Ask the grumpies: Should universities take Koch or Epstein money?

SLAC prof asks:

Is taking money from Jeffrey Epstein worse than taking money from the Koch foundation?  Which is worse?  Clearly we shouldn’t take money from the KKK.  Is it ok to take anyone’s money if there aren’t strings, or is there a line?  Who gets to decide the line?  Does Koch money ever truly have no strings?  Should personal morals be irrelevant when an institution takes money?

Oh wow, this is a hard one.  We’re really not ethicists and don’t have enough expertise to have an opinion on non-obvious cases.  That said… here are some thoughts.

First off, personally I think it’s fine to take money that doesn’t have strings attached (including naming rights!!) from the estate of someone who is dead.  So if you’re an institution that has a morally horrific but extremely wealthy graduate and he just gives you a couple million in his will but it’s completely unrestricted, go ahead and take it without advertising it.  Put it towards something completely antithetical to what he would have wanted (sexual assault prevention training for freshmen with a focus on how not to assualt) or spend it on something boring (utility bills) freeing up that fungible money for other things.  If he says you have to name something after him or hire someone specific etc., then don’t take the money (and advertise you didn’t take it).

If the bad person or group is still alive, don’t take money with strings attached.  No naming rights.  No final approval of tenure track hires.

When there aren’t strings it gets much more complicated.  Yes, one shouldn’t take KKK money (unless it’s used for training frats how not to do blackface or to pay for programs etc. that benefit black students and faculty– I’m a big fan of F-U uses of bad guys’ money).  But if Koch money is offered for something that isn’t evil (no strings scholarships)?  And they do fund things that aren’t evil along with their massive funding of evil… I’m not sure.  I mean, I’d like to encourage them to spend more money on not-evil and less money on evil.  But I don’t want them to get credit for the not-evil stuff as if it makes up for the evil stuff because it really doesn’t.

This is hard.

What do you think, Grumpy Nation?  Should institutes of higher education accept money from bad people and bad organizations?  Under what circumstances?

10 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Should universities take Koch or Epstein money?”

  1. sciliz Says:

    Historically speaking, many universities owe a lot to the type of evil industrialists who exploited workers and smashed labor organizing. Because those were the people with the money. Historically speaking, Rockefeller WAS the Koch of his time.

    From this I conclude this is what WILL happen:
    *Universities will take the money
    *The Koch name will eventually be synonymous with philanthropy, not evil
    *90% of human life on this earth will perish in fire

    I’m feeling optimistic today aren’t I?

  2. Alison Says:

    Another issue is that sometimes even no-strings money has invisible strings— if the development people start saying to be careful because they want another gift from the same source. So a will is one thing, but with live people or foundations I think hope for more always acts as a string.

  3. Brandi L. Holder Says:

    I don’t know, I kind of like (ok, I *really* like) taking the money for FU uses, AND advertising it as such! Great article. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Alice Says:

    I think another tricky thing with the live donor is how he/she is likely to use the fact of the donation. Will the person be able to use it as part of a political campaign or to muddy the waters when it comes to their image? Trump’s election and the fact that anyone is still capable of supporting him has really highlighted to me that there are some serious gaps in critical thinking in this country. I would not want the situation to be, “X donated money to this college and the money was used for an anti-racism initiative. That means that he isn’t /really/ racist.” Never mind that X hires primarily white people for executive-level positions, is on the record as denigrating members of many other races, and is pushing racist legislation and policies.

    I just don’t think it would be worth accepting any amount if the donor is alive and able to use it to make them look different from what they actually are. Not when we’ve seen how many people are able to shut their eyes to the bulk of the evidence in front of them.

  5. rose Says:

    Money has been shown to increase power historically; rich people have more power.
    So some apparently very rich people today are willing to support some programs/laws/policies in order to maximize their money.
    Donating money produces tax benefits as well as power in re-writing taxation rules, and historically provides entry into many settings. Quid Pro Quo/ back scratching.

    • rose Says:

      Realized I wasn’t clear. If more money was raised by taxes on rich entities there would be more money to spend on institutions and functions that provide assistance and education and research for the public. Instead less money raised and donations are made by rich which provide advantages to themselves. Right. Something you all know ~ but needs to be considered as consequence of taking donations from ‘evil’ sources….. Which you raised in post.

  6. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Hm, apparently my idea of accepting money without strings but not advertising it didn’t go over so well with Ronan Farrow. Good thing I’m not in charge of fundraising!

  7. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I’m with you on taking their money and doing secret good things with it without ever advertising it but also it icks me out that the bad people themselves would use that as a slate cleaner for the horrible stuff they do. (I dream of becoming a secret majillionaire so I can go around undoing their evil and not letting them buy a clean reputation. One of many dreams.)

  8. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    Receiving money from the Koch brothers (or any other corporate entity / representative) that is seeking to launder opinion through academic research, whether it be on climate change, net neutrality, chocolate as a health food, etc. seems way worse to me than prideful, semi-anonymous power brokering of random unsavory– or even felonious– people, imho. But the former is kind of par for the course (I know it’s slightly more complicated than that, but still) and the latter I guess is a really big scandal? I’m kind of surprised the fallout and resignations from the Epstein/MIT Media Lab thing, to be honest. Not saying it’s no big deal, but, like, I feel like I’m missing something.


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