1 Q, 5 A’s: the “donor revolt” in higher education

Oct 25, 2023

Quick reactions to the recent, high-profile withdrawals of major philanthropic support of certain higher-education institutions for their tolerance, if not actual outright promotion, of pro-Hamas sentiment and activities.

What do the recent, high-profile withdrawals of major philanthropic support of certain higher-education institutions for their tolerance, if not actual outright promotion, of pro-Hamas sentiment and activities portend for the futures of philanthropy, higher education, and the relationship between them?


Kristen Eastlick: In the short term, the limited defections of donors in reaction to higher education’s response to Hamas’s terrorist attack will change little about the ways that university infrastructures operate; too much has been invested in the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts that are, to appropriate a cliché, not diverse, not equitable, and not inclusive. 

But a lot can come from the potential ideological awakening that is being triggered by the institutional reactions to the horror of October 7. Perhaps there’s a higher “cost of doing business” for donors, and they’ll rethink their approach to future contributions—at universities or other charitable organizations. Perhaps many individuals on the center-left or even progressives who never thought to question the underlying ideology (call it their “unconstrained” vision, if you’re a student of Sowell) will find new assumptions to question. Perhaps parents and students who sought out one school or another will make different choices—especially when coupled with the massive costs associated with these so-called elite institutions. 

The K-12 school lockdowns during the covid era caused parents across the political spectrum to question both the curricula and the viewpoints of organizations influencing the curricula (looking at you, teachers’ unions). Perhaps we’ll look back and see that this tragedy was a major pivot point in higher education and beyond.

Michael E. Hartmann: After decades of incremental advances, the politicization of higher education seems to have reached something of an apogee with the recent institutional positions being taken on Hamas’ horrific atrocities in Israel. Taking such positions has always been in tension with, if not actually outright contrary to, the true mission of colleges and universities, as the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report tried to warn against and prevent.

There may be philanthropic ramifications of the “donor revolt” against higher ed in the context of philanthropy. Philanthropy has been incrementally advancing or permitting its own politicization for decades, too—contrary to what’s supposed to be its charitable purpose, including policy-oriented research and education, and as reflected in the 1969 Tax Reform Act that created what is still its basic legal structure. Philanthropies are created by donors themselves, of course, so any equivalent “revolt” would have to arise and be led from within—and/or, maybe more likely, from those policymakers in a position to either protect, clarify, or reform that very structure.

Craig Kennedy: The withdrawals of support don’t portend very much. I wish I could say otherwise, but wealthy donors and their giving vehicles have proven to have very limited memories. A few institutions will make some cosmetic changes. A dean will be thrown overboard, a very vocal faculty member will decide to spend more time with her family, and a few student leaders will be counseled to be more discreet and careful when promoting Hamas. 

Those changes will be enough to reassure big donors that their university or college is back on track. Of course, they will ignore the fact that most of American higher education has been moving in the direction of dangerous ideologies and practices since the 1970s. A little corrective action now will keep their donors happy and only defer their movement leftwards. It is all very sad, but predictable.

Leslie Lenkowsky: As Lizzo would say, it’s “about damn time.” Starting with David Packard, William E. Simon, Irving Kristol, and others in the 1970s, donors have been warned about how colleges and universities use their gifts to undermine the economic and political systems that make philanthropy possible in the first place. The problem has become much worse today, as ideas that were once too outlandish even for the Ivy League have spread across campuses. 

So, it’s time donors withheld their money from schools that, as one Midwestern university did last winter, use a speaker jailed and deported for raising money to fund terrorists in a seminar examining how anti-terrorism finance rules hurt Muslim charities. But they could send a more powerful message if they redirected their gifts toward scholars and projects that reject such ideas and remain true to what’s “higher” in higher education.

Daniel P. Schmidt: In Heather Mac Donald’s typically insightful recent essay “Conservative Donors: Wake Up!” in City Journal, she implored conservative philanthropists to think more deeply about their giving and stop “plowing treasure into an institution whose values are, at best, in tension with American traditions and, at worst, antithetical to them.” 

Namely, institutions like Harvard. More specifically, Bradley Prize recipient Mac Donald was criticizing last April’s $300 million gift to Harvard by conservative hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin. His reward for such largesse was the renaming of Harvard’s graduate division of the School of Arts and Sciences after him. 

In Mac Donald’s opinion, if this kind of reflexive giving remains the norm, intellectually honest inquiry leading to meaningful reform from the inside out “is doomed to fail.” She concludes that the time has come to start building elsewhere. Sound advice, that. 

Unfortunately, been there, tried that. For well more than 30 years, conservative philanthropies, public-policy organizations, and individuals have devoted time and funding to create and sustain new projects within and without institutions of higher education aimed at, among other things: newly broadening points of view with respect to research and teaching; launching new teaching and research programs grounded in principles and values and searching for truth; and creating new “boot-camp” kinds of efforts designed to prepare people serving, or likely to serve, as members of university boards.

Judging by the Griffin gift and much more, so dishearteningly including that which has been occurring on campuses during the past weeks, there has not been much meaningful impact. What is to be done?: keep trying, try harder, fund more?

Or look yet elsewhere, more widely?