How important are the views of wealthy donors?

A recent kerfluffle in academia over an academic appointment made – and then unmade – by the University of Illinois to an academic who was accused of anti-Semitic tweets has raised the question of just how much influence big donors have over matters that traditionally were in the sole purview of the faculty and academic administration:

As news spread in late July about a new University of Illinois faculty hire and media outlets began publishing some of his profanity-laden tweets, a number of wealthy donors threatened to stop giving money to the university, recently released documents show.

The letters about professor Steven Salaita started arriving in Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s inbox July 21, and the writers did not hold back.

“Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one UI business school graduate.

“I have consistently believed that our flagship state university is a treasure that deserves our continued support and contributions. No more. We will now cease our annual contributions to the university and will let our fellow alumni know why we are doing so,” wrote another graduate.

Here are exchanges (an 8MB, 280 page pdf) about Salaita, released by the UI under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The writers included university alumni, donors, students, parents of students and members of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish community. Most were furious to learn that Salaita was to teach classes this fall on the Urbana-Champaign campus. More than one said they would stop financially supporting the university.

The letters provide a glimpse at the pushback the university received from various constituents about Salaita, whose angry tweets about Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip have drawn widespread attention. The letters from donors, some of them identifying themselves as members of the UI’s $25,000-plus “presidents council,” have also raised questions about the motivation behind the administration’s decision to not forward Salaita’s name to the board of trustees for formal approval last month.

The chancellor, however, through a spokeswoman, maintains her decision was not influenced by them, but was based out of concern for the students, campus and community.

This has led one academic blog to worry about the implications of this influence:

…most people, including, I suspect, most academics, don’t realize how important rich people are to the running of universities. Some months back, I was able to listen in on a conversation including a college president (not my own), and was startled to discover how much time the president spent managing relations with the Board of Trustees. Being a board member usually involves a two way relationship. As a trustee, you get some social kudos, and some broad-scale influence over how the university is run. In return, you are expected to give the university a lot of money. Relations with rich donors who aren’t on the board are somewhat similar, albeit less organized – again, there’s an implied quid pro quo, and the implicit or express threat if if you, as a rich donor, don’t like something that the university is doing, the money will dry up. While you do not have any veto, influential officials in the administration will listen – very carefully – to what you say, and be likely to represent on behalf of your viewpoint in internal discussions.

I’m surprised that anyone finds this surprising. “He who pays the piper calls the tune” is not a new phenomenon. But it’s true that academia, in particular, has traditionally viewed itself as above what they apparently view as a rather grubby reality, even though the influence of corporate donors and sponsors on the kind of research that science and engineering departments do has increased greatly over the past few decades since the height of government funding during the Cold War.

I found it especially  interesting, though, that this academic was startled by how much time a college president spent “managing relations with the Board of Directors.” Of course many of them likely are wealthy donors as well. But I would bet that the “managing” had less to do with donations and more to do with what boards are supposed to do, which is governance.

This is a mistake that lots of orchestra musicians make as well. Boards aren’t just about raising money, and a good Board isn’t just a bunch of people willing to give lots of money to the institution, although of course the Board needs to set an example. Boards fundamentally are about governance and making decisions. Only slightly secondary is the role of the board in helping the staff do their jobs; not by micro-managing but by providing advice and different perspectives.

All of this makes the role of an orchestra CEO more about dealing with the board, and less about dealing with operational questions, than most musicians think. My orchestra recently hired a chief operating officer precisely for this reason; to free up our CEO to do more work with the board and to enable him to take better advantage of what the Board has to offer in terms of board members’ relationships in the community.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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