Letters to the Editor, Opinions

Letter: What’s the University’s moral litmus test for accepting donations?

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

To the Editor:

The University’s decision to place Director of Development for Computer and Data Science Initiatives Peter Cohen on academic leave in the wake of reports that he helped conceal Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to Massachusetts Institute of Technology raises the broader issue of what moral litmus test, if any, the University should use in accepting donations.

If Cohen indeed violated MIT policy in concealing donations from someone “disqualified” as a donor to MIT, then that is a matter between Cohen and his previous employer (though Cohen’s recent statement that, in effect, he was in fact just following MIT orders hardly speaks well of his ethical judgment). On the assumption that other Brown staff who remain in good standing have facilitated donations from, among others, Koch Industries and Safariland CEO Warren Kanders, simply facilitating acceptance of money from morally objectionable sources cannot in itself be regarded by the Paxson Administration as inconsistent with Brown values, on pain of contradiction. And it’s hardly reassuring to read that some Brown trustees who would defend the University’s gift policy conflate the distinction between the legal and the ethical. As described, that gift policy may be “rooted” in a concern that the University avoid legal liability but it patently is not “rooted” in ethics.

To be sure, Epstein acted both illegally and morally reprehensibly. The source of whatever money he donated to whomever remains, nonetheless, a matter of debate. Not so the wealth of Kanders, which some at Brown urge the University to decline on the basis that it demonstrably derives from the sale of riot gear and chemical munitions. And — think what you will of the Koch brothers — there is no denying that the funding for the Brown’s Political Theory Project derives in part from the exploitation of fossil fuels that have contributed to the degradation of our planet.

Brown University has a history of accepting the money of morally dubious people and those responsible for societal ills. For that, Peter Cohen should not be the Paxson Administration’s scapegoat. By all appearances, he was hired in the absence of a considered ethics policy for fundraising — this is the midst of a $3 billion campaign no less! — by an Administration whose “core values” he shares. That, of course, is the problem.

By Michelle Mason Bizri

Adjunct Associate Professor of Philosophy

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  1. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz originally shared the opinion of this letter, and was a vocal proponent of censuring Warren Kanders. Then he declared himself to have been horribly wrong, and I encourage others to think a second time as well. He realized that convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s retinue was filled with sexual predators who were also fierce advocates of left-wing notions of morality, as opposed to simply upholding the law. The fact that convicted fugitive rapist Roman Polanski could be celebrated by leftist Hollywood because of his leftism, along with other leftist sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Bill Clinton, indicates that the redefinition of morality to include “sins against the planet” by drilling for oil (Koch brothers) or manufacturing tear gas (Kanders) is at least partly a smoke screen to protect these politically correct sexual predators. Jerry Saltz is right: our standard for acceptable donations should be the law. Epstein was a convicted criminal; Kanders and the Koch brothers did absolutely nothing illegal. People who try to blur that line are on the side of the sexual predators.

  2. Haley Walles says:

    We can sit around all day blaming individuals for being immoral or we can actually do something to change the situation! The Koch Brothers have always been corrupt, Kanders has manufactured weapons for years, and there are another thousand men just like them. Are we going to go around ruining each of their lives?

    Why are we picking and choosing money when the whole system is broken? Take their money and do something good with it.

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