J. Peter Freire: Attach strings to college donations

By on February 11, 2009

A WEALTHY art collector gives his prized original Andy Warhol painting to his alma mater’s museum. Within a few months, that painting is on the auction block.

That’s what has happened at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., where the board of trustees announced the other week that it could not longer afford to keep its Rose Art Museum open. Donors now have to ask two questions. First, can the universities they support get away with hocking donated paintings? Second, is the school spending its money wisely?

Welcome to the murky debate about donor intent: Donors give money to universities. Universities then use that money for a purpose other than that originally desired. Donors get angry and sue. They then find out an unfortunate reality: They donated without setting parameters for the use of their gift. So that beloved Andy Warhol is stuck on eBay.

Take Randolph-Macon Women’s College, in Lynchburg, Va. On account of studies showing a rapid decrease in the market for women’s colleges, the school went coed and changed its name to Randolph College. The board of trustees then looked for ways to restore the rapidly declining endowment by moving to sell four paintings from its prized art collection. Opponents sued, charging that the paintings were given to a women’s college and that the coed Randolph had no right to sell the works. The courts ruled in favor of Randolph.

Given that the donors of the paintings never asked the college to hold on to the paintings in perpetuity, the college had never taken on such an obligation. So, yes, they can get away with it. The question is whether they ought to.

As Brandeis liquidates its own museum, it expects to take in a good amount of cash (about $350 million), making the auction little different from a successful capital drive. Both the donor and the art buyer are helping the school meet its bottom line. Except in this case, the art buyer is getting exactly what he wants, and the donor is getting nothing. Giving no direction in how one’s gifts are used has consequences.

To stay competitive in the superficial world of college rankings, schools are building enormous climbing walls, other multimillion-dollar sports facilities and expanding course catalogs to include the latest fads. But these gifts also underwrite draconian social engineering. Brandeis has earned a "Red Light" for its prohibitive speech codes from the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, and has gone so far as to actively monitor one student who offended another during a classroom discussion.

Not only is Brandeis disregarding the principle of free speech, it’s also wasting scarce resources hounding students and regulating classroom discussion. These donors would be shocked to know how schools have also become a bureaucratic morass. A nationwide trend, documented in studies done by both the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education, shows that colleges and universities are hiring more administrative staff and part-time faculty and fewer tenure-track professors.

At the University of Massachusetts, increases in administrators outnumber increases in faculty 5 to 1. It would appear that for colleges, education is a lower priority than administration.

Donors should take steps to fix these issues. First, stop giving without preconditions. Universities have become accustomed to getting blank checks but can’t prevent donors from specifying, within reason, how they want their gift used. Second, hold college and university trustees more accountable. University trustees are supposed to represent alumni interests, but rarely do because administrators bristle at the slightest hint of dissent.

Seeing that Dartmouth College’s board of trustees had become a rubber-stamp committee for the school president, James Wright, a group of activist alumni ran for election to the board. The college itself poured money into a public-relations campaign labeling the rebels as "right-wing radicals" despite the slate’s wide range of ideological perspectives. The school essentially decided for itself who should represent alumni interests and even used donor money to squelch opposition.

Thus Brandeis’s alumni and donors should speak up. If the school doesn’t like the conditions on a donation, no one is forcing the school to take it. As schools are forced to deal with increasing economic hardships, though perhaps they’ll eventually come around to understanding that donations are investments. That way, the Warhol painting, not the donor, will be left hanging.

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Schools: Brandeis University