Donor With Opinions

Irvine faculty members and students question idea of professorships endowed by foundation that wants to change scholarly study of Hinduism -- and to influence search process for hires.

December 21, 2015
 

The Dharma Civilization Foundation is no fan of the work of Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor and former American Academy of Religion president whose 2010 book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled by its Indian publisher in response to a lawsuit claiming it denigrated followers of the faith.

Nor does it care for the scholarship of Paul Courtright and Jeffrey Kripal, scholars at Emory and Rice Universities who explored issues related to sexuality in their respective studies of the Hindu god Ganesha and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a major figure in modern Hinduism. In an FAQ section on its website, the California-based Dharma Civilization Foundation criticizes “the application of Freudian analytical techniques to explain Hindu gods, goddesses and gurus” and says that the fact that many scholars of Hinduism are not adherents to the religion has “resulted in widespread incidence of misrepresentations of Hinduism, and mischaracterization of the traditions and practices within the Hindu fold.”

The foundation’s solution to what it sees as the relative lack of “authentic” voices in scholarship on Hinduism is to fund faculty positions at U.S. universities, including at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, and at the University of Southern California. But its gifts to establish endowed professorships at the University of California at Irvine have raised the ire of faculty and students who are concerned both about the ideological agenda of the foundation and the role it seeks to play in influencing the search process.

“While the administration has repeatedly stated that they have a structure[d] process in place to ensure only qualified individuals fill the chairs and promise us that the donors have no influence, they have yet to address what impact this will have on scholars at UCI to be associated with the type of political ideology that our university will inadvertently be giving a base to,” said Ali A. Olomi, a Ph.D. student and the president of UC Irvine’s History Graduate Student Association, which has started a petition against the Dharma Civilization Foundation-endowed chairs.

“Nor have they addressed the fact that their procedure and policy does not protect individual professors from being unduly influenced by the donors as they have already done,” Olomi said via email. “DCF have tried to levy pressure on the family members of professors in an attempt to push their agenda. This is unacceptable.”

A representative of the Dharma Civilization Foundation called the father of a UC Irvine historian whose works focuses on India. The historian in question, Vinayak Chaturvedi, declined to comment for this article, citing his involvement on an ad hoc committee charged with reviewing the proposed chairs. The foundation’s founding chairman, Manohar Shinde, said he’d called Chaturvedi’s father to raise money for one of the UC Irvine chairs and that “it never even crossed my mind” to try to influence the thinking of the son through the father. “The bottom line is this: Dr. Shinde is involved in significant fund-raising efforts in Southern California and he’s made many calls to many people in a fund-raising context and that has nothing to do with influencing anybody,” said Kalyan Viswanathan, the foundation’s executive vice president.

But the Dharma Civilization Foundation has made no secret of its hopes to influence the search process for the endowed chairs it funds, stating in the FAQ on its website that “we must ensure that the university’s faculty search process recruits a professor who is eminently suited to fulfill the intention of the donor.” The foundation has proposed a list of candidates to UC Irvine, though Viswanathan said it has done so “with the understanding that it is just a proposal, and the selection will be done by the university.”

“We want to engage with the faculty in a friendly manner to see if they’re open for suggestions. There is no coercing here,” Viswanathan said.

In fact, Viswanathan added, “the chances are far greater that we will not be able to influence the search process. The university is a very powerful machine, a powerful engine.”

“They are able to, I think, successfully manage donors. They have a long history of doing it. We are very, very new in this space and we don’t anticipate that we will be offered the kind of influence that people are imagining that we are going to get.”

The Controversy at UC Irvine

In May, UC Irvine celebrated a $1.5 million gift from the Thakkar Family and Dharma Civilization Foundation to establish a chair in Vedic and Indian Civilization studies. The university subsequently announced another $4.5 million in gifts to establish three additional endowed professorships, one on modern India and India diasporic studies funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation and two additional chairs on Jain and Sikh studies funded by individual families. All four gifts are under review.

“Since signing the gift agreement there have been some questions that have arisen and we want to fully investigate those before we proceed,” said Georges Van Den Abbeele, the dean of Irvine’s School of Humanities. These include “more detailed questions about the organization’s relation to other parties or interests in India and also questions about how we can conduct a search in terms of material that we’ve culled from their publications.”

The dean said he wants to be sure that the university can proceed with searches in a way that they “will be free of donor influence.”

“Input is one thing, recommendations are one thing, but anything that is an expectation of quid pro quo or even a kind of general perception that this is not an open search -- that’s something that may be a little bit grayer but is a concern to me,” Van Den Abbeele said.

Inside Higher Ed submitted a public records request for the gift agreements on Friday and received an automated reply promising a response within 10 days. In the meantime, the university spokeswoman, Cathy Lawhon, declined to release the documents on the grounds that they are still being reviewed. The first of the four chairs, in Vedic and Indian Civilization studies, has been approved by the president’s office, according to Van Den Abbeele, while the others are still pending approval through the university’s formal procedures.

Some faculty are questioning why the university administration didn’t identify red flags regarding the gifts much earlier in the process.

“You didn’t have to do too much due diligence,” Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at UC Irvine, said of the foundation. “I went right to their website and it immediately read to me as extremely ideologically driven” and of having “extreme right-wing notions” of shaping knowledge about India.

“As I understand it, the problem with these endowed chairs is that things moved forward without administrators taking time to consult with the faculty closest to the field of study,” said Brook Thomas, a Chancellor’s Professor of English at Irvine. “When they were finally brought into the loop and expressed grave concerns about connections of the donors with DCF, the process was so far along and the gifts so large … One of the four chairs was finalized, and a reception honoring donors for the other three planned. Only when the chair of the humanities called a faulty meeting to discuss issues facing the school did most of the faculty become aware of the possibility that the donors for the chairs were connected to a group associated with fundamentalist beliefs and a political agenda in India, and that those promoting that agenda would love to have their beliefs legitimated by having the University of California accept large donations associated with it. Many faculty were very concerned. That concern was registered.”

“The obvious question is: What would have happened if the faculty meeting had not been called at the time it was?” Thomas said via email. “The other obvious issue is why weren't the faculty closest to the field of study consulted with and included in [the] process from the start?”

Van Den Abbeele, the humanities dean, said the academic entity that pushed for the chairs was the religious studies program, which does not have departmental status and which is directed by an expert on Western scriptures, not South Asian religions (the program director, Jack Miles, a distinguished professor of English and religious studies, referred questions to Van Den Abbeele).

“I should have been consulted but I would say that’s not even my biggest concern,” said Kavita Philip, an associate professor of history who teaches on topics related to South Asia.

“My primary concern is really academic freedom,” Philip continued. “Will my students be safe if they are not of the faith that the donors prefer to fund? Will faculty be safe if they don’t practice the kind of religious purity that the donors say they want to promote at UCI?”

The Foundation’s Perspective

Viswanathan, the executive vice president of the Dharma Civilization Foundation, said that Hindus have fallen behind other religious communities -- including Christians, Jews and Muslims -- in endowing professorships in the American academy. “So what has happened is the people who study Hinduism in the universities are largely located in positions and chairs which are funded by other sources, whether it’s a secular, liberal source, or a theological source of a different denomination or religion,” he said.

That matters, Viswanathan said, because “in a subtle way the source of funding does in fact impact the orientation of these scholars -- even though by and large scholars will claim complete academic independence.”

“I’m saying something which will not go over well with the scholarly community because they do believe they are objective in their research and by and large they are objective and we want to promote that objectivity,” Viswanathan continued. “We are not against the objectivity of scholars but at the same time I think the sources of funding do matter in terms of how the chairs get set up and what kinds of scholarship emerges from those chairs.”

In an interview Viswanathan said the dean of the humanities at UC Irvine has been clear about the fact that faculty will control the search process to fill any new professorship. And he emphasized the risks that donors like the Dharma Civilization Foundation take -- specifically the risk that the university might, in a professorial hire now or in the future, violate the spirit of the donor’s intention.

Then why, Inside Higher Ed’s reporter asked, make a gift at all?

“Here’s the thing,” Viswanathan said. “We hope that if an environment within a university is sympathetic to the intentions of the donor -- and when I say that, when I say, ‘an environment that is sympathetic’ that means faculty, the administration … if they are sympathetic and they can align with the intentions of the donor, we think they ought to be able to support the process by hiring a faculty member who is appropriate to the intention of the donor. However, if the environment in a university is unsympathetic to the donor’s intentions, an environment is suspicious of the donor’s intentions, then the chances are that the university will not honor the donor’s intentions beyond a certain period of time. It becomes a very good question: Are we dealing with a sympathetic environment or an environment that is indifferent or an environment that is quite openly unsympathetic?”

Faculty, administration and the foundation all have different priorities, Viswanathan said, with the administration wanting to generate funds, the faculty wanting to preserve its academic independence and the foundation wanting “to influence the course of what these chairs really mean for the Hindu community in Los Angeles.”

“These are different interests, and if a balance can be worked out, if all the different interests can be suitably accommodated, I think it could be a great opportunity for everybody. But if these interests are thought to be antagonistic with each other, then things could break down.”

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