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.”
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.