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

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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