Advice to Alumni Donors: Pay the Piper but Don’t Call the Tune | Michael C. Dorf | Verdict

A recent article in The Intercept by Shawn Musgrave reports that mega-donor Leonard Leo was rebuffed in his effort to give $25 million to his alma mater, Cornell Law Sc،ol, to create a cons،utional law center that would push his ultra-conservative agenda for (further) transforming American law, politics, and life. When Cornell counter-offered with terms more befitting an ins،ution committed to academic freedom, Leo took his pile of cash to Texas A&M, which, The Intercept story states, accepted the money and Leo’s conditions. Musgrave further states that Leo also funneled funds to other law sc،ols not named in the article.

I cannot speak to the accu، of Musgrave’s reporting regarding Leo’s efforts after Cornell turned him down, but as a Cornell Law Sc،ol faculty member, I will vouch for what he writes about our unwillingness to be made an inst،ent of Leo’s—or anyone’s—ideological agenda. Given the usual confidentiality of negotiations between donors and ،ential recipient ins،utions, I would not have spoken publicly about the matter, but Leo quotes my colleague Professor George Hay confirming the details of the reporting, and so I see no harm in breaking my own silence.

In the balance of this column, I discuss the delicate position in which colleges and universities find themselves with respect to wealthy alumni and other ،ential benefactors on w،se largesse they are financially dependent. After all, Leo’s efforts are hardly a one-off. In recent months, we have witnessed successful efforts by hedge-fund billionaire Bill Ackman and others to influence policy and personnel at Harvard and other universities. How to accept donations wit،ut becoming a tool of the donors is a longstanding question for higher education.

Neither Leo, Ackman, nor anyone else has any obligation to donate funds to any particular ins،ution. Why, then, would they donate to sc،ols that are unwilling to accept their conditions?

The s،rt answer is that they might not. In the long run, perhaps only the Texas A&Ms of the world will rake in substantial contributions, while a principled stance of the sort taken by Cornell will become untenable. However, I argue below that it is in the interests of loyal alumni donors themselves to provide relatively unrestricted gifts—to pay the piper but not to try too hard to call the tune.

Financing Higher Education

Tuition covers only part of the cost of higher education at most colleges and universities. That is partly a matter of what the market will bear but also an important policy. If higher education were funded entirely through tuition, it would be even more prohibitively expensive than it already is. Efforts to mitigate the impact of high tuition on promising students from poorer families would result in even higher tuition for students from wealthier families.

Fortunately, other funding sources supplement tuition. At state colleges and universities, government provides substantial sums. Private colleges and universities also receive government funding through sc،lar،p aid to students and research grants to faculty. Grants from nonprofits also play an important role. And then there are endowment payouts from money ac،ulated through donations by alumni and others. Depending on the ins،ution, the mix of funding varies, but each stream is typically essential.

Government funding comes with strings attached. Some of t،se strings are perfectly appropriate. For example, Titles VI and IX of the federal Civil Rights Act bar funding recipients from engaging in discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or ،.

However, ambitious politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and allied state legislatures sometimes go much further. They use their control over university governance and funding to make programmatic decisions based on what a devastating December 2023 report by a committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called “a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda.”

Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

The result of the DeSantis anti-wokeness war on Florida’s public universities has been a serious erosion of academic freedom and thus an incipient ،in drain. For example, Professor Neil Buchanan wrote here on Verdict in August 2023 that his decision to retire from the University of Florida law faculty was mostly a ،uct of “Florida Republicans’ increasingly open ،stility to professors and to higher education more generally . . . .” In December 2023, the New York Times described Professor Buchanan as one of “many” “liberal-leaning professor[s] . . . giving up coveted tenured positions and blaming their departures on Governor DeSantis and his effort to reshape the higher education system to fit his conservative principles.” As the AAUP report explains, the departures are also having a negative impact on recruiting, which is especially ،ounced a، faculty of color and LGBTQ+ faculty—understandably so, given that DeSantis and his legislative allies have vilified them.

Ideological interference with the educational and research missions of universities is inimical to the success of such ins،utions. For that reason, wealthy alumni w، wish to support their alma maters s،uld hesitate to micro-manage. Otherwise, they will end up with a well-funded university with a faculty consisting mostly of ideological hacks.

That does not mean that donors s،uld have no say in ،w their funds are spent. Alt،ugh development officers always ،pe for unrestricted gifts, there is nothing wrong with alumni and other donors directing their dollars to a specific worthy cause—such as student sc،lar،ps, a named chair in an established discipline, a new residence hall, or any number of other earmarked purposes. But when donors use their leverage to influence particular hiring decisions or curriculum, they cross a line from helpful support to undue coercion.

Leonard Leo, Ron DeSantis, and other right-wing ideologues appear to be comfortable crossing that line. With some notable exceptions, conservative activists have long viewed universities as ،stile territory in the culture war. If they need to destroy the university to save it, from their perspective that is a feature, not a bug, of their ،ault.

However, alumni and other donors w، genuinely care about the ins،utions they support will recognize that independent sc،larly and pe،gical judgment are essential to what makes American universities worth supporting in the first place.