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Who Funds American Universities? Doubts About the Big Donors

Who Funds American Universities? Doubts About the Big Donors

There’s nothing wrong with billionaires, corporations, and philanthropic organizations giving money to our public and private universities, right? They’re just putting their fortunes to work for the benefit of the American people. They’re advancing our cultural and scientific development out of the goodness of their hearts.

Think again.

Universities are the heart of our intellectual activities, pumping out the people and ideas that will circulate through all of our institutions of influence in America. Education forms the next generation, who in turn will shape the direction of society. Who controls the university system controls the intellectual lifeblood of the nation.

For this reason, those who seek to shape our nation have often targeted schools and colleges. I’ve written before about the decline of American education and the influence that communism, neo-Marxism, and postmodernism have had on American academia. But who exactly is funding this educational collapse?

Common sense reveals that when an institution, program, or study depends on outside sources of funding for its very existence or development, it can’t afford to contradict the interests of those sources. Billionaires know this, and they can use this fact to promote their own causes, ideologies, politics, and even business interests.

The result is as we might expect: “Individuals such as Charles Koch on the right, or George Soros on the left, have succeeded in altering public policy. More than $10bn a year is devoted to such ideological persuasion in the US alone,” as Paul Vallely writes at The Guardian. And, to top it off, the ultrarich can do all this while enhancing their public appearance as kindhearted and generous heroes.

Another example: the notorious Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Many people have criticized the Foundation as being a cover for the Gates to continue to build influence in various sectors throughout the globe.

Watchdog group Global Policy Forum has warned governments and international organizations to “assess the growing influence of major philanthropic foundations, and especially the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation … and analyse the intended and unintended risks and side-effects of their activities.” A report by Global Justice Now has called for an international investigation of the Gates Foundation, claiming: “We argue that this is far from a neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation. Big business is directly benefitting.”

In extreme cases like this, private companies and donors may end up calling the shots, rather than the people who are actually appointed or elected as decision-makers. In Vallely’s words,

For all the huge benefits modern philanthropy can bring, the sheer scale of contemporary giving can skew spending in areas such as education and healthcare, to the extent that it can overwhelm the priorities of democratically elected governments and local authorities.

There’s a parallel here in the world of research that provides an illustrative example. Scientific inquiry can be skewed by private funding. A study on conflicts of interest in the scientific literature on e-cigarettes found that articles funded by the e-cigarette industry, tobacco industry, or pharmaceutical industry were much more likely to promote the health of e-cigarettes or other “purportedly safer tobacco products” than other articles were. This shouldn’t surprise us, but it should concern us.

Of course, everyone can benefit when a billionaire or corporation pushes society in a beneficial direction, but the inverse is also true. And the situation is particularly delicate when it comes to universities, which must maintain a strong degree of academic independence and integrity in order to fulfill their mission.

So, who are some of the biggest donors to American universities, and what are their priorities?

A list from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the largest donations ever made to higher education provides some interesting names and information about where they donated. Here are the top in the U.S.:

  • Michael Bloomberg
  • John and Ann Doerr
    • Environmentalists who signed the Gates Foundation’s “Giving Pledge
    • Tech magnate (John Doerr) who backed FWD.us, a lobbying group founded by Mark Zuckerberg
    • Stanford University
    • $1.1 billion
    • To establish the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
    • Gates Millennium Scholars program
    • $1 billion over 20 years
  • George Soros’ Open Society Foundations
    • Open Society University Network
    • $1 billion
  • Stewart and Lynda Resnick
  • Ted Stanley
    • Co-founder of the Danbury Mint, one of the nation’s largest private donors for scientific research
    • Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
    • $650 million
    • Research genetic causes of mental illness
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
    • Established by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife
    • Focused on environmentalism
    • California Institute of Technology
    • $600 million (half from Gordon and Betty Moore and half from their foundation)
    • For collaborative work between disciplines and staying at the forefront of science and technology
  • Florence and Herbert Irving
    • Co-founder (Herbert Irving) of Sysco
    • Art collectors
    • Colombia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital
    • $700 million
    • Fund research and clinical programs for treating cancer
  • Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg
    • No introduction necessary
    • Harvard University
    • $500 million over 15 years
    • Create Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence

The list goes on, of course, and many of these individuals or groups have donated more money to higher education at different points. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all these people donated with the intention of gaining power over curriculum or faculty hiring. But we should acknowledge that it is a possibility.

How could donors achieve undue influence over American education? Here’s one example: The Mercatus Center at George Mason University granted the right to its donors (including the Charles Koch Foundation) to participate in the choosing of faculty in GMU’s economics department.

On the other end of the political spectrum, George Soros, well-known for his support of far-left causes, has donated $1 billion to an international network of universities (Open Society University Network or OSUN) that will promote “critical thinking, open intellectual inquiry, and fact-based research to strengthen foundations of open society amid authoritarian resurgence.” Soros announced this plan at the World Economic Forum in Davos where he lamented climate change and the rise of “authoritarianism,” partly in reference to Trump.

The OSUN’s activities are wide-ranging, spanning the liberal arts, inequality, and teacher training. It’s not difficult to imagine what kind of principles will be taught to teachers through the network. Soros’ network is “actively in discussions with other potential partners that share its principles and academic ambition.”

In other words, the OSUN will support colleges if they align with Soros’ principles and beliefs.

Corporations have also given to universities and gained similar sway. Controversy churns around corporate/college partnerships in higher education. Even nearly 10 years ago, these partnerships were forming: One example is the cybersecurity program at the University of Maryland funded by defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., who was even helping to design the curriculum.

Some educators are questioning how programs like Northrop Grumman’s or George Soros’ will affect academic integrity and independence.

One emeritus professor of history at Bard College, Gennady Shkliarevsky, criticized Soros’ OSUN project in an open letter: “The only importance Soros sees in education is … in promoting the political agenda that has been the backbone of the political organization (OSF) that Soros has created for political purposes.” Shkliarevsky highlights the problem with some of these philanthropic activities when he declares, “When education starts serving political goals, it becomes indoctrination.” The same can be said when education serves corporate goals, government goals, or any goals other than the pursuit of truth.

True charitable giving is, of course, a necessary and beautiful thing—and I am grateful to the countless good-hearted donors throughout our society. America can be proud of its generosity in so many areas. I am the last person to criticize real philanthropy—I only wish to point out the conflicts of interest that can arise in the educational sphere when charity becomes a mask for other motivations. The line between rich entities giving and gaining isn’t always clear cut, and we must be careful. Universities need to be dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Period. Or they might as well close their doors.

Image credit: Pexels


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Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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    Cadence McManimon
    August 2, 2023, 6:06 pm

    Insightful article! I appreciate the summary of the biggest donors; the names and associations speak for themselves.


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