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Buying Professors

Do Donors have a Right to Select Recipients of Funded Professorships?

Academic freedom fosters an independent academic voice and avoidance of conflicts of interest. Universities exist to promote the public interest, and not to further the interest of the individual professor or the institution as a whole [or, by implication, any donor firm]. A recent alarming trend in academic circles is donating money to institutions of higher learning with ideological strings attached.

The latest example of infringement on academic independence in decision-making is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation that pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University, to endow two professorships. So far so good, but the problem is it is not a regular endowment, where a person gives a college or university money and they use the money to hire someone. The Koch professorships are the kind where a person gives the college or university money and then tells the institution whom they can and cannot hire based on prospective candidates’ adherence to the donor’s self-serving wealth-worshiping ideology.

Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue was recently revived when two Florida State professors criticized the fellowship agreement in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, faculty only retain an illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it is not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires do not meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates.

Looking at it from the donor’s perspective if you are going to spend a lot of money endowing a professorship, it is only rational to ensure that the professor whose salary you are paying advances your interests. When the Koch’s invested millions in George Mason University, they got the influential anti-environmental regulation nonprofit Mercatus Center out of the deal. Florida State has accepted donor-directed fellowships before from the BB&T bank that require the university to teach “Atlas Shrugged” in a business ethics class.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Florida State, defended the deal. He said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. "I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' but it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it."

Given the cutbacks in funding by public and private sources, most universities today accept gifts for the purpose of creating an endowed chair, professorship, or faculty fellowship positions. University faculty may be eligible to hold one of these positions to enhance their contribution to teaching, research and public service.

Endowed chairs, professorships, and faculty fellowships typically carry the name of the donor, of a person or institution designated by the donor, or of a person in whose name the University seeks funds to endow the position. However, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, chancellor, or dean determines the appointment and length of term for each position based on the memorandum of agreement with the donor. Once endowed chairs, professorships, or faculty fellowships are established, a designated University administrator is responsible for ensuring the endowment funds are expended in accordance with the terms of the endowment and for providing periodic reports on the status of the position and nature of activities to the donor.

One of the problems with the growing trend toward commercialism in today’s universities is that it exacerbates the already growing trend of placing increased emphasis on bringing in funds through grant-related projects and commercial arrangements, without considering the ethics of such activities. For example, accepting funds from private donors and commercial interests may lead to compromising objective decision making if, for example, the donor/commercial supporter expects in return for the funding that the university will slant its curriculum in a way that supports the goals of the donor.

Koch, a conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business, has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 26, 2013