Daniel Sutter: The games donors and universities play

Troy University
Troy University [Photo Credit: Troy University via Facebook]

Controversies over gifts at two SEC schools, Alabama and Missouri, have recently attracted attention. The cases highlight the tension between donor goals and university administration and relate, I think, to conservatives’ increasingly dim view of higher education.

Let’s consider the Alabama case first. In June, the trustees returned the largest single gift in school history, $26 million from Hugh Culverhouse Jr. (only $21 million had then been received). Mr. Culverhouse was the school’s largest donor; the business school is named for his late father, the long-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner, Alabama grad, and large donor. Alabama named the law school for Mr. Culverhouse.

The return occurred after Mr. Culverhouse called for an out-of-state student boycott over Alabama’s new abortion law, but was apparently due to attempts to influence law school operations, allegedly including student admissions and faculty hiring. According to emails, Mr. Culverhouse may have had good intentions. He was unhappy with the quality of candidates for a constitutional law professorship and perhaps hoped that his gift could enable a hire to boost the law school’s national profile. The resolution here seems quite honorable; if you discover that you and your partners have irreconcilable expectations, you should shake hands and part ways.

The Missouri case starts in 2002 with a $5 million gift from the estate of Sherlock Hibbs to fund professorships in Austrian economics. Instead Missouri funded positions for business professors with research unconnected to Austrian economics.

This is where things get fascinating. Mr. Hibbs’ will included a provision that if the money were not used to hire Austrian economists, the gift would go to Hillsdale College instead. (Note to interested donors: Troy University has a strong program in Austrian economics!) Hillsdale recently sued to force the transfer, generating publicity. Missouri produced statements signed by the professors attesting that they are adherents of Austrian economics.

Donors have long accused universities of using gifts to hire conservative and free-market professors for other purposes. I think this is related to the partisan decline in confidence in higher education. A 2019 Pew Center study found that 59 percent of Republicans held a negative view of higher education versus 33 percent positive, compared with 67 percent positive and 18 percent negative among Democrats. In 2015, 54 percent of Republicans viewed higher ed positively, versus 37 percent negatively.

I do not believe that ignoring conservative donor intent caused this attitude shift. It likely reflects broader social forces and our general political polarization. Using gifts from conservatives to further liberal goals enables such an attitude change.

What limits should be placed on gifts, or what kinds of influence should donors be able to buy? The recent college admissions scandal, with parents paying to get their children in some of our nation’s most prestigious universities, highlights these questions. (For full disclosure, the Johnson Center at Troy is supported by donors.)

Professors, myself included, typically insist that admissions, curriculum, and hiring decisions be ours alone, and for good reason. We are the experts and know the most about judging faculty qualifications or different approaches in our fields. Being hired and tenured provides us specific responsibility for these decisions. State universities largely governed by faculty will better spend our tax dollars.

The decision-making authority for universities though lies with the trustees or regents, as delegated to presidents or chancellors. And state universities ultimately belong to the taxpayers. Limiting faculty government is wise as professors’ views are at least somewhat biased by self-interest, and we have difficulty recognizing when we are clinging to unreasonable positions. Furthermore, our jobs provide us relatively little feedback about the contribution of our teaching and research to society.

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper extent of donor influence. But accepting money under false pretenses is not right. In a perfect world, only the offenders’ names would be sullied; in our world, reputations are collective. Trampling donor intent damages the standing of higher education.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.