LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The Koch Foundation gift: Lessons learned and moving forward


According to the University Times, Kris Davitt, senior vice chancellor for Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement, suggested near the end of the Dec. 4 meeting of the Faculty Assembly that there may be a need to update the University’s policy on gift acceptance. (“Koch Foundation gift sparks heated Faculty Assembly meeting,” Dec. 5, 2019). Other institutions are embarking on similar reviews, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Universities Are Facing Criticism for Taking Dirty Money. Do Their Donor Policies Protect Them?” by Francie Diep, Oct. 30, 2019).

Having closely observed the process leading up to the creation of Graduate School of Public and International Affairs’ new Center for Governance and Markets, I would be fully supportive of a transparent and rigorous review of the University’s gift policy. If a review process is launched, I propose that it should address four important questions:

Question #1: Is a center fundamentally different from a research project or a research agenda? 

We must vigorously defend one another’s right to conduct legitimate research, funded or unfunded, on any topic regardless of how controversial. The conduct of research is a highly personal and professional endeavor, protected by our time-honored standards of academic freedom.

The creation of a center, however, is not just a personal and professional quest, it is an institutional endeavor that requires the endorsement of the University as a whole and, in most cases, the academic unit in which it is located.

Centers have a physical presence and a public persona or identity that is conveyed through signage, websites and other communication channels. A center’s visibility and public persona is unmistakably affiliated with that of the University and the host unit in a way that an individual research project is not. More importantly, centers, once created, generally engage in activities that directly impact the broader mission and programs of the University and their host unit thus impacting, by extension, the colleagues working in that unit.

The gift policy of the University of Pittsburgh should, therefore, include provisions to allow the faculty, students and other stakeholders to make inquiries before a center is created. In order to respect one’s academic freedom we must ask, is the creation of a center absolutely essential for a colleague to undertake their research? At Montana State University, the faculty voted narrowly against the creation of a Koch-funded center, but Koch-funded research and conferences continue. Evidently no one’s academic freedom has been impinged.

Question #2: Should the size of the center, relative to its host unit, be considered?

Most centers at Pitt are located within particular departments, schools or other academic units. The potential impacts and ripple effects of centers can be especially impactful in a small school, department or other academic unit that has been designated as the host for the proposed center.

GSPIA is one of the University’s smaller self-standing schools. We have an annual operating budget of under $10 million. The school occupies only a portion of the third floor in Posvar Hall. We have roughly 30 tenure-stream faculty slots and, at any given time, even fewer are actually in residence.

The $4.2 million Center for Governance and Markets is large enough to have a gravitational pull on the entire school. For example, according to the grant agreement made public by the Charles Koch Foundation, the University must provide the center with office and meeting space to accommodate “a minimum of 15 people.” This provision alone will have an enormous physical impact, magnifying other concerns mentioned above such as the public visibility of the center and conflating its own physical presence and identity with that of the school itself.

Thus, under a revised gift policy, a philanthropic gift for the creation of an academic center should allow for consideration of the size of the center relative to its host unit. Perhaps large and impactful centers should be located in the Office of the Provost.

Question # 3: Who evaluates mission accomplishment and with what metrics?

Research projects are driven by research questions whereas academic centers typically are guided by mission statements — broad statements of purpose often infused with values-driven language. 

To rigorously assess mission accomplishment, one needs to evaluate the actual programs and activities underlying the mission and, in order to be evaluated objectively, those programs should have goals and outcomes that are specified in advance, not after the fact. If faculty and other stakeholders do not know in advance what programs and activities will be undertaken by a proposed center, and the specific objectives of those programs, then they essentially know nothing at all about the center.

In other words, a mission statement alone says very little about what a center actually does.

According the to the grant agreement made public by the Koch Foundation, the mission of the new Center for Governance and Markets is “to create a space where scholars can explore diverse ideas and produce rigorous scholarship and teaching on the impact of political institutions, markets, and technology on human prosperity and well-being in the United States and around the world.” 

The ambiguity and values-driven content in the center’s mission statement are, in themselves, not necessarily a problem unless the donor reserves the right to make continued funding contingent on their own assessment of mission accomplishment. Such is the case here, because the new center must apply annually for release of the funds from the Koch Foundation. The foundation reserves the right to withhold funding or terminate the grant if, in their judgment, “the center’s programs are not advancing the center’s mission.” The criteria for assessing success are not specified in the grant agreement and evidently were not part of the pre-grant negotiations.

Thus, a revised University gift policy should specify the conditions under which a donor can make judgments of mission accomplishment.  As a general rule, the University should not accept gifts without a clear understanding, mutually accepted in advance, of what will constitute success.

Question #4: Who should represent the University in negotiations and ultimate commitment of resources?

At a large institution like the University of Pittsburgh, it is not unusual for many people to have a role in discussions and negotiations about large gifts from a prospective donor. Depending on the purpose of the gift, different people will play important roles.

The grant agreement for the new Center on Governance and Markets is signed by Ryan Stowers, executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation, and on Pitt’s end by Kris Davitt, senior vice chancellor for Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement. Evidently, Vice Chancellor Davitt was among several top administrators who were actively engaged in negotiating terms and providing oversight throughout the process. Based on their attendance at the Faculty Assembly meeting, it seems that the others involved in the process were Provost Ann Cudd; Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer; and Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for Sponsored Programs and Research Operations.

I have nothing but the highest respect for these colleagues and each of them undoubtedly brought their own substantial and distinctive competencies and perspectives to the negotiations with the Koch Foundation. It is entirely appropriate for each of them to be “at the table,” playing major roles in this and other comparable gift negotiations.

But the role of fundraising professionals in particular in academic grants should be limited for several reasons. Scholars must “publish or perish.” Fundraisers must raise money or perish; their job security depends on it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this incentive structure, but it should be kept at arms-length when negotiating gifts that are in any way related to advancing our missions in research, teaching and scholarship — activities that at the heart of the institution’s academic integrity.

Thus, if the University’s gift policy is reviewed, only the top academic officers — chancellor, provost, dean — should be the final signatories to any gift agreement that impacts our fundamental academic missions in teaching and research. Ultimate accountability for the integrity of our academic mission must never be delegated nor left to a committee vote.

I was a participant in the GSPIA discussions regarding the new Center for Governance and Markets during which I expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in the planning and negotiation of a gift that was bound to be controversial. While I do not support the decision to create a new center, I accept its presence and I continue to have the highest respect for all parties including Provost Cudd, Dean John Keeler, and the director of the new center. The last 18 months have been stressful and hurtful to many in our academic community and have strained previously collegial relationships. Mistakes were made on both ends.

But I truly believe there are lessons to be learned from this challenging experience and that the University and GSPIA can emerge even stronger.  A review of the University’s gift policies might provide just the right opportunity to work together in a transparent and mutually respectful way to create something of lasting value — something that can prevent similar controversies in the future.

Kevin Kearns is a professor of Public and Nonprofit Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and director of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership and Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum.