the issue. I wonder if Mr. Steiner would apply his ‘conscience’ to all the revenues the government collects, to all the donations that the not for profit organizations receive, to all revenues that private companies receive for the legal services/products they provide. I came into adulthood at a time when people claimed their ‘conscience’ gave the right to condemn and demean those who were risking their all at the request of their friends and neighbors. I watch the harm those holding their ‘conscience’ over others. That taught me not to hold myself above others, bot to judge people. For that attitude prevents people from looking beyond themselves and seeing the realities. For once you see yourself as holder of the ‘truth’ you will no longer be able to listen. If you can’t listen you will not be able to learn. If you don’t learn you will never be part of the solution. I would suggest to Mr. Steiner to reframe his concerns as a question and ask it of others. He may learn things he never considered, he find answers he never thought of, he may find people with similar concern that he never expected. He would taking risks, he may find that he has misunderstood the issue and there is something else that needs to be addressed before his concerns, and what he thought was true was accurate.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:43pm
Duane: You seem to be reading a great deal into Mr. Steiner's words. For example you state that "Mr. Steiner simply wants to control Calvin College". I didn't get that impression at all, but that he is simply concerned about what some of the sources of funding used by the college might be saying about the values of the college. The second portion of that same sentence states "he shows no interest in what they have or have not done". By researching and writing this article, isn't he showing interest in what the college does? You claim that you have learned not to judge others. Obviously, we need to exercise care when judging others, but in spite of our best efforts, don't we all judge others frequently? In fact, isn't the statement "It seems that Mr. Steiner is more about invoking his will on others than he is about having an open discussion" at least somewhat judgmental? You are disappointed when someone "invokes conscience to make a point". Yes, conscience means different things to different people, and identifying elements of conscience that we would all agree on is daunting. Nonetheless, I must counter your disappointment by one of my own, that the role of conscience seems to be rapidly losing out to the role of money.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 9:23pm
John, It seemed to me that Mr. Steiner simply didn't want Calvin College to accept the money, that sounds like a desire for control their actions. If Mr. Steiner were not interested in controlling Colvin College actions and more interested in addressing his concerns then I would have expected him to describe those concerns and open a discussion asking about those concerns (their validity, how to address them, how broadly they might apply, what types of criteria he might want to include, etc.). I came to adulthood in a time when 'conscience' was used to judge and condemn people for doing what their friends and neighbors asked them to do. I learned during that time to judge people's actions not the person. I do acknowledge their are 'bad' people, but it is only the 'bad' things they do that I feel able to judge. Similarly there are 'good' people with 'good intentions, but it is the actions not the person to be judged. I have also learned that judging people causes one to stop listening to what they are saying. I may disagree with Mr. Steiner's position on the money and Calvin College, however, I would be very interested in the concerns he has that caused him to take such a position. There maybe many types of judgement and how it is applied, but I yet to find when it can be limited to actions and not include the person. I disagree that money is a growing issue of conscience. It may fit conventional wisdom, but there are a number of situation that draw in ones conscience more oftenthen money, such as the situations people in war are face with, medical treatment decisions that must be made, social choices that we may face, laws that maybe contrary to what we believe. To me the choices people justify by claiming the ends justify means is an issue of conscience, but many disagree. No, I don't see money as the most significant driver of conscience concerns. That is why I don't believe conscience is a valid justification for trying to control others actions. A conscience is unique to each person and that is why I see invoking it in a discussion of social actions is an indication of the weakness of a position (there is no common defintion or reference so it ends any discussion).
William C. Plumpe
Thu, 07/24/2014 - 12:59pm
Well if the Supreme Court of The United States says in the Hobby Lobby decision that a corporation can have moral values and take a moral stand this situation seems to fit right into that paradigm. If Calvin College is following proper moral values and following its "conscience" then it should reject Mr. Prince's money for no other reason than to stand on principle and not accept money from someone who acts so blatantly against the institution's supposed values. The real test of moral values is not what you say but what you do. Talk is cheap action is not.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 7:12am
Seems an important distinction is missing. Calvin accepted a gift from a foundation whose wealth was created by Erik Prince's PARENTS. NOT Erik Prince.