Beyond vetting donors

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Science  08 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6466, pp. 667
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba0494

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Jeffrey Epstein, the Sackler family, the Koch brothers—these major private donors have reignited talk about how research and education get funded. Increasingly, universities are spending substantial time not only deciding whether to accept gifts but defending them after the fact or renouncing them and returning the money. Although the lessons of Jeffrey Epstein are clear—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology didn't stop its Media Lab from taking his gifts when it was obvious who he was—it seems likely that these kinds of episodes are going to happen more frequently in the future. Blame the intense competition among institutions at a time when money to support university endeavors has gotten tighter. Unfortunately, there's been more talk about this problem than action to solve it.

Most university provosts and presidents will say that one of the best things about their jobs is learning of all the new ideas proposed by students and faculty. The problem is that every new idea needs money and every competitive university has just as many great ideas. When so many worthy ideas combine with intense competition among universities, the need for money only escalates. This means that screening donors—including those who may have given years ago—will be required more in the future, and the chance of another Epstein episode is likely to increase.

This will place an unintended tax on research and teaching, because administrations will need to step up donor screening and vetting. The money for this process will eventually tax research or, as Christopher Newfield has meticulously explained in his book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, tax parts of the university that don't bring in money, like the humanities and social sciences.

Faculty sometimes like to say that their administrations are bloated with bureaucrats doing needless “administrivia.” Certainly, some bureaucracy can be trimmed, but many administrative operations are critical. When American scientist Vannevar Bush proposed a federally funded research enterprise in the United States, the deal was that the government would fund research and the institutions would take all the risk. In 1945, that was no problem. But now there are export controls, technology transfer, conflicts of interest, information technology security, grants administration, laboratory safety, animal care, and countless other functions that must be handled well to keep this promise to the federal government. Bolstering the vetting of donors will only lead to greater administrative burden.

Part of the problem driving the need to secure more and more money is that universities are trying to compete with each other in every area. Very few are willing to have a strategy that focuses on a particular area of scholarship or educational function. Most strive to be comprehensive and showcase excellence in every discipline, which drives up the need for funds (and the possibility of more Epstein episodes).

It is hard to change this drive because no faculty member wants to be told that their area is not the emphasis of the university. The irony is that most strategy academics believe that competing in every discipline is not a smart way to go. It's better to focus resources in areas where you can be the best. And even though most administrators are hesitant to point it out, most institutions do have a perceived set of strengths that are well known outside of their university bubble. But administrators are loath to take this approach to slowing the arms race and as a result, most university mission statements are vague, and the peanut butter gets spread over all the areas.

And that takes a lot of peanut butter.

The Epstein episode reveals a larger problem that will take a lot of institutional gumption to solve. At the least, universities should examine their policies on accepting gifts—as Brown University has recently done, with input from students and faculty leaders—emphasizing greater transparency. But beyond that, recognizing the demands created by the failure to prioritize could be transformative.

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