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Paxson P'19: Brown ensures that donor gifts advance its mission

In the course of any day on campus — attending a lecture, conducting an experiment, studying in the library or participating in extracurricular activities — every member of this community benefits from the gifts of literally thousands of generous donors to Brown.

But gifts can also spark controversy. Recently, at numerous campuses across the country, gifts from individuals, organizations and even countries have come under fire because of objections to the donors’ business activities, opinions or other actions. Given the importance of philanthropy to Brown, and in light of these serious concerns, I am writing to ensure our community understands Brown’s approach to accepting gifts.

Brown’s Charter, written in 1764, states that the power of accepting gifts lies solely with the Corporation, Brown University’s governing body. This is consistent with the modern view that governing boards are responsible for ensuring that the institutions they serve have the financial resources required to fulfill their missions. Currently, the Corporation formally accepts all gifts of $1 million or more and delegates the acceptance of smaller gifts to senior administrators. However, University administrators ask Corporation members to review any gift, regardless of size, that raises concerns about alignment with Brown’s principles for accepting gifts.

The core principle that guides the acceptance of a gift is whether it will advance Brown’s mission of research and education in the service of society. Brown’s current gift policy, adopted in 2002, sums this up in one succinct sentence: “Gifts will be accepted so long as they are found to contribute to the approved purposes of the University.”

Gifts that don’t meet this standard can be, and are, declined. For instance, gifts may be declined if they are too restrictive in purpose to be useful — for example, an endowed faculty position in a subject not taught at Brown. Gifts may also be declined if they require expenditures beyond what is given — for example, the donation of an art collection that can’t be housed without building an unaffordable new facility. Most important, gifts will be declined if they compromise academic freedom — for example, a gift with strings attached that lets the donor select the curriculum for a course or gain influence over a faculty member’s research agenda.

Of course, gifts will not be accepted if they are not the donor’s property to give or if it is evident that the gift proceeds were obtained by illegal means. The Corporation also exercises judgment as to whether or not a gift is aligned with Brown’s core mission and whether it could inflict lasting damage on the University’s reputation and integrity to be associated with a specific donor.

I want to underscore that only in rare and exceptional circumstances would a gift be declined or returned because of a donor’s activities or opinions. Brown is deeply committed to freedom of thought and diversity of views. We start from a place of respect for the legitimate business activities, political views and behaviors of donors, even if some members of our community disagree with them. It would be contrary to Brown’s values to use the rejection of gifts as a tool to take sides in, or make statements about, contested social and political issues. Although members of the Brown community have the right to express opposition to a gift, the mere presence of controversy around a donor is not a sufficient reason for declining a gift.

The gifts that are presented to the Corporation for acceptance are, nearly always, unambiguously beneficial to Brown and aligned with our values. Debates about whether or not to accept or retain a gift are extremely rare. This is because gifts usually stem from conversations with alumni, parents and friends that take place over months and even years. Through these discussions, prospective donors learn about Brown’s highest priorities — for example, financial aid, endowed professorships and campus facilities — and identify which priorities are most exciting and meaningful to them. Indeed, a major success of the current BrownTogether campaign is that about 90 percent of gifts received to date directly support priorities established in Building on Distinction, Brown’s strategic plan. The remaining 10 percent support things that, although not enumerated in the strategic plan, add great value to the University.

Brown can’t be a great institution without philanthropy, and I’m deeply grateful to the alumni, parents and friends who give to the University. They contribute, volunteer and participate in the life of the University because they believe in our mission of advancing knowledge and preparing students for lives of purpose. They are inspired by Brown’s high academic standards and distinctive approach to education, the contributions that Brown alums make to society and the impact of Brown’s research in the world. Our policies and practices ensure that their generous gifts advance Brown’s mission while supporting the University’s values.

President Christina Paxson P’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this op-ed to and op-eds to


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