Donors should give to universities, unconditionally

The saying goes that a rebate is not a good deal if the item on sale is not what you really want. The same wisdom could easily be applied to philanthropy in higher education: a donation is not really a donation if it is not used for something that a university would have spent its own money on, if it did. did.

But many universities don’t seem to agree. In recent years, donors have increasingly offered gifts with channels that steer research, education, and even healthcare in accordance with the donor’s beliefs. Now that problem has spread to architecture, with UC Santa Barbara planning to build a massive block of student housing in which only a few rooms would have windows. The dormitory plans are based on the design of billionaire and future architect Charles T. Munger, who is pumping $ 200 million into the $ 1.5 billion project, but only if his plan is followed through.

Historically, universities have been seen as bastions of freedom of thought and expression. But efforts to increase their prestige and wealth – along with the need at times to simply continue operations – have led some to accept questionable gifts in recent years.

Five years ago, UC Irvine repaid the first installments of a $ 6 million donation to establish four chairs endowed with Hindu studies, but only after professors and students raised vehement objections against the political program of the donor, the Dharma Civilization Foundation. And three years ago, the university touted its health services’ offer of homeopathy – an alternative medical treatment not validated by scientific evidence – after receiving a $ 200 million donation for integrative medicine from the Henry and Susan Samueli Foundation. Susan Samueli is a strong supporter of homeopathy. The mention was removed from its site after much criticism.

The Conservative Koch Brothers Foundations donated millions to support academic studies on the market economy, as well as restrictive conditions, while a foundation of liberal George Soros donated to promote research into the effects of donations political campaign. Meanwhile, the director of a well-respected program at Yale University resigned the post this year after what she described as the university’s willingness to give in to unacceptable interference from conservative donors.

What makes the dorm situation at UC Santa Barbara even more outrageous is that Munger doesn’t take the entire dorm bill, or even most of it. He’s leveraging other funds – probably largely from taxpayers – to test his crackpot theory that students can live happily in windowless cubicles despite substantial evidence that natural light is linked to better mental health, better health. sleep and better performance.

If UC executives had used their budget and hired an architect to design a dormitory like this, well, they would just be guilty of bad taste and worse decision making. But these and other blunders in which universities give donors too much control over teaching, research and operations tarnish the reputation of higher education and make the public wonder who they really serve. interests.

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