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December 18, 2019; Chronicle of Higher Education

Maybe money can’t buy you love, but on university campuses at least, it may buy you access and influence. When the power of that money combines with donor anonymity, it creates a toxic brew that can poison an organization’s values and culture.

The pressure on colleges and universities to raise funds places donors in a position of privilege that is strengthened as their wealth and ability to make larger gifts grows. For donors with a mission, whether it’s to reclaim a stained reputation or to advance a political philosophy, that leverage becomes a tool to be used.

In 2016, George Mason University announced with great fanfare and immediate controversy that it had raised $30 million from two donors and would, as a result, be renaming its law school in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. At the time, Ruth McCambridge reported on the strong negative reaction that the renaming drew and pointed to concerns not just with having Scalia’s values tied to George Mason, but also with the two donors:

One donor is anonymous, but approached the school through the conservative Federalist Society with a $20 million gift; the other donor is the Charles Koch Foundation for $10 million. The strong donor politics leave many worried, both about the potential for an abrogation of academic freedom and the probability that the combination of donor and honoree will give the perception that the school is essentially a conservative legal stronghold.

This week, we may have learned who the anonymous donor might have been and about the ongoing ability of that donor to influence the university’s operations. Based on documents obtained from the university, Allison Pienta, a lawyer working for the nonprofit UnKoch My Campus, identified the $20 million donor as Barre Seid, a Chicago billionaire industrialist with strong conservative beliefs.

George Mason’s interim president, Anne Holton, could neither confirm nor deny the identity of the anonymous contributor, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But if Pienta’s conclusions are correct, then, based on the treasure trove of communications now available, he has been actively using the access his donor status provides to quietly push the university to agree with his political agenda.

As the Chronicle observed, once it reviewed the information about Seid and George Mason, “People who are concerned about undue donor influence often envision clear-cut quid pro quos or prescriptive gift agreements that grant wealthy people too much control over the academic enterprise. These documents imply a subtler form of influence, one in which a donor elevates concerns about a professor or a regulatory body just by passing information along to university decision makers.” Subtle, yes, but influence nonetheless.

The documents contain evidence Seid was willing to use large and regular gifts to help him influence the university’s law school. Seid committed $1,875,000 over five years to support the hiring of a specific law professor. The gift, to be made anonymously through “Donors Trust,” would be terminated if the professor Seid favored left the school. He was also, through the select forwarding of blog posts, able to have an audit triggered on the program of Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist at George Mason.

NPQ’s coverage of the pernicious effect of big money and secrecy had us worried about the future of colleges, universities, and the nonprofit sector overall: “Anonymity and secrecy may make fundraising easier, but they don’t build trust.” With each new case, our worry grows.—Martin Levine