Letting the Donor Decide

Record $50 million gift to Saint Louis University gave donors the right to help pick head of research institute and give that person a faculty title. Professors see dangerous erosion of academic values.

October 8, 2018
 
Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, donors to Saint Louis U

Saint Louis University administrators and faculty where thrilled when a wealthy local couple -- Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield -- donated $50 million to the institution. The gift would allow university leaders to pursue bold and ambitious goals for the next decade and "accelerate SLU’s rise as a world-class research university."

Faculty and administrators alike agreed the infusion of cash could draw attention to the region and recognition of it as an emerging research hub. They also believed it would lure more scholars and students to the university.

The mutual excitement by the administration and the professors fostered a spirit of optimism and collaboration on campus, and a sense of shared aspirations. But the honeymoon ended almost as soon as it had begun after faculty members learned that the generous gift came with questionable and, to many, troubling strings attached: specific stipulations about faculty hiring and research funding that faculty leaders say violate university policies and academic integrity and freedom.

The donation, the largest in the Roman Catholic institution’s 200-year history, was announced in August, but university leaders had been in discussions about it with the Sinquefields for a year. The money will fund a new research institute that university officials say "will serve as the focal point for SLU’s strategic goal of growing the scale and eminence of its research and scholarship," and a new Sinquefield Center for Applied Economic Research on the Missouri campus. It also will also provide annual funding for the university’s chess team, which happens to be located in America’s chess capital.

The agreement stipulates that Rex Sinquefield, a Saint Louis alumnus and trustee, and Mark Higgins, dean of the business school, would select the director of the new economic research center. The director, a professor at the University of Missouri, was named and given the title of Sinquefield Professor of Economics without any prior notice to faculty, and without the input of a faculty-led hiring committee, as required under policies outlined in the faculty manual. The agreement also allows for research grants from the institute to be determined by a four-member committee that includes the Sinquefields.

There is a long tradition in academe of donors stipulating what they want to support -- a given department, building or program, for instance -- but hiring and awarding grants are viewed as academic decisions that should be handled by faculty members and administrators.

“The bottom line issue being confronted across the country is what level of control or influence should a donor have over the operation or various operations based on them giving a gift,” said Douglas Rush, president of the university’s Faculty Senate and an associate professor of higher education administration. “Where do you draw the line between donor participation, donor influence and donor control over university matters?”

“Donors should be able to participate in every aspect of university life, but the issue is one of control -- they should have no control over any aspect of academics. They can participate as long as the control rests with the faculty.”

Fund-raising experts say donations with strings attached -- both visible and invisible -- will likely become more common as state and federal higher ed funding stagnates. Megamillionaires and billionaires are increasingly stepping up to replace those shrinking public funds and, in the process, they are rewriting the rules of higher ed philanthropy, or at least aggressively trying to do so.

If the situation at Saint Louis's seems familiar, it’s because these controversial agreements, once unheard-of in higher ed, are becoming more common. Donations from the Charles Koch Foundation -- and the power that agreements have given the foundation -- have been the source of controversies at Florida State University, West Virginia University, Clemson University, Utah State University and Chapman University. A decades-old agreement between George Mason University and the foundation is the subject of ongoing litigation.

While Koch Foundation gifts to universities and colleges are relatively modest, gifts from wealthy individuals tend to be very generous. In fact, they're getting larger.

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a relatively small group of donors accounted for large portions of contributions to college fund-raising campaigns. For instance, the top 1 percent of donors to campaigns accounted for 79 percent of the total funds received through June 30, 2015, according to CASE. During that same time frame, the top 10 percent of donors accounted for 92 percent of the funds received.

No longer content to have buildings named for them -- never mind small-potato departments or endowed chairs -- some of these benefactors are demanding more say in the creation of new academic departments, programs or research centers. They want input on the hiring of the directors and faculty who will populate these departments and centers. They want to dictate the subjects that can be studied or taught, the political bent of the research pursued, and the selection of the scholars that will do the research. (Still, many other donors give generously without making any demands for involvement in academic decisions.)

As the amounts of money donated skyrocket, so too do the demands of the donor.

“It can become a slippery slope,” says James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason and an expert on development and advancement issues. “It becomes even more treacherous when donors personally are involved.”

He says agreements such as the one approved by Saint Louis University “step on academic freedom and violate the role of the faculty in determining curriculum. They make faculty hires difficult.”

Saint Louis administrators and faculty are still working through their differences over the terms of the donation from the Sinquefields. (He co-founded the investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors, which has more than $525 billion in global assets.) After professors told university administrators that hiring the director of the research center violated faculty hiring policy, administrators acknowledged making a mistake and removed “professor” from the director’s title and replaced it with “executive director.” They also reclassified his position from “faculty to staff.” But they preserved the filled position, as the donor agreement dictated.

Faculty members were not impressed or appeased.

“I asked the dean if there was a pool of candidates and he said no, the donor recommended someone who is qualified,” Bonnie Wilson, an associate professor of economics, said of the naming of the director.

Wilson and another economics professor, David Rapach, are leading the opposition to the agreement.

“I don’t think the donors should be able to pick the person who will both conduct and direct the research at the center,” Wilson said. “The position hasn’t been posted as far as we know, so we don’t know how it conforms to EEO laws and the university’s own commitment to diversity and equality.”

She said the hiring of the director should have been handled by a faculty search committee “with expertise in an area of work that this employee is going to be asked to conduct.”

University administrators say critics of the donor agreement overlook the overriding benefits of $50 million in new funding that will allow the university to significantly expand its research footprint and enhance its academic standing.

“This is our first gift of this magnitude,” said Ken Olliff, vice president for research. “There’s some growing pains among our faculty on how contemporary philanthropy works.”

He said there were safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the research that the donation will fund, including a research council made of up of the chairpersons of the science and engineering, applied health, scholarship research, and other large departments across the university.

The research council will evaluate applications and send them to the research growth committee, which will then send them to the nonprofit board the donors set up. The board includes four people -- the Sinquefields, Olliff and a retired professor of economics.

“They made no specifications about what kind of research we could do,” Olliff said. “They said we trust you, it’s more about 'how do we help you move the institute forward?’ Let us provide the resources.

“We have goals, visions and metrics, but they are our goals, our vision and our metrics. The donors said that we needed to lay out what our goal and metrics were, so we laid that out and will hold ourselves accountable. The donors want us to move forward with our vision. It becomes a partnership. In my mind this is exactly how philanthropy should work."

Michael Lewis, the acting associate provost for faculty affairs and development, and an associate professor of chemistry, said he, Olliff and Dean Higgins “are working hard to get everybody in the same place with regard to the gift.”

He noted that 165 faculty members signed a statement expressing their gratitude to the Sinquefields.

“The response from the majority of the faculty has been largely very positive by a long shot,” he said. “ They’re very excited about how it’s going to transform the university and transform their research agendas.”

In a statement for this article, Rex Sinquefield said, "Our only motivation in making this gift is to help SLU pursue excellence and grow in prestige. That not only benefits SLU and its students, but also the whole St. Louis region, which is a wonderful place to do research that can transform people’s lives."

Said Wilson, “I would agree with the statement that many, perhaps most faculty, are grateful for gifts from donors. But it’s not at all clear to me that there is support for the donor being involved with hiring … or support for donors to have a role in granting of funds for individual projects by faculty.”

She noted that many faculty members also signed a resolution by the Faculty Senate expressing concern about the agreement flouting the principle of academic freedom. The resolution was distributed by word of mouth and was not shared with junior faculty and still got 70 signatories, she said. "Many people signed both statements," she said.

A motion was subsequently approved by the members, stating, "Donors should not participate in employment matters of the university, nor should they play a role in determining the curriculum or in the direction of funding to particular students, faculty, or individual research projects."

Lewis said the faculty concerns are being heard. He insists the donors will not be involved in employment, curriculum and research matters.

"I hear those concerns at Faculty Senate meetings," he said. "We've said that won't happen. I don’t know how else to address that. Faculty control curriculum and the hiring process; it’s in the faculty manual and will continue to be the case. I can’t make it any more clear than that."

Rapach said simply reclassifying the director’s title from “faculty” to “staff” without changing his duties reflects “many word games being played.”

“The administration has emphasized that they viewed the director and the researchers as staff positions and not faculty. But the director still would direct and conduct scholarly research,” he noted. “The fact that the person is a scholar engaged in work similar to faculty compromises and violates the spirit and intent of the faculty manual.”

What’s more, donors having say even over staff positions “is a clear violation of academic norms,” he said. “We’re talking about donor influence, inappropriate donor influence.”

Rapach said the terms of the agreement lack transparency and risk the university’s reputation as an independent research institution.

“They violated accepted norms of academic integrity and independence,” he said. “I’m very concerned about my academic reputation, and I’m worried about the reputation of the university more broadly. Entering into these types of arrangements and granting these special privileges to donors will have implications to the university’s reputation and its scholars. It’s almost as if we're inviting negative scrutiny.”

University administrators tried to reassure faculty members at a Faculty Senate meeting last month by telling them that Rex Sinquefield will have no say in hiring or firing faculty and that he and his wife also would have no role in directing or drafting research proposals. The administrators did not, however, change the role they had agreed to, allowing him to help select grant recipients.

Not everyone was convinced these steps would create a permanent and impenetrable wall between the donors and the administration of the research institute or the economic center.

Finkelstein said demands by big donors are likely to increase as more college and universities acquiesce to them.

“What’s happening in universities today is that presidents are looking for these eight- and even nine-figure donors,” he said. “That’s how they keep score and show their fund-raising abilities. Finding these donors and keeping these donors is also important to keeping your job as president. So, when you have someone able to write a $50 million check, you want to make sure you can keep them happy.”

And keeping donors happy is being prioritized over keeping faculty happy, he said.

“The distance between how to advance a president’s career is very far and very different from how faculty advance their careers, which is with research and scholarship,” he said. “Today what advances a president’s career almost more than anything else is fund-raising. They’re paying less and less attention to faculty in terms of these matters. They think if I can get a $50 million gift but it gets me grief from faculty, that’s OK, because the board isn’t going to fire me.”

Finkelstein noted that 70 percent of a typical college president’s time is spent soliciting outside funding.

“They’re increasingly divorced from the inner workings of the faculty,” he said. “That responsibility is increasingly being turned over to the provosts and dean.”

This is the case at Saint Louis, where the dean and acting provost are leading the meetings and discussions with faculty about the Sinquefield donation and trying to assure them that everything is aboveboard.

Rapach, who has taught at the university since 2003, is dismayed by the state of affairs.

“To the extent that academia moves in this direction, it compromises the ability of higher ed institutions to serve society,” he said. “These norms and standards that we have are precisely what makes academic research valuable to society … When these rules aren’t adhered [to], it compromises our ability to best serve society and ends up undermining the very research that the donors are supporting.”

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