December 21, 2015; DNAinfo New York
Do an institution’s donors define the identity of the institution? This is the question swirling around the alumni groups at the Upper East Side’s Hunter College High School and is a stumper we have often asked here at NPQ before. Readers can mull the question further by consulting the NPQ classic, “When a Donor Becomes Tainted.”
Hunter College High School alumni were somewhat stunned to discover that Martin Shkreli, the notorious big pharma bad boy, had donated $1 million to his alma mater back in March, the largest one-time donation in the school’s history. Now, since his arrest on fraud charges and the unraveling of his public persona, alumni are asking the high school to return the donation because of the way it reflects on the prestigious high school known for churning out Ivy Leaguers.
“Now we’re veering into actual illegal activities that are in no way acceptable by any metric,” Zach Kolin, a 2006 graduate of the high school. “And taking that money makes us culpable to his actions.”
Some alumni have reacted by creating an alternative fundraiser as a challenge to Shkreli’s donation. Katie Uva and Chiara Di Lello started the fundraiser in October after the public backlash to his price hike of a life-saving HIV/AIDS drug. “As concerned citizens and Hunter alums, we also debated this issue. Some alums [sic] hoped Hunter would divest from Martin Shkreli. Others did not want that to happen,” says the description. The fundraiser also encourages using some of the funds raised for an annual bioethics event or to sponsor a student interested in bioethics studies. So far, the fundraiser has raised almost $1,700. It has doubled since Shkreli’s arrest.
“We wanted to raise however much money we could to express a general opposition to Martin Shkreli’s…unethical practice of financial speculation in medicine,” said Uva to DNAinfo, adding, “Shkreli has become wealthy at the expense of the public good.”
Shkreli’s donation is particularly confusing for alumni because he failed and was kicked out before he graduated. His classmates remember him for cutting class. Still, it appears he had a soft spot for the school. Some alumni feel he used the donation to make up for his behavior.
“I really cleaned up in the business world. I have to give thanks,” Shkreli told the New York Daily News last March.
Other alumni have voiced their understanding of the position that the school is in, which other cash-strapped organizations may understand as well. The donation comes at a time when the high school is struggling financially and can put the money to good use for its students.
“I’m happy there’s an amount of funding going to something important to me. I don’t take it as an endorsement of a person,” said Max Brawer, another alumnus of the school. But he added that if the money came from any of Shkreli’s fraudulent activities, it would make him reconsider his position.
If the school does return the donation, it will join several others who have rebuked any attempts by Shkreli to associate themselves with him, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, rap group Wu-Tang Clan, and a New York City homelessness charity. Community Solutions returned Shkreli’s $15,000 donation on philosophical grounds due to his recent hike of the HIV/AIDS drug.
“We serve people who depend on access to AIDS meds every day, and as an organization I don’t think we can keep this money,” said Jake Maguire, a spokesperson for the organization. What makes the nonprofit’s decision even more remarkable is that it undoubtedly needs the extra money as the United States is working to reduce the homeless population. The donation was made by the Shkreli Foundation, a charitable organization he founded and used to donate to several groups, including the nonprofit and Hunter College High School. A list of the foundation’s other donations can be found on the website.—Shafaq Hasan