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Students react to public gift acceptance policy

Students commend University transparency, question ethics behind aspects of policy

Over the past year, students have increasingly called for the University to be transparent about its ethical standards for accepting gifts. On Oct. 27, the University unveiled its gift acceptance policy for the first time — clarifying practices President Christina Paxson P’19 said were already in place. In interviews with members of two of the three student groups who had most urgently called for financial transparency, The Herald found an overall appreciation for the University’s efforts but a lingering feeling that the policy release was not enough.

The gift policy outlines the University’s position that accepting a donation does not serve as an implicit endorsement of the donor. It also states that a gift must align with “Brown’s mission of education, research and scholarship” in order to be accepted, The Herald previously reported.

The student collective Warren Kanders Must Go formed to call for the University to stop accepting monetary donations from Warren Kanders ’79 P’23, whose company The Safariland Group produces tear gas that has reportedly been used on immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, The Herald previously reported. In an email to The Herald, Sebastián Castro-Niculescu ’20, a member of WKMG, wrote that the University had never reached out to the group for feedback on the gift policy prior to its publication.

“While the University’s move toward transparency is a right one, it is not a guarantee of ethics,” Castro-Niculescu wrote, adding that there is no mention of involving students when the University considers whether to accept gifts. “The policy is too brief, curt and vague to approach any kind of robust ethical guidelines.”

The Undergraduate Council of Students has been vocal about the University’s need to publish information about its financial relationships. In 2018, UCS endorsed a referendum that called for the University to increase financial transparency around its investments. UCS President William Zhou ’20 said that the publication of the gift acceptance policy is “a great step toward transparency” for the University. Zhou noted that he and representatives from the Faculty Executive Committee, the Graduate Student Council and the Investment Office met with Paxson to offer feedback on drafts of the policy before its official release.

During such meetings, Zhou said he raised concerns about the policy’s assertion that acceptance of a gift does not indicate endorsement of a donor’s views or actions. The University “likes to consider itself to be on a moral high ground and also prioritizes things like diversity and inclusion,” Zhou said. The University “should not, then, be complicit in accepting gifts from sources that may have views or a past history that (go) against these core principles.”

Paxson emphasized that the policy’s release was not a response to a specific University concern but instead emerged out of a larger national discourse about the ethics of financial relationships.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve really created a unified policy document,” Paxson said.“I don’t think of this as much of a revision of a policy, as much as (it is) a clear statement of a set of principles that we’ve been following.” She added that the document is “formalized in a way that I think we can all stand behind.”

The gift acceptance policy will govern a process currently conducted by the University’s trustees and fellows, Paxson said, acknowledging that conversations about gift acceptance can be contentious. “Universities are quarrelsome places where ideas are debated, and people are not always in agreement,” she said. Only a handful of other private institutions have published gift acceptance policies.

The series of announcements follows a national controversy surrounding the late financier Jeffrey Epstein’s anonymous donations to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, as well as protests by Brown student groups against the role of Kanders at the University. In September, the University announced that it had begun redirecting over $1 million in gifts from the Sackler family’s organization, La Fondation Sackler. The University decided to direct the gift toward local charities that support opioid addiction treatment after Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company controlled by the Sackler family, came under scrutiny for its alleged complicity in the national opioid epidemic.

Many students not previously involved in activism surrounding the issue told The Herald that the gift acceptance policy was a step in the right direction toward financial transparency.

“It gives students a standard to hold future University decisions against,” said Naomi Lee ’21.

Some students approached by The Herald also disagreed with the policy’s assertion that accepting gifts does not “imply nor mean that the University endorses or approves of the donor’s views, opinions, businesses, or activities.”

“By accepting a gift, you’re helping (the donor’s) reputation,” said Benjamin Phelps ’23.

Megan Donohue ’22 agreed that accepting a donation is a demonstration of support for the donor’s values and opinions, which is contrary to the values expressed in the University’s public policy. “The morality of the funds reflects upon the morality of the University,” she said.

Allison Singleton ’22 similarly said that it is not possible to separate money from its source. “In accepting that money, you’re directly supporting whatever entity is giving you that money,” she said. Singleton also questioned if the University will take student feedback into consideration given Paxson’s opposition to the recent UCS divestment referendum, which garnered 69 percent support among students who voted in the election.

Three members of Brown Divest, a coalition of students who have called for the University to divest from “companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine,” did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Many students interviewed by The Herald said that whether or not they agreed with the policy, they believe that its publication will engage students in a campus-wide conversation about ethical finances.

Five students approached by The Herald declined to comment because they were unsure what the policy was and were not aware of its publication.


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