Podcast Transcript: Is Donor Money Buying Course Content?

Dan:     My guest is Eleanor Bader, who teaches English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and is an award-winning journalist who writes for The Progressive, Truthout, Lilith magazine and blog, The Indypendent and other progressive and feminist print publications and blogs. Eleanor, welcome to the podcast.

Eleanor:            Thank you so much.

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Dan:     I sought you out as a guest for the podcast because of an article that you wrote for The Progressive entitled “College Faculty are Speaking Out Against Billionaire Donors.” I think all of us in education are certainly aware of the growing influence and percentage of the contributions that wealthy people are making to higher education, but I had not seen such a detailed article before about this particular consequence. And so I’m very glad that you’re here to talk about that. I do know things must be very different right now in the CUNY system. What steps has Kingsborough Community College taken? What is your average workday like?

Eleanor:            It’s intense. We’ve been online since March 11th and I have this semester two English classes, two basic composition classes. I have lost, I would say, about a third of the students in the introductory class and I’ve lost maybe 10% of the students in the more advanced class. Students at Kingsborough are largely immigrants, and they come from all over the world. They’re new to the United States, they’re usually starting out in the ESL classes and then they go into the college program, which as a community college will ultimately give them an associate’s degree. But they’re mostly frontline workers. These are the folks who work in grocery stores, bodegas, pharmacies, medical offices, as medical techs or in the billing office, and they basically are still riding the subway, still going to their day-to-day jobs. I would guess 50% of them have already either had the virus, have had family members who have had the virus, and a very large percentage have lost family and friends to the pandemic. So it’s been really intense for people to try to do schoolwork, to try to stay enrolled. I find that I spend an inordinate amount of time not only teaching, but also talking to them about the horrible realities that they’re facing in their lives and trying to cheerlead them into completing their coursework and actually finishing the semester as successfully as possible. So it’s been rough.

Dan:     My goodness, that sounds like a very intense experience – a very intense environment for you. Living in rural Kansas as I do, my experience has been far less than yours in terms of a direct impact. And so it’s fascinating and saddening to hear of such a pervasive impact. I know that you’re finishing this semester right now. What will your life be after the semester is over?

Eleanor:            We don’t know yet about fall. All of the classes for the summer are online only. We have not yet received word about what’s going to happen in the fall. So we don’t know if it’s going to be online only, or if it’s going to be back in person, if the classes are going to be some hybrid between the two or what. But so everybody’s on pins and needles trying to anticipate what might happen, what could happen, arguing about what should happen. I can’t answer the question because I truly don’t know. We do know that the rates of infection in New York City are falling right now, but again, given the population that attends Kingsborough Community College, they are the people who are most directly impacted and the most severely impacted. So we just don’t know yet.

Dan:     Well, thank you for that. I certainly hope that you stay healthy and those close to you stay as safe as they can be. The subheading of The Progressive article that I referred to earlier stated that resignations from a growing number of professors bring attention to the undue influence of deep-pocketed donors like Charles Koch. Let’s begin with the reasons for these resignations. What underlying reasons do these professors give for resigning?

Eleanor:            Undo donor influence. That’s been clear across the board. What ends up happening, and we all know the coronavirus is going to make this so much worse, because schools are scrambling for money. They’re losing state aid. They may be losing federal money since the recession in 2008, more than $7 million that used to come from a federal government has been cut from the budgets that would have gone to all kinds of two- and four-year colleges. So colleges are scrambling for money, and they often make a deal with the devil that allows the donor to exert what many academics consider undue influence over how the money is going to be used. In some cases, the donor has insisted that a crony be hired to lead, for example, a think tank or an on-campus institute, and other cases they’ve mandated what books are to be included in a particular course offering. In the article that I wrote, I focus specifically on David Rapach, who had resigned from a very high-level prestigious endowed chair, the John Simon Endowed Chair in Economics, at St. Louis University. And he did that because it he was aghast at the amount of influence, the donor of 50 million dollars, someone named Rex Sinquefield, was willing to exert on the school and that the school was willing to capitulate to. And Rapach found that incredibly distressing and resigned in protest.

Dan:     Can you give us some other examples of strings that are attached to donations either in that particular case or another’s?

Eleanor:            Sure. Well, in that particular case, they opened something called the Sinquefield center for applied economic research. And Mike Podgusky, someone who would work with Rex Sinquefield directly in his Show Me Institute, which is the libertarian think tank in Missouri was hand-picked by Sinquefield in order to lead the center without any open question of whether or not the job would be posted on a national level or whether or not there would be a national search. Instead he said, this is who I want to head the center and the college president nodded and said, sure, that’s fine. Something similar happened at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, where a donor from BB&T, Branch Bank and Trust, said that they wanted to, they were going to donate money to hire a distinguished professor of capitalism. And they mandated that Atlas Shrugged be on the syllabus and that there was absolutely no wiggle room on that. They were insistent that one book be taught and faculty really pushed back on that. What we’ve also seen though, and I think it’s really important to stress, is that in a lot of these cases where donors have wanted to exert influence, what has happened is a donor agreement has been reached behind closed doors and the faculty and the students know absolutely nothing until an institute or a class begins being offered for a particular semester. David Rapach and lots of other faculty who were angered about this have worked with UnKochMyCampus, which started specifically to look at the influence of the Koch brothers on education. But obviously the Koch brothers are not the only ones who do this. What they have pushed hard on is to figure out a way to look at donor agreements and make sure that all donor agreements are transparent, so that faculty and students know exactly what money is being donated and what its use will be. So that they feel as though, if it’s transparent, then at least you have some wiggle room. You have some ability to say, wait a minute, why are you insisting that a particular text be used? Or why are you insisting that a particular person teach this class? They want all of that to be explicit so that there are no surprises where a year later or six months later, someone notices that, Oh my God, have you seen this syllabus? Have you looked into the history of this particular faculty member to see what he or she is actually all about? So the issue is bigger than the individuals. It’s really to look at how donor agreements are entered into and how transparent or how murky they actually are.

Dan:     That’s fascinating to me, because at the schools at which I’ve worked, the process for approving course content would rest ultimately with faculty, with groups of faculty. For example, at my last school, a syllabus was approved by the Faculty Senate, at least as a subcommittee first within that Senate. And then presumably as part of a package of approvals within the larger Senate. And so ultimately, I’m wondering how, how that happens at these schools, that there can be an agreement in advance that would somehow circumvent. What I would assume would be a robust process for faculty review of course content.

Eleanor:            Well, that’s how it should work. But I think colleges are so strapped for money that they’re doing virtually anything they can in order to take whatever they can get. And when somebody comes knocking on the door and says, hi, we’ve got $50 million for you. In the case of St. Louis University, they were facing a $17 million deficit. They were desperate. They were scared that they were going to either have to close or that they would have to cut whole apartments. They didn’t really know what to do. And all of a sudden this knight in shining armor comes in and says, hi, I’ve got $50 million for you. Here you go. All you have to do is this, this, this, and this. And they capitulate. And I think as the economy worsens and as federal and state aid to colleges and universities is reduced, it opens the door more fully to those kinds of deals with the devil.

And I think what you’re describing is exactly what should happen. There should be faculty governance. And that’s certainly what offended David Rapach the most, not so much that they took the money even, but that no one had any input into how that money would be used. And if the college so quietly and so willingly capitulated and said, sure, we’ll hire who you want us to hire, we’ll organize this in exactly the way that you want us to organize it. You know, I mean, in the good old days, I think that people would put their name on a building or they would put their name on a sports stadium. And that would be the extent of their control. They got their notice, they got their fame, they had their name in huge letters on a building, and that was good enough. Now it seems like that’s not good enough, and that people like the Koch brothers and Sinquefield really wants to exert influence over the kinds of education students get. They’re libertarians; they’re extremely conservative men; and they’re certainly entitled to those political views, but they want to use the university as a launching pad to spread those ideas far and wide to basically impressionable undergraduate students.

Dan:     The same subheading that I quoted at the outset of your article. It says that the number of these resignations of faculty is growing – did your reporting uncover how widespread this is? How many faculty have resigned and offered donor money as the reason?

Eleanor:            As you probably know, journalists, don’t write their own headlines. That’s a little bit of an overstatement, I have to say. David Rapach was the most visible and the highest-profile person, but six people have resigned from the George Mason University in Virginia, six people disaffiliated from the Institute for immigrant research in 2019, because they took money from the Koch brothers. And while the Koch brother grant was relatively small in this case – it was only $92,000 – but people who work in the sociology and other humanities departments, felt like if they open the door and let him give $92,000, that will basically give him entré. And since the Koch brothers already exert extreme influence on the George Mason University campus, they wanted to, as a group, make a statement. So the graduate students organized really vocally and in very large numbers, and six different faculty members did disaffiliate themselves from the center.

In addition, there have been other folks who have taken a position and been outspoken when it became clear that Suffolk University had established a center called the Beacon Hill Institute that took money from the Koch brothers. Students were outraged, and they really pressured the school not to do that. And ultimately the Beacon Hill Institute and Suffolk University separated from one another and are no longer in any way connected. In addition, because of student pressure and because of faculty governance issues, the University of Dayton a couple of years ago announced that they would no longer take money from the Koch brothers or any of the affiliated foundations. But I think that a lot of schools are really scared and are really desperate that they’re going to lose state aid. And as I said earlier, I think that that opens the door to donors to basically sweep in and try to influence education to be what they want education to be, instead of an open forum for all kinds of issues and all kinds of debates to take place from left and right center – everyone should be exposed to a range of ideas.

Dan:     Yes. When you, when you say that, I think to myself, the schools must feel the desperate times call for desperate measures. I noticed you a moment ago, you used the term ‘disaffiliation’ so I’m just curious in the context that we’re talking, what does that mean? Is it a resignation? Is it just symbolic? Are any of these faculty actually leaving their employment or receiving a reduction in compensation?

Eleanor:            Not as far as I know; they’re not leaving their jobs. At George Mason University, where six people disaffiliated, what it meant for them is that as part of the Humanities department – most of them were in the sociology department; one was in psychology, I believe – they were people who were interested in immigration issues, and the Institute for Immigration Research does immigration research as the title implies. And they were really thrilled to be able to do research and connect more fully with this Institute and work with like-minded peers who are also interested in the impact of immigration on in the United States, whether on the economy, whether on the culture, whether on history, you know, in every possible realm, immigrants have an impact. So they were thrilled to be part of that and work with colleagues in a cross-disciplinary way. When they disaffiliated, it meant that they were no longer going to in any way participate in the activities of the Institute. So while they may personally continue to do research on immigration, and they may personally talk to some of their colleagues about this, they’re not organizing forums, they’re not participating in conferences and workshops. They’re not tapping into one another’s research in the organized way that they were doing before. So while they’re still teaching at George Mason University, and while they’re still active on campus, they’re not plugged into this particular institute, that gave them kind of an organizational home and an organizational base from which to do at least some of their research and thinking.

Dan:     So am I correct in saying if I’m understanding what you are describing, this is not so much the issue of the general influence of big donors; it sounds like it’s more specifically the influence of donors on academics that these resignations are meant to draw attention to.

Eleanor:            Absolutely, but it’s also a violation of faculty governance. So another issue that I think the people who are speaking out are raising is that this is a violation of faculty senate rule; this is a violation of what has traditionally been seen as faculty governance, where faculty have input into who gets hired for what positions and when. Basically the terms of employment. So that when a deep-pocketed donor comes in and says, here’s this money, and this is what you have to do, they see that as a complete violation of their rights as professors to have input into the conditions of their workday lives.

Dan:     When I read your article and I look at the examples that you give, one of the sort of recurring themes is the ideological stance of the donors. In your opinion, would the backlash be this big if the donors were progressives supporting progressive causes?

Eleanor:            Probably, because I think it would still violate faculty governance. And I think people would still feel as though their feet had been stepped on and they’re right. Even if they agree, you still want the process to work. And you want the process to make you feel as though you’re part of an institution where your voice matters. And I think any donor from left, right, or center who tramples on that would be opposed, even though in some cases they might like the fact that this particular institute or this particular center for the study of whatever would be a better mesh with their own ideological vantage points.

Dan:     Have you encountered examples where progressive donors have tried to circumvent the process that you’ve described?

Eleanor:            I have not.

Dan:     I’m curious – your previous writing for the progressive, primarily focused on art. What drew you to this topic?

Eleanor:            It’s happenstance. When I write for Truthout I write about education, when I write for Lilith I write about Jewish women activists. So I wrote a couple of articles for The Progressive that happened to be about using art as a way to express an activist viewpoint as a way to try to mobilize people or to try to raise consciousness, and somehow I fell into that niche. So I have done a lot of writing for The Progressive that focuses on art. It isn’t a particular passion, but I am very interested in how media can promote social change and raise consciousness. So it certainly has been a wonderful magazine for me to work for because they’re very open to looking at how art can be used to promote environmental awareness or feminism or reproductive choice or a whole range of other issues that I feel very strongly about. Actually, my next piece for them is going to look at an arts organization that basically funds individual artists to do activist art, and many of them are working on issues of immigration. So that’s also something that I feel strongly about and want to help promote.

Dan:     My guest has been Eleanor Bader, who teaches English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and is an award-winning journalist who writes for The Progressive, Truthout, Lilith magazine and blog, The Indypendent and other progressive and feminist print publications and blogs. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us today.

Eleanor:            Thanks for having me. This is great.