Grinnell's Gun Connection

Donation from NRA president helped prompt college to change gift policy, raising questions: If you take someone's money, are you endorsing them? What if he boasts of getting professors "giddy" about shooting guns?

February 19, 2018
Pete Brownell

At first glance, Grinnell College’s Ignite Program seems like an unlikely source of controversy.

The program has local students in prekindergarten through sixth grade coming to campus for courses crafted and taught by college students, according to its description online. The younger students gain exposure to a college atmosphere, helping them get ready for higher education in the future. In its first three years, the program hosted 580 students taking 105 different classes.

Ignite, the description says, is funded by “a generous gift from Helen Redmond and Pete Brownell, the Grinnell Careers in Education Professions program, and Grinnell College's Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement.” It all seems very fitting for a college that proudly proclaims its historical roots as a center for abolitionist activity and continues to tout its commitment to social responsibility.

Except Pete Brownell is the president of the National Rifle Association.

Brownell’s name caught the eye of several Grinnell alumni who are in favor of gun control and thus in opposition to the NRA’s agenda. In their estimation, the gift from Brownell -- and Redmond, to whom he is married -- helped to whitewash a reputation stained by his leading position in the gun lobby. By accepting the money and publicly recognizing the man, Grinnell bestowed upon him a fig leaf of respectability with which to hide the indecency of the organization he leads, they argue.

The flap over Brownell helped to push the college to revise its gift acceptance policy this month. New language was added saying Grinnell can consider the source of funds when deciding whether to accept or decline a gift. Also added was language calling for specific constituencies to be involved in screening gift proposals if those gifts would benefit particular programs, and the president of Grinnell’s Alumni Council was added to a Gift Acceptance Committee for screening funds.

Not everyone at Grinnell shares the opinion that accepting Brownell’s gift was inappropriate -- some professors included. In an environment where colleges are always scrambling for money, some have worried the college will struggle to find donors deemed acceptable, that it has staked out a moral high ground that leaves little room for associating with anyone else. After all, it does not seem to bother recipients of Nobel Prizes that the prizes were created by the inventor of dynamite. Nor are Rhodes Scholarships going unclaimed because they were created by a leading imperialist of his day.

The situation at Grinnell stands out because it is intertwined with the particularly inflammatory topics of guns and politics at a time when the campus has been the home of much activity by anti-gun-violence activists. Recent school shootings like the one last week in Florida -- which predates this debate -- also add to its resonance. But it strikes at issues not related to firearms.

Grinnell’s debate over accepting gifts is hardly the only one playing out recently. Many have wondered whether colleges confer legitimacy when they recognize donors, or whether they are being played by big-money muscle without even realizing it.

Recently, the University of California, Irvine, found itself under fire for taking a $200 million gift from a couple critics allege back junk science. Donations to universities by the Sackler family, which largely draws its fortune from prescription drugs, including opioids, have been scrutinized. Money from David and Charles Koch, the principal owners of the petrochemical company Koch Industries, always seems to cause an uproar because of concerns about their money coming with strings attached.

In such a climate, it should come as no surprise that many institutions are considering adding or updating gift acceptance policies to account for institutional values or reputational risk of being affiliated with donors. Even discounting policies, many gift agreements now include provisions for renaming or denaming buildings and programs should a donor become involved in a scandal that would compromise the reputation of an institution.

The movement comes with very real concerns, however. Determining who is an acceptable donor is a difficult, imprecise task, because a personal donation is different from one made in an official capacity. And if you don’t take money from the president of the NRA, do you also refuse money from all card-carrying members?

Separating the Individual Donor From the Organization

Those who criticize the Brownell donation say the president of the NRA is different.

“He is really in a position to exercise direct, official action,” said Alana Smart. “You cannot separate the individual from the organization, in my mind, because of his role. It is so prominent.”

Smart is a member of Grinnell’s Class of 1968, one of the loudest voices pushing for changes to the college’s gift policy. She is also co-chair of a group called Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence.

She has heard the argument that Brownell made his donation on a personal check, not a check from the NRA. It wasn’t a check from his company, Brownells, which has its retail store a few miles from the college campus and bills itself as the “World’s Largest Supplier of Firearms Accessories and Gunsmithing Tools.”

Smart added that she would not object to Brownell coming on campus to speak or start a dialogue.

“That’s what Grinnell is there for,” she said. “The issue is putting that Grinnell Good Housekeeping seal of approval on Pete Brownell.”

Other alumni from the Class of 1968 say they’ve heard pushback based on the idea that Brownell should be exempted from scrutiny of his national role because he and his wife are good members of the local community. Redmond is president of the local Board of Education. Many say Brownell is a “good guy” and that their children go to school with the couple’s children, said Charles Connerly, a member of the class who is now director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

In response, Connerly brings up the history of Grinnell. The college was staunchly opposed to slavery, even relocating to be in an abolitionist town, he said. It is in its character to take stances that are not consistent with its neighbors.

Connerly acknowledges there might be a line where it’s difficult to decide whether it’s appropriate to differentiate between a leader’s behavior and the behavior of the organization they head. But this isn’t it, he said. Regardless of where you draw the line, the NRA has crossed it.

“There is a difference," he said. ”There is a clear record of the NRA, and there is a clear record of Brownell as president in the NRA. There is no innuendo.”

Supporters of this position can point to what they say is inflammatory rhetoric. The NRA posts memes, for instance, saying things like, “My door isn’t locked for my protection, it’s locked for yours” and encouraging viewers to pick one: victim or gun owner.

But they can also point to the way the NRA has written about Brownell and his relationship to Grinnell College. He was profiled on a “Ring of Freedom” section on the NRA’s website. In part, it described him leaving faculty members “giddy with excitement” at firing a handgun.

Pete and his family live in Grinnell, a town of around 10,000 east of Des Moines in central Iowa. The spick-and-span community likes to refer to itself as the “jewel of the prairie” and is home to Grinnell College, an excellent Midwestern liberal arts school. Brownell likes to point out that the college hasn’t always been a bastion of pro-gun sentiment, and this omission of pro-gun common sense presented Pete with an obvious hometown problem to rectify.

“We started by opening up a dialogue,” Brownell said. “It wasn’t that the folks on the faculty really hated guns, it’s just that they didn’t know anything about them.”

So Pete volunteered to lecture on Second Amendment issues and, in time, managed to start a shooting club on campus. Then, when several of the professors expressed a desire to help with wildlife habitat enhancement on Brownell land bordering the company shooting range, the CEO sensed an opportunity to open even more philosophical doors. When the educators finished with the hands-on work involving plants, seed and soil, Pete introduced them to the shooting range.

For most it was a first. And, as is generally the case, the majority of the faculty left Brownell’s property giddy with excitement over having actually fired a real handgun. Today these same educators are regulars at the range. The newly committed gun owners have been known to take their guns with them when they return to New York for civic events. The professors hate to miss out on even a few minutes of range time, and the previous anti-gun sentiment at the college has been offset by an open-mindedness that never would have exited without a little push from Pete.

The passage in question is no longer in Brownell’s profile, but an online archive still exists from June 2017. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment or to interview Brownell for this piece.

Adam Laug is director of development and interim co-leader of development and alumni relations at Grinnell. When asked on Friday, he said he did not have any information about whether Grinnell was involved in the changes to the NRA profile of Brownell.

Laug declined to answer questions about Brownell’s donation. Grinnell does not release information about how much was given or the length of a gift agreement without approval in a gift release, he said.

The college is not endorsing its donors, even by naming them in association with a program, he said.

“We’re fortunate to benefit from such a wide variety of donors, volunteers and activities,” he said. “I don’t think that recommends any sort of endorsement, but rather an expression of gratitude.”

Policy Changes

Laug was willing to speak in greater detail about the changes Grinnell made to its gift acceptance policy.

Additions include guiding principles that Grinnell accept gifts that have a reasonable expectation of benefiting the college’s mission and that it will not encourage gifts “inappropriate in light of the donor’s disclosed personal or financial situation.” Changes also add alumni representation to a gift acceptance committee that reviews the appropriateness of accepting certain gifts and add a provision that “in cases where gift proposals would benefit a specific program, department, or unit on campus, leadership of relevant campus constituencies will be involved in proposal screening.”

The changes do not expand provisions under which Grinnell should return gifts in certain situations, something some critics had wanted. Gifts can be returned if “deemed prudent” by the vice president for development and alumni relations.

It’s too soon to say whether Grinnell will stop taking money from any donors as a result of the policy, Laug said.

“I think that is something we have not yet encountered,” he said. “As we formulate our process for future gifts, we’ll know more.”

Experts predict more institutions will have discussions about evaluating future gifts. Concerns have been growing about potential donors attempting to use gifts to influence organizations, said David Bass, senior director of research at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Universities aren’t only being challenged on new gifts, he said. They are being challenged about buildings, statues and programs named for donors decades ago.

“In an environment where we are seeing increasing numbers of institutions be challenged to change the names of buildings, change the names of programs, it may be more common for institutions to take some of that into account right at the start,” Bass said.

Clearly, morals and opinions change over time. The optimists hope new mechanisms like those being added to Grinnell’s gift acceptance policy can help colleges deal with those changing morals.

Not everyone is an optimist, though. Some worry Grinnell will be bogged down running background checks on every small gift. Samuel Rebelsky, a professor of computer science, wrote an extensive blog post on such possible drawbacks. He also argued there are few sources of large donations not tainted in some way, and that policies can be interpreted differently over decades.

“If we had the policy in place in the 1950's, would we follow the inclinations of the Senator from the state north of us and choose to refuse donations from those who are friends with communists or who had socialist tendencies?” he wrote. “The ‘You're not moral enough to give to Grinnell’ attitude worries me.”

What Now?

In a telephone interview Friday, Rebelsky said he would not want to be an employee in Grinnell’s development office deciding whether to accept gifts. Everyone feels the college has absolutely clear morals, he said. But individual cases are complex in surprising ways, and acting on clear morals is often a cloudy proposition.

As for Brownell’s gift, Rebelsky said he is able to separate the man from the NRA. The Brownell-Redmond gift funds a program enriching education for students who aren’t wealthy, he said.

“It aligns with the college’s goals and with community goals,” he said. “They make a big, positive difference in town, and so I have trouble saying because of a different hat that one of them wears, we need to say no to them.”

Others feel differently. Eliza Willis is a professor of political science who helped organize a discussion of the gift acceptance policy changes. One of a college’s most valuable assets is its reputation, she said. Any gift that would seem to hurt that reputation should at least be discussed.

“It’s a hard debate, but we can’t just take money from everyone,” she said.

“As a political scientist, it’s a bit of a legitimation exercise,” she said. “There is some exchange that’s happening here, and I think we need to acknowledge more publicly what we’re giving these organizations is legitimacy, and that is a very valuable asset for them -- especially when we’re talking about very powerful organizations that have a lot of resources.”

Faculty and alumni are still worried for a number of reasons. Some didn’t get the rejection clause they wanted in the new policy. Many worry how it will be implemented. Grinnell first added its gift acceptance policy at the end of 2015, but the gift acceptance committee it created has yet to meet, they say.

Keep in mind, these issues are complicating the discussion at Grinnell. Thanks to its history and stated values, it should arguably be more unified about which donations to accept than the average liberal arts college or public institution with many disparate constituencies.

“There is a heritage going back to the origins of the college,” said Connerly, of the Class of 1968. “It’s what gives Grinnellians a degree of distinctiveness. There is a sense of identity that is being challenged by the source of this gift.”


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