Funder Influence

April 26, 2021

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 researchThis 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:

  1. Who are the funders, and why are they funding?
  2. Do the funder’s motives, goals, and agenda align with, and promote balance and equity within, the institutional mission?
  3. Do offers of funds from private entities follow established procedures and engage shared governance bodies from the initial exploration through the funding agreement?
  4. Are decisions about accepting, allocating, and spending the monies made in compliance with the institution’s shared governance system?
  5. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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:

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:

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:
  • 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.