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Editorial: University should further clarify its ethical gifts policies

On Sept.13, Brickson Diamond and Bernadette Aulestia — both members of the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — wrote a letter defending the ethical underpinnings of the University’s gift policy. Diamond and Aulestia wrote that “Brown does not accept gifts if it’s evident the proceeds were obtained illicitly, and only accepts gifts that are aligned with Brown priorities and do not carry strings dictating educational or research decisions.” Their letter came in response to a debate raised by students and alumni to disaffiliate Warren Kanders ’79 P’23 from the University. Kanders, the CEO of Safariland Group, resigned from the Whitney Museum’s board in July, as previously reported by The Herald. Safariland manufactures law enforcement and military supplies such as tear gas and bullet-proof vests.


University donation policies have come to the forefront across the country in recent weeks. Earlier this year, Jeffrey Epstein, a prominent financier, was accused of sexually abusing several teenage girls; he subsequently died by suicide while in jail last month. Revelations about Epstein’s anonymous donations to the MIT Media Lab led to the resignation of the elite lab’s director, Joi Ito. In conjunction with Ito’s fall, the University placed its own employee Peter Cohen, the Director of Development for Computer and Data Science Initiatives, on leave for his role in soliciting Epstein’s donations during his time at MIT. Similar donations were disclosed at Harvard.


In light of both the local and national debate around university donation policies, Brown must further clarify its ethical guidelines for donations. Without doing so, the University opens itself up to donations from potentially unethical people and breaks the trust between the University and its community by straying from the values inherent to this institution.


While Diamond and Aulestia’s letter is a step in the right direction, their definition is ambiguous and leaves too much room for interpretation. In particular, the Corporation members’ response solely focuses on the way the money donated was obtained — assuring that the funds themselves are legal and have a transactional history that aligns with Brown’s mission. That policy, however, is not focused enough on the people who are behind the donations.


Various ethically-dubious donations may then be acceptable under this definition. With a loose interpretation, the Communications, Alumni and External Affairs Committee — which has oversight over University fundraising policies — could theoretically accept a donation from a convicted mass-murderer, so long as the donation money was obtained licitly, had no strings attached and was in line with the University’s mission. Jeffrey Epstein would be allowed to donate under this interpretation as well — to date, no claims have surfaced regarding the illicit nature of his money, merely actions unrelated to his work. If there is University policy explicitly banning this type of gift, it ought to be publicized and reflected in official communications to the Brown community.


Even a stricter interpretation of the definition would allow for gifts from questionable donors. For example, should the University decline donations from individuals convicted of crimes, those accused of significant crimes but never convicted could easily donate. This would include many of those criticized in the #MeToo movement, such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.


These specific theoretical examples may sound extreme, but the ambiguity of the University’s policy has allowed for past donations that raise this exact ethical question. For example, Steven Cohen, whose hedge fund reached a settlement with the federal government for insider trading violations in 2013, has given at least $36 million to the University over several years; he even lent his now-infamous statue “Lamp/Bear” — affectionately known as Blueno — to the University. Brown also accepted donations to the Political Theory Project from Charles and David Koch, notable conservative brothers who have actively worked against climate change legislation. These are just two examples among what are likely many others, given the long list of Brown’s donors.


That said, some may argue that donations from such sources would benefit the University’s mission to support financial aid and other initiatives. But it is clear, as President Christina Paxson P’19 outlines in a February 2019 op-ed in The Herald, that there is a point at which gifts are no longer acceptable regardless of their potential benefits. Brown community members who proudly associate themselves with the University and thus its values have a right to understand exactly where that line is.


Donation policies speak volumes about the University’s values. The current policy allows room for donations that run counter to the spirit of the University’s “Slavery and Justice” report published in 2006. The report sought to rectify the University’s historical support of the slave trade, and among other suggestions, it put forth that Brown has a “special obligation to ensure that it does not profit from …  slavery and other forms of gross injustice.” While the current policy is a step in that direction, it leaves open the possibility for abuse through failing to provide standards that a donor’s character and personal history must meet. The University must be held accountable to its own reports, and clarifying the ethical gift policy will ensure that Brown is adhering to its values.


To be sure, the University has a strong incentive to keep its fundraising policies opaque. More money can be raised with unclear guidelines, thereby supporting University initiatives ranging from financial aid to building renovations. But at what point should we put aside our financial concerns to preserve our values? At the very least, a clearer ethical donation policy would help foster debate around who should qualify as an acceptable donor. It’s imperative for the University to do so now, in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein revelations and calls to remove Warren Kanders from the advisory council of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Jonathan Douglas ’20, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.


 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Steven Cohen P'08 P'16 "pleaded guilty to insider trading in 2013." In fact, his hedge fund reached a settlement with the federal government for insider trading violations. The article has been updated to reflect that change. The Herald regrets the error. 



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