Battle for influence on campus

Universities are not immune to the divide in American society: students and donors alike try to exert influence on campuses. The point in five questions.


Published at 12:54 a.m.

Updated at 6:00 a.m.

What are the students protesting on campus demanding?

Students have set up encampments on various campuses in support of the Palestinians. In particular, they ask universities to cease all investment in companies linked to Israel and its war in the Gaza Strip.

What are the finances of American universities like?

Universities obtain their funding from various sources: tuition fees, government subsidies and donations, which vary greatly from one establishment to another.

The most prestigious universities benefit from a large endowment fund, acquired through philanthropy – for the 2022-2023 budget year, some US$58 billion was paid to higher education establishments.

These donations are invested in different ways, to obtain interest which will subsidize scholarships and research, for example. “Typically, the donor understands that the capital will never be spent, that it will be invested to create an annual income,” explains Bruce Kimball, co-author of the book Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education: A Brief History.

What influence do donors have?

Philanthropists who give to universities generally do so under certain conditions: funding a particular department or research chair, or a program for athletes. Some demand public recognition, by attaching their name to a building, for example.

“It’s difficult to know what exactly is required, since the contracts are confidential,” says David Callahan, founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy. “Normally, they can specify where the donation will go, without being able to micromanage. » They can pay a few million to finance a department, but without having any say over hiring, he explains.

But increasingly, donors are speaking out publicly about what’s happening on campus. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) programs have particularly been the target of criticism. Donors have also criticized administrations for not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism on campus.

Last December, the New York Times spoke of a “new class of donors”, more visible, ready to exert pressure publicly.

“It’s a new thing we’re seeing,” Mr. Callahan observes. It’s too early to say what impact it will have, but it’s definitely something more marked recently. »

This, he says, is due to a growing gap between donors – who he describes as generally older, more conservative, white, business men – and the population on campus. Young and ideological students, but also faculties recognized for being “much more liberal than the business world”. “Universities have positioned themselves more to the left over the last decade,” notes Mr. Callaghan.

Who decides on the investment of university funds?

As chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley from 2013 to 2017, one of Nicholas Dirks’ roles was to attend meetings of the investment committee, which entrusted the endowment’s money to a team of fund managers. investments. “The committee did not decide where the money was going to be invested, but rather looked at the need to invest it in the short or medium term,” he recalls.

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PHOTO BEN CURTIS, ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES

Pro-Palestinian encampment at Harvard University

At Harvard, a separate university-owned entity manages the portfolio, with the mission of producing “robust investment results.” Its board of directors is appointed by a group of people that includes Harvard’s president.

What about movements to change investment policies?

Divestment as a tool of protest against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s is often cited as an example. It is difficult to know what role this action specifically played on the regime.

Demands for divestment from the fossil fuel sector have gained popularity over the past decade. Some analysts are skeptical of the results, while others assure that the strategy is working.

However, it all depends on the objective: to send a message? Change things profoundly? Obtain maximum or minimum return?

For Mr. Kimball, it is also an ethical dilemma: Where to draw the line of fair investment? Especially since other students disagree with the position of the protesters on campus.

“There are a lot of political and social causes, a lot of causes worthy of attention,” says the professor at Ohio State University.

For him, investments and their returns above all allow universities to fulfill their educational mission, regardless of the circumstances. And they must certainly not be weakened. “The advantage of important endowment funds is to strengthen the autonomy of colleges and universities and to provide flexibility and strength to survive political, social and economic upheavals,” he adds.

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