Scholarly research, teaching and learning are essential public goods. However, public financing—the largest source of support—has been on a downward roller-coaster for decades. The Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the stakes for institutions of higher and K-12 education, museums, and historical societies to find other sources of funding. If not properly regulated, new funding streams from individual philanthropists, private foundations, field-specific grants and public-private partnerships may pose a threat to academic freedom.
Outside funder influence is of particular concern to historians for two reasons. On the one hand, history is of limited interest to donors and funders looking for financial returns on their investments in teaching and research. This can marginalize history (and other humanities and social sciences) in the panoply of scholarly inquiry and knowledge. On the other hand, history is of significant interest to donors and funders looking for political returns on their investments in teaching and research. This can shift institutional priorities and support toward historical fields that align with the funder’s personal or ideological interests.
Academic freedom is threatened or violated when scholars are not able to freely engage in discipline-related teaching, learning, research, publication, and service. Outside funders may affect these core practices by directly or indirectly influencing:
- Personnel—through hiring, promotion, and/or creation of subject-specific positions;
- Programs—through creation or reorientation of subject-specific programs, curricula and/or course content;
- Facilities—through sponsored or institutional support for subject-specific research agendas, research centers and/or public services.
Robust Shared Governance is the only way to ensure that outside funding supports rather than degrades academic freedom. Shared governance is essential to maintaining a rigorous commitment to history that incorporates different experiences, perspectives, questions, and analyses. Protecting academic freedom from outside funder influence must necessarily include:
- Shared governance in decisions about which outside funding sources will be pursued;
- Shared governance in decisions about which outside funding sources will be accepted;
- Shared governance in the development of donor agreements;
- Institutional commitment to academic freedom protections in all donor agreements;
- Institutional transparency in all donor agreements.
Public and private institutions of higher education are funded in a number of ways. Different funding streams may support different institutional activities. There are good reasons for IHEs to welcome and to seek out funding from a variety of funders (state legislatures, federal agencies, private foundations, corporations, alumni and more).
Here, the concern is with funder objectives and use-of-funds provisions that can threaten academic freedom. Academic freedom and rigorous inquiry may be endangered when funders with specific political, economic, social, or personal interests either offer funds or threaten to withhold funds in ways that impinge on areas within the professional purview of faculty expertise and responsibility.
Since each institution’s situation and each funding offer is different, robust shared governance is the best way to ensure that funding, regardless of the source, promotes the institution’s mission and does not threaten academic freedom.
Key Questions and Red Flags:
- Who are the funders, and why are they funding?
- Do the funder’s motives, goals, and agenda align with, and promote balance and equity within, the institutional mission?
- Do offers of funds from private entities follow established procedures and engage shared governance bodies from the initial exploration through the funding agreement?
- Are decisions about accepting, allocating, and spending the monies made in compliance with the institution’s shared governance system?
- Do any use-of-funds provisions preclude or restrict (directly or via expected self-censorship) faculty or instructors’ academic freedom?
Principle Ways in which Funders May Influence of Subvert Academic Freedom
Monies that flow from an institution’s long-standing revenue streams are generally allocated according to well-established budgeting processes. New infusions of funds are not locked into those budgeting systems and thus are most easily directed by a donor’s particular interests. In contrast to the carrot of more monies, funders may wield the stick of withholding funds in order to further their particular interests. Funders, both public and private, may leverage funding carrots and sticks in ways that impact academic freedom in multiple arenas.
Hiring, Retention, Promotion, and Tenure
One of the clearest ways in which funders threaten academic freedom is by donor-defined, non-transparent funding of faculty or research positions. Donor influence, particularly the fear of losing funds, can also prompt institutional decisions to withhold or terminate positions based on faculty or research scholarship. As an egregious example, historian Mathew Garcia reported that a university dean told him that they would “never hire anyone that Koch doesn’t approve.”
Selected Case Studies:
- Creation of Endowed Positions: Powerful donors can influence personnel decisions through the creation of endowed positions that do not appropriately engage shared governance. In recent years, students, faculty, staff and community members have protested the influence of the Saudi government through donations for three endowed professorships at Harvard University.
- Shera S. Avi-Yonah, “‘Secretive, Dubious Partnerships’: Harvard Quietly Keeps Strong Saudi Connections,” The Harvard Crimson, Oct. 25, 2018.
- Hiring Priorities Expressed through Position Descriptions: Donors may also affect personnel decisions by influencing the terms that hiring committees can use in job advertisements and in funding of graduate fellowships. Reports by UnKoch My Campus include concrete examples of secret donor agreements that specify such terms, as well as the withdrawal of funds if the foundation determines that the university is in non-compliance with their terms. Such contract terms have been discontinued only after investigative work and public exposure. In another case, a donor to the University of Missouri stipulated that his donation must be used to hire six faculty who would be “dedicated and articulate disciple[s]” of the Austrian School of Economics.
- UnKoch My Campus, “Primary Sources: Koch Foundation Contracts and Proposals.”
- Matthew Barakat, “George Mason tightens donor rules after uproar over Koch,” AP, April 26, 2019.
- Liam Knox, “Hillsdale College Sues U. of Missouri for a Dead Donor’s Money. It Gets Weirder,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019.
- Termination or Refusal to Hire: In the most extreme cases, donor pressure or the potential for donor reaction may lead to an institution’s decision to shorten, terminate, or not offer employment. Concerns over this type of donor influence were raised in the 2015 termination of Dr. Stephen Salaita by the University of Illinois and the 2020 termination of Dr. Garrett Felber’s contract following his public criticism of donor influence at the University of Mississippi.
- Colleen Flaherty, “Going After the Donors,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 30, 2015.
- Peter Kirstein, “Steven Salaita, the Media, and the Struggle for Academic Freedom,” AAUP Academe, Jan.-Feb. 2016.
- Christian Middleton, “UM Fires History Professor Who Criticizes ‘Powerful, Racist Donors’ And ‘Carceral State,’” Mississippi Free Press, Dec. 15, 2020.
Curriculum and Pedagogy
Funder-directed monies, whether from private or public sources, may also impinge on academic freedom when they come with expectations or requirements that the institution’s faculty or courses teach (or not teach) materials or ideas defined by the donor. Academic freedom is also endangered when business offers financial incentives to institutions or individual faculty to use specific materials or pedagogies. These situations threaten academic freedom by short-circuiting faculty rights and responsibilities to freely determine curriculum and pedagogy subject to established peer review. Given the fact that history inherently deals with issues of power, it is not surprising that history is one of the disciplines subject to these kinds of threats to academic freedom. The related fields of economics, political science, and law are also targets.
Selected Case Studies:
- BBT Foundation secretly funded teaching Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged at multiple institutions.
- Gary Jones, “Universities, the Major Battleground in the Fight for Reason and Capitalism,” AAUP, June-July 2010.
- The most well-known example of donors influencing programs in this way are the Charles Koch Foundation agreements with George Mason University and Florida State University. These multi-pronged donor agreements included requirements to use donor-created or recommended course materials and curriculum and development of a donor-defined undergraduate certificate program.
- Lilly Rockwell, “FSU faculty approves right-leaning Koch Foundation deal, with caveats,” Palm Beach Post, July 16, 2011.
- Kent S. Miller and Ray Bellamy, “Fine Print, Restrictive Grants, and Academic Freedom,” AAUP Academe, May-June 2012.
- In a case that reveals the protective power of shared governance, Rutgers University faculty prevented Pearson eCollege online programs from being offered, despite the fact that the administration had signed a seven-year contract with the company.
- “Rutgers Graduate Faculty Rejects Online Degree Compromise,” Inside Higher Ed, May 9, 2014.
- “Rutgers Faculty Detail Case against Pearson,” AFT, Summer 2015.
- Adam Steinbaugh, “Cancellation of 52 Diversity Classes at Boise State as Lawmakers Seek to Rein in ‘Social Justice,’” FIRE, March 23, 2021
Research and Public Service Agendas
Increasing efforts to secure external funding from private donors can skew university priorities by favoring scholars participating in sponsored research, or favoring scholarship that relies extensively on privately funded grants. Sponsored research agreements in particular can be problematic when corporate entities become involved in the outcomes of research, limiting the academic freedom of scholars to publish criticism of funders, as well as using the university for public relations purposes. Academic freedom and rigorous inquiry are also threatened when donors with specific interests fund research centers or institutes, frequently created as fully or quasi-independent of the IHE’s established systems of shared governance and peer review. In the polarized political climate, state legislatures have intervened directly in academic governance.
Selected Case Studies:
- Sponsored Research: Records released following a FOIA request (and lawsuit) reveal that a payday loan industry-backed foundation contracted with Kennesaw State University to engage one of its faculty to produce an academic study favorable to the industry.
- “Payday Loan Group Paid KSU for Favorable Research, Records Show,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aug. 21, 2019; and “How a Payday Lending Industry Insider Tilted Academic Research in its Favor,” Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2019.
- Funding Centers & Institutes: The most widespread cases of donors influencing programs in this way are the Koch brothers’ creation of economic institutes dedicated to promoting research that favors their preferred policy objectives, including free enterprise, unregulated capitalism, and and the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes which seek to “advance a state agenda” and “control academic staff,” according to an AAUP report.
- Colleen Flaherty, “Does This Research Have an Agenda?” Inside Higher Ed, June 30, 2019.
- Sarah McLaughlin, “Two U.S. government bodies issue reports on Confucius Institutes,” FIRE, March 2019.
- Elizabeth Redden, “Closing Confucius Institutes,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 9, 2019
- De-Funding Centers & Institutes: Politics or economic interests may disregard scholarly integrity and academic value by closing or by creating subject-specific centers. Feeling pressure from the state legislature, the University of North Carolina closed the privately funded Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity shortly after it began publishing reports critical of the state’s poverty policies.
- Gene Nichol, “Political Interference with Academic Freedom and Free Speech at Public Universities,” AAUP, Academe, Fall 2019.
- Facilities: A stunning example of the problems that can arise when cash-strapped campuses pursue private funding occurred at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where top administrators sidestepped faculty governance and avoided accountability by contracting through the university’s fundraising Foundation. The university expected faculty to participate in a donor project that one professor described as “like doing a public health program funded by a tobacco company.”
- Nan Enstad, “Why Revenue Generation Can’t Solve the Crisis in Higher Education, Or, What’s That Smell?” AAUP, Journal of Academic Freedom, Vol. 11, 2020.
Best Practice Recommendations
- Develop Institutional Policy and Model Language to guide donor agreements and sponsored research contracts; include a requirement ensuring timely public disclosure of all such agreements. Sample Agreements and Guidelines:
- AAUP, Recommended Principles and Practices to Guide Academic-Industry Relationships.
- Western Carolina University, Policy 104: Review of Gifts that Affect Academic Freedom or Curriculum(created 2008, revised 2017).
- UnKoch My Campus, In$idious GIFT: How the Koch Foundation’s $25 Million Donation to Utah StateUniversity Aims to Dismantle Protections for America’s Public Lands, Oct. 2018, p. 5.
- Empower and support faculty governance bodies and representatives to insist on transparency and meaningful participation in the development and implementation of funder agreements, programs, and sponsored research.
- Establish personnel standards that require disclosure of sponsored research and of any agreement provisions that would affect the researcher’s unfettered inquiry, conclusions or dissemination of findings.
- Create institutional and faculty conflict of interest policies and processes that apply to all programs and ensure transparency.
- Review and revise the faculty handbook and/or contract to include policies and procedures that protect academic freedom from funder influence.
- Build connections with local media that can inform the public about institutional funders and funder influence.
- Promote transparency and accountability by using open records, FOIA, and other legal tools to access institutional records.