Return to Sender

UC Irvine moves to reject gifts for endowed chairs from group that has strong opinions -- too strong -- about the study of Hinduism and a desire to influence who would be hired.

February 22, 2016

The University of California at Irvine is walking away from two gifts to establish endowed chairs in Hindu and India studies after faculty members and students raised concerns about the ideology of the donors and the influence they sought to exert in the search process.

The gifts in question came from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, a California entity that seeks to fund the academic study and teaching of Indian religions as a corrective to what it describes as widespread misrepresentations of Hinduism by scholars who do not practice the religion.

The report by an ad hoc faculty committee charged with reviewing the DCF gifts to Irvine raised serious concerns about the implications of the university associating with the foundation in light of its various public statements on “what constitutes good or acceptable scholars.” The committee -- which also documented flaws in the procedures for approving the chairs and problems in the language of the gift agreements -- found association with the DCF to be “inconsistent with UCI’s core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration and respect” and recommended rejecting the gifts, a recommendation endorsed by the university’s Humanities Executive Committee (HEC).

“The HEC recommends that we not proceed with the chairs endowed by the Dharma Civilization Foundation,” Georges Van Den Abbeele, the dean of Irvine’s School of Humanities, said in an email message accompanying the committee’s report. “I will support these and other recommendations and will be working actively with HEC and relevant faculty on the recommended actions. I am also pleased by the committee's recommendations on ways to clarify our internal policies and procedures to ensure greater degrees of consultation and review in the establishment of endowed chairs.”

Asked if any other administrators need to sign off on the recommendations, Cathy Lawhon, a UC Irvine spokeswoman, said no. “Everyone agrees to what the dean has communicated,” she said.

The dean also accepted the faculty's recommendation that two other gifts to Irvine to fund endowed chairs in Jainism and Sikhism -- which come from donors who declare themselves independent of DCF but which by some accounts were catalyzed by the foundation -- be returned to the dean’s office for further consideration and review.

The Controversy and the Ad Hoc Committee’s Report

Each of the four gifts to UC Irvine was worth $1.5 million, matched by an additional $500,000 per chair. The first of the chairs was announced last spring and had already received final approval from the University of California's Office of the President; the other three were announced in the fall and have been approved at the campus level but not by the system.

In the months since the gifts became known, the History Graduate Student Association at Irvine started a petition opposing the DCF-connected chairs, and the student government approved a resolution condemning “the influence of outside donors and social, religious and political agendas in the process of selecting endowed chairs.” An open letter to Irvine signed by many scholars who study India describes DCF as “part of a right-wing Hindu group of organizations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism” and calls upon the university to “reject partnerships with donor organizations or individuals who propagate narrow sectarian agendas that violate the very spirit and mission of a public university.”

The report of the ad hoc committee charged with reviewing the chairs found that the gifts were approved “with insufficient faculty input and consultation” according to UC Irvine’s own policies and procedures. “Whether extensive consultation was required or not, lack of meaningful involvement of faculty experts resulted in gift agreements that indicate no coherent academic plan,” the committee wrote. “Given the number of proposed chairs and their [sic] potential impact of these chairs in the School of Humanities, close consultation was necessary to ensure that the proposed agreements would complement and enhance existing programs and were in sync with the mission of the School of Humanities at large and with wider scholarly developments in the study of historical and modern South Asia.”

The committee then goes further, to suggest that the university is risking its academic integrity by associating with the DCF.

“The committee acknowledges that both individual donors and groups of donors who represent some subsection of community interests have intents when they endow chairs,” the report states. “When comparing the publicly stated views and intents of the DCF with other community-based donors, however, we find that the DCF is unusually explicit and prescriptive on appropriate disciplinary formations, what constitutes good or acceptable scholarship, and indeed, what constitutes good or acceptable scholars. The DCF also has publicly stated views on what sort of disciplinary formations, scholarship and scholars the foundation deems unacceptable or bad, creating a blacklist of academics. Such claims and implications are unacceptable incursions into the domains of faculty expertise and guidance.”

In footnotes for the previous paragraph, the report cites language on DCF's website saying that the preponderance of non-Hindus among academics who study the religion “has resulted in widespread incidence of misrepresentations of Hinduism.” It also cites several DCF publications and communications that single out individual scholars it finds problematic. For example, in a response to a FAQ it poses on its website about examples of such misrepresentations and mischaracterizations, the foundation cites, among other examples, Wendy Doniger's 2010 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. That book by Doniger -- a University of Chicago professor and former American Academy of Religion president -- had to be recalled by its Indian publisher in response to a lawsuit claiming it insulted believers. Doniger received widespread support from colleagues in her field, including in the form of an American Academy of Religion statement describing her as a "highly respected member of our community" and supporting her "right to pursue her scholarship freely and without political interference."

The ad hoc committee report concludes the following: “While it could still be argued that gift agreements could be written in such a way as to ensure faculty control of the academic personnel processes related to hiring the proposed chairs and to exclude donor input into these processes, the committee believes that the public nature of the DCF’s views on disciplines, scholarship and scholars would nonetheless serve as an undue limitation on the applicant pool. In short, any association with the DCF name and funding will discourage applications from scholars who disagree with the foundation’s views and, even if protected from influence from the foundation, might consider their association with the DCF untenable.”

“Finally,” the committee wrote, “we observe with consternation that some of the scholars and scholarship specifically targeted by the DCF in publicly accessible forums have been subject to censorship, death threats and other forms of constraint in India. We note that public universities in the United States have a strong commitment to protecting academic freedom and that this principle is a cornerstone of the University of California.”

Reached late on Friday, DCF's executive vice president, Kalyan Viswanathan, said he would respond after reviewing the committee's report. He did not offer comments prior to Inside Higher Ed's Sunday deadline.

A statement previously authored by Viswanathan, however, describes the controversy over the chairs as a "tempest in a teapot" and rejects accusations of any "political motivations" underlying DCF's activities.

"DCF seeks to widen and diversify the study of these traditions and culture of Indic origin, from being predominantly focused on applying Western models on foreign phenomena, to being more culturally sensitive, in such a manner as to take seriously the self-understanding of these non-Western Indic cultures and religions as lived traditions of fellow Americans, and include dimensions such as philosophy and ethics from an insider’s (emic) perspective which barely exist today," Viswanathan wrote. "To this end, DCF is keen on fostering the trend towards multidisciplinary approaches, as it pertains to the study of Hinduism and other Indic religions, which it views as being complementary to the predominant critical and constructive methods. DCF has no intention to curb academic freedom in any field of study. In this regard, DCF has observed that other areas of study, such as women’s studies, African-American studies and Christian, Buddhist, Jewish or Islamic Studies, have all benefited from respectively having women scholars, African-American scholars or scholar-practitioners as active participants in these fields. Such scholars are not questioned about their objectivity, but are, in fact, respected for their unique experiences and perspectives, as well as the depth, nuance and academic rigor they are able to bring to academia. DCF holds that such scholar-practitioners of Hinduism would bring the same to Hindu studies."

Viswanathan also objects in that statement to "the imputation of hidden political motivations on a respectable California-based foundation, representing the interests of an American minority community, that seeks to support improved studies and understandings of Indic dharma traditions, whose adherents are today also fellow Californian residents, in one of California’s public universities. What indeed is the hidden political motivation in this? This perilous accusation against DCF conflates of the hopes and dreams of Hindu Americans to be accepted as full citizens of the USA, with the Hindu nationalist politics of India. Such a conflation imputes guilt by association, marginalizes Hindu Americans and portrays them as a dangerous fringe group allied with a political party in India, instead of fellow American citizens. It has the effect of culturally disenfranchising the Hindu American community and disallowing them from participating in the creation of an educational system that is grounded in American pluralism. It stifles the freedom of academic pursuit and runs counter to UCI's promise to not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity or creed or orientation. Regrettably it fans the flames of 'Hinduphobia,' endangers the free exchange of ideas and politicizes the issue, while hiding behind the fig leaf of academic freedom."

In that statement Viswanathan wrote that the foundation regretted actions it took that could have been perceived as seeking to "exercise undue influence" on the faculty search process and said that DCF understood "the rules of engagement in endowing chairs in a public university … At no time did DCF ever expect to circumvent the open search processes mandated by the University of California."

In addition to the gifts to Irvine, the DCF has also given gifts to support the teaching of Hinduism to the University of Southern California and the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley.

The Language of the Gift Agreements

The other major issue the ad hoc committee at Irvine considered is the language of the gift agreements themselves. The committee found that the four agreements reviewed all “include language that is not consistent with university policies related to religious and academic freedom.”

In this regard the committee cited DCF’s public views about the desirability of bringing more “scholar practitioners” -- academics who practice Hinduism -- into the field of Hindu studies.

"Granted, the gift agreements do not spell out the intent of any of the donors to impose the ‘scholar-practitioner’ condition on those hired into the proposed chairs," the committee found. "However, the agreements do include language that can be construed as a requirement, following the donor’s intent, to promote specific beliefs. For example, the gift agreement for the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Presidential Chair in Indic and Vedic Civilization Studies states: ‘It is the donor’s primary foundational intention, both initially and for posterity, to support their interest in uncovering the historic, current and future potential for the pragmatic, ethical and cultural relevance of Indic philosophies, praxes, teaching, theologies toward the betterment of the condition of humanity and nature (applied dharma), including collaborative outreach to the local and national Hindu communities and religious institutions in India.’ The language of practice and application along with the requirement of outreach to religious institutions in India appears to cross the line separating religious beliefs, affiliation and practices from the conditions of employment.”

The Thakkar Family-DCF agreement described here by the committee is the one that has already received final approval from the UC president’s office. The agreement for that gift, obtained by Inside Higher Ed via an open records request, stipulates that the donors will create an advisory council of three to five members “who will be meaningfully informed of the process and progress of the chair holder recruitment.” (It does, however, make clear that final decision-making authority rests in UC Irvine faculty and administrators.)

The agreement also includes the requirement that the person selected to fill the chair “have the equivalent of native proficiency in Sanskrit” (a highly limiting clause, as the ad hoc committee report discusses, since Sanskrit is primarily a classical language) and states that “qualified candidates will have demonstrated the ability to forge meaningful and productive partnerships with the Vedic and Indic heritage community in the Western diaspora.”

The agreement for the other of the two DCF chairs -- for the Swami Vivekananda-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies -- also allows for the creation of a donor advisory council and includes as qualifications for the chair "the ability to work closely with the Indian community of Southern California" and "with global heads of Indian spiritual/religious institutions."

Over all, the ad hoc committee observed that the agreements for all four chairs “are considerably more extensive and specific on donor intent in relation to research, teaching and outreach than other gift agreements we have analyzed for purposes of comparison.”

Such a characterization squares with DCF's own public statements about the importance of crafting gift agreements that leave no room for misinterpretation of the donor's intent, as seen in its response to an FAQ posted on its website about how DCF ensures that the university honors the spirit and intent of the donor.

"There are four parts to the answer," the DCF website states. "First, before entering into a relationship with a university, the donor must ensure that the recipient institution is hospitable to the intent of the donor, and not just the donor’s money. Secondly, at the time of giving the gift, the donor must enter into a gift agreement with the recipient, in which the intention and purpose of the donor [are] clearly documented and stipulated. This is a legal document, and is binding on the university. If the gift agreement is not drafted clearly and leaves open room for interpretation, it could be misinterpreted. Third, we must ensure that the university’s faculty search process recruits a professor who is eminently suited to fulfill the intention of the donor. This aspect is a key element in honoring the intent and spirit of the donor. A professor whose academic interests are at variance with the donor’s commitment may jeopardize the very intent of the gift. Lastly, when transitions occur within the department … there must be ongoing engagement between the donor and the key faculty within the university so as to ensure that the donor’s intent is preserved across key transitions. The last two aspects above may be difficult accomplish given the recruitment policies and processes of each individual university. Managing this effectively is one of the key value propositions of Dharma Civilization Foundation."


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