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Universities grapple with donor behavior in wake of Jeffrey Epstein scandal

By David Schwartz
Published: September 10th, 2019

In the wake of the jail suicide of disgraced billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, the fallout continues for universities that had accepted his gifts, especially when they were given after Epstein served time for soliciting sex from a minor in 2008. MIT has suffered the most from the fallout after revelations regarding Epstein’s hush-hush involvement in funding research associated with its renowned Media Lab. The lab’s director, Joi Ito, resigned his post on Saturday.

Harvard is also getting flak for the $6.5 million it received from Epstein, but so far has resisted calls to redirect the funding.

The Epstein case is just the latest to shine a light on the way that universities solicit money from wealthy individuals, foundations, and companies. It begs the question, how do schools decide whose money to accept and when to reject or return funds? And are they more conscientious now than in the past?

“There definitely has been and will continue to be among senior managers and boards more awareness of these issues,” says Morgan Clevenger, a postdoc studying corporate social responsibility and global business ethics at the Monarch Business School in Switzerland.

University are now updating their policies and practices in response to the these types of potentially damaging cases. After criticism about wealthy donors influencing its hiring and firing of academic staff, for example, George Mason University tightened its rules in April to make donor information more transparent.

Adam Causgrove, who works in corporate relations at Carnegie Mellon, says universities typically do engage in internal discussions around donations coming from a specific problematic brand or individual before accepting money. “For better or worse, nothing is truly philanthropic,” he says. “It’s very rare that someone would give a meaningful donation and not want their name attached to it.”

That can create a particular problem in the life sciences and medical research, he says, where strict government rules protect patients from undue commercial interests. “We would be hesitant to name the school of medicine after a pharmaceutical company,” Causgrove says. “We have to be mindful of how it looks.”

A good illustration can be seen with the Sackler family, who critics say made their fortune off the opioid crisis as the owners of Purdue Pharma. Members of the family are big donors to academic biomedical research, and their name is on buildings at Tufts and Tel Aviv University. Now, those schools are facing calls to return money donated to them by a trust run by the Sackler family.

Some universities are responding by creating guidelines on determining whether or not to accept money, paying extra attention to new donors. “We have to do our homework and due diligence,” Causgrove says.

The exact process used to review proposed donations, and the standards applied, varies from institution to institution. Some larger universities, including the University of Edinburgh in the UK, employ dedicated advisory groups. Smaller institutions might bring in external consultants to help them decide, Clevenger observes. It’s hard to track how many universities have implemented policies, but many now do include them on their websites or in annual reports, he adds.

Not everyone believes in the need for formal written policies, however. Thomas Cushman, a sociologist at Wellesley College who has previously drawn criticism for taking research money from the Charles Koch Foundation, says it’s rare for ethical debate over donors to be as clear-cut as the Epstein case. “That would be a perfect case where you just give the money back. It’s dirty money. It’s bad money. He’s a bad person,” he says. “It gets a lot more difficult when you talk about philanthropy in general.”

Written policies that try to judge actions and behaviors as ethical or not will always be subjective, Cushman says, with the potential for turning the vetting process into a political litmus test. “If you look at any university or college you can find donors who possibly made their money in ways that were distasteful to a lot of people. But that alone cannot be a criterion for exclusion because it makes it all political.”

Source: The Scientist

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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