Collision of Interests

Keith D. Renshaw outlines some concrete steps that all higher education institutions can take to protect both academic freedom and donor rights.

June 13, 2019
 
 
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Last spring, George Mason University experienced a swirling controversy around gift agreements. A student group filed a lawsuit against the George Mason University Foundation, and President Ángel Cabrera disclosed that a number of gift agreements contained clauses giving donors potential input on faculty hiring and evaluation of faculty activity.

As chair of George Mason’s Faculty Senate, responsible for representing the faculty perspective to the administration and our governing Board of Visitors, I was smack in the middle of this controversy. A year later, we still have work to do, but I believe we are in a better place. How we got here, and where we are, offer some important lessons.

First, the university took quick steps to create a gift review committee to review existing gift agreements and broader gift acceptance policies and practices. The committee included faculty members, students, administrators and members of our Board of Visitors, together with an independent third-party entity. Bringing together such a diverse group was challenging, but it served two major purposes. First, it led to rich discussions of complicated issues that generated strong recommendations for the future and allowed for true shared governance -- with faculty, administrators and members of the governing board working together to arrive at a consensus about how to move forward.

Second, despite the diverse perspectives among those individuals, we discovered areas of obvious agreement. In particular, everyone agreed that academic freedom -- the ability to search for knowledge and truth without constraints from political or administrative pressures -- is of paramount importance in higher education. Yet everyone agreed as well that, because of the steadily decreasing investment at state and federal levels in education, philanthropy is also of incredible importance to the future of our university (unless we want to shift all additional costs to students and families). With an increasing reliance on philanthropy, we must be aware of and protect the rights of donors.

The hard work of the committee led to some concrete steps that all institutions of higher education can take to protect both academic freedom and donor rights.

Make all provisions and conditions of gifts publicly accessible. Information about donor identity and the nature of the gift can remain protected if the donor wishes. However, anything that constrains the use of funds by the university must be public. That makes any impact that the gift has on academic freedom, academic integrity and the overall mission of the institution open and transparent.

Protect against side agreements. Any and all provisions of a gift agreement must be public. Donors cannot have secret side agreements that commit the university to any activity.

Develop a policy to require disclosures of funding for publications or presentations of research or scholarship that were supported by a gift. These types of disclosures are required when research is funded by the federal government or a corporation. Philanthropic donations should be no different. Ideally, disclosures would be traceable to the publicly available conditions of the gift agreement, as described in recommendation No. 1.

Construct a strong gift acceptance committee. It is impossible to foresee all elements of an agreement that might be problematic -- and what is viewed as OK today might be seen as problematic years from now. Thus, you must establish ways to review agreements that have certain types of provisions in order to evaluate whether those provision are acceptable. Such a committee should include faculty members and administrators from across the institution who are fair and even-handed and who receive basic training in gift agreement policies and the university’s mission.

Develop methods for evaluating the expenditures of money from gifts. Once conditions of a gift are public, you should also create a way to make sure that the spending of that money aligns with any provisions of the gift agreement and the academic mission of the institution.

These recommendations will not solve every problem that might arise in the future. Most notably, they do not address whether or how to evaluate donor intent (which is incredibly complicated) or the potential for philanthropy to shift the focus of faculty scholarship in the direction of issues that well-funded individuals and groups care most about.

They do, however, offer a set of strong steps that public institutions of higher education can take to begin balancing the essential protection of academic freedom and integrity, the increasing need for philanthropy to support the mission of higher education, and the associated rights of donors who contribute toward that mission. That’s a start.

Bio

Keith D. Renshaw is chair of the psychology department at George Mason University and served as the chair of George Mason’s Faculty Senate from 2016 to earlier this year.

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