Should Donors’ Gifts Also Buy Influence At Universities?

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January 29, 2011; Source: New York Times | A disgruntled businessman’s request that the University Of Connecticut return a $3 million gift and fire its athletic director because he doesn’t like who the school chose as its new football coach is raising questions about how much control, if any, a donor’s gift should buy.

Writing in the New York Times, sports columnist William C. Rhoden says that the university should make clear to Robert G. Burton that “$7 million is not enough to influence personnel decisions.” A similar view is echoed by James W. Earl, a professor of medieval literature at the University of Oregon, who has made a name for himself fighting what he believes is the unfair influence of that school’s major donor, Phil Night, founder of Nike.

Earl maintains that Knight’s money, which helped elevate the Oregon Ducks football team to national prominence – including a failed bid for the championship title earlier this year – has also damaged the university. “Do you think our university is getting better; are more and better students coming here?” Earl said. “It puts us in the public eye, and the idea is that if we get enough people to love the Ducks, some may actually contribute to the school.”

Instead, Earl maintains that people regard the university “as a sports franchise. They don’t care what we do on the other side of campus.” Earl would like to see tax deductions for contributions to athletic programs eliminated. He says that might encourage donors to give universities money they desperately need to cover non-athletic costs. “Universities are starving. They are in terrible condition, while athletics departments are booming with millionaires giving millions of dollars.”

Richard Lariviere, Oregon’s president, disputes Earl’s claims that Knight’s contributions haven’t been good for the university. Although most of the $230 million has gone for sports facilities, Lariviere said Knight, and his wife, Penny, supported renovation of a library and have endowed numerous academic chairs. The Times’ Rhoden writes that Knight’s sway over the university is significant, and that he’s not bashful about letting the school know when he disagrees with their plans.

According Rhoden, in 2000 Knight “withdrew a promised donation of $30 million to the university because it had decided to join the Worker Rights Consortium, which had criticized Nike’s labor practices. The university withdrew from the group, and Knight re-pledged the money. This would be considered unseemly, except that most major sports programs with high aspirations have someone like a Phil Knight. If they don’t, they are looking for one.”—Bruce Trachtenberg