Money in the Academy

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The Jewish Week is reporting that major donors at Brandeis University are pulling their financial support to show their displeasure with Jimmy Carter’s highly-publicized visit to the university last month.

The donors have notified the school in writing of their decisions — and specified Carter as the reason, said Stuart Eizenstat, a former aide to Carter during his presidency and a current trustee of Brandeis, one of the nation’s premier Jewish institutions of higher learning.

They are “more than a handful,” he said. “So, this is a concern. There are evidently a fair number of donors who have indicated they will withhold contributions.” (MORE)

This development will clearly continue the conversation about free speech on the college campus, but maybe it will also re-open a related conversation about money and its role/influence in the academy. No doubt this is an issue for all universities and all departments, but I’ve always sensed it’s even more of an issue for Jewish Studies because of the remarkable proliferation of endowed programs.

The generosity of our community’s philanthropists has facilitated important new scholarship and new opportunities for students, but I am curious to what extent the influx of money into Jewish Studies has politicized it.

Of course, some of these issues have been discussed in association with the Israel Studies programs and professorships that have been created in the last few years. While the academic institutions that house these programs have tried to frame Israel Studies as a more focused academic field, there was likely a political genesis to it as well: a reaction to perceived anti-Israel bias in Middle Eastern Studies departments.

As the Forward reported a couple of years ago: “Neither [Columbia professor] Stanislawski nor any other current Israel studies professor denies that the recent fount of donors willing to support Israel studies is a product of recent discussions about the rising anti-Israel sentiments on American campuses.”

Philanthropists are, of course, entitled to give their money away as they please and on their own terms. Here, I think, the real challenge is for the universities and their presidents, who are often judged on their fundraising abilities.

In the last few years, we’ve started to see more clearly how big money has corrupted many of our politicians. Will this happen to the academy, as well? Not to the same degree, certainly. But the possibility that knowledge-production can be bought is somehow even more unsettling. After all, bribes have been part of governance forever, but I’d like to believe that the life of the mind is, still, above all that.

Posted on February 19, 2007

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