Colleges Receive Gifts, But Are Strings Attached? A recent gift to Florida State University is once again raising questions about what kinds of strings donors can attach to their gifts. Big donors say they are just trying to ensure that universities expand their research, but many faculty members feel that schools strapped for money are agreeing to unacceptable conditions.
NPR logo

Colleges Receive Gifts, But Are Strings Attached?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Colleges Receive Gifts, But Are Strings Attached?

Colleges Receive Gifts, But Are Strings Attached?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Some faculty members at Florida State University say their school has sold out to a conservative group that dangled a big donation. Recently released details show the university gave the Charles Koch foundation a role in hiring decisions in exchange for a big grant.

NPR's Larry Abramson has the story.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Three years ago, the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation struck an agreement with Florida State to encourage the study of economic institutions and political economies. The foundation, known for its links to conservative causes, gave the university $1.5 million to fund two faculty positions.

David Rasmussen, dean of FSU's College of Social Sciences, says his school maintained control over who would teach and what they taught.

Professor DAVID RASMUSSEN (Dean, College of Social Sciences, FSU): There was never an acid test that said this person who we hire must think the following kind of thing. That just never came up in the process.

ABRAMSON: But the grant created a special advisory board chosen by the Koch Foundation that has a role in choosing faculty. And that decision is leading to a world of controversy for the university. FSU professors have assaulted the idea of giving donors any voice in choosing professors.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says for years, corporations have been endowing chairs and splashing their names all over the ivory tower.

Professor CARY NELSON (President, American Association of University Professors): The Taco Bell Distinguished Professor of Hotel and Restaurant Administration in Washington, the Lego Professor of Learning and Research, and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

ABRAMSON: But Nelson says even those arrangements never gave donors a place in hiring decisions ordinarily reserved for faculty. Cary Nelson also teaches at the University of Illinois. He says his school once considered giving a similar role to a donor.

Prof. NELSON: When details were released, the faculty senate rose up in arms and the agreement was canceled.

ABRAMSON: The trouble with Florida State, Nelson says, is that faculty members did not vote on the Koch proposal. Florida State's David Rasmussen describes the Koch Foundation more as a collaborator than as a master. Faculty, he insists, are always in control.

Prof. RASMUSSEN: The Economics Department says here are the two people we really like. It goes to the advisory board and said would you approve these people? They said yes and then they funded the positions.

ABRAMSON: Whether or not this arrangement crossed a bright line, schools flirt with that boundary all the time, especially when they hook up with foundations with a definite point of view. The BB&T Charitable Foundation has endowed about 60 universities with grants to explore, in its words, the moral foundations of capitalism.

John Allison is former head of financial giant BB&T Corporation. He now helps the foundation find universities that are open to discussing the benefits of the free enterprise system. Foundation agreements often include the expectation that Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" be taught.

Mr. JOHN ALLISON (Former CEO, BB&T Corporation): The universities know that we like to have "Atlas Shrugged" included in the course of (unintelligible) foundation of capitalism. Typically there are other books included, often Karl Marx is included. We think it's very important for students to hear both points of view.

ABRAMSON: John Allison says BB&T Foundation never has a say in hiring decisions. In fact, he says, the schools he works with already have faculty who share the foundations goals and just want financial support to expand that work. Allison says he's trying to spread ideas that he feels are pushed to the sidelines at most schools.

Mr. ALLISON: They're way minority ideas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLISON: Because most universities are dominated by liberal professors.

ABRAMSON: Florida State also gets BB&T money. Dean David Rasmussen says at a time of dwindling state support, students are the net winners from these deals.

Prof. RASMUSSEN: Because of the BB&T and Koch Foundation gifts, we've got three great teachers are teaching about a thousand students a semester.

ABRAMSON: Most of the money given to universities is restricted in some way. So, despite the criticism, foundations and corporations will continue to press for a platform in academia.

Larry Abramson, NPR news.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.