Inappropriate financial donor influence at institutions of higher education appears to be on the rise and risks eroding public trust in academic research. In order to defend academic freedom and institutional independence, we have decided to create a new database to document clear violations of well-accepted norms involving financial donations.
Inappropriate financial donor influence at institutions of higher education appears to be on the rise, as exemplified by recent controversies at (among other schools) George Mason University, Florida State University, the University of Kansas, Case Western Reserve University, Saint Louis University, Carleton University, and Chapman University. Such influence is part of the growing concern over financial elites using philanthropic activity to turn private wealth into public influence, thereby subverting democratic principles (e.g., Bertrand et al. 2018; Giridharadas 2018; Reich 2018; Saunders-Hastings 2018).
Public trust in the integrity of scholarship is vital if academia is to advance the public interest. Undue financial donor influence has the potential to bias scholarship and compromise truth-seeking, thereby undermining public trust. In particular, researchers funded by donors granted inappropriate influence are less likely to be wholly independent—consequently, the integrity of their scholarship is more likely to be called into question.
Norms of academic freedom and institutional independence—sustained by the practice of faculty governance over academic matters—have historically safeguarded the integrity of scholarship and promoted public trust. By violating well-accepted academic norms, inappropriate financial donor influence erodes public trust and diminishes the value of academic research to society (Rapach and Wilson 2018).
For these reasons, we have decided to create a database that we call the Academic Capture Warning System (ACWS).
What is it?
The ACWS is a repository of information on clear violations of well-accepted academic norms involving financial donations to institutions of higher education. Such violations jeopardize the independence and integrity of academic research. Key purposes of the ACWS are to
- raise awareness and inform the public about research that is at heightened risk of being inappropriately influenced by financial donors;
- encourage researchers, university administrators and fundraisers, and donors alike to carefully consider the role of academic norms in protecting the independence of academic research and advancing the public good;
- encourage individual researchers, as well as colleges and universities as a whole, to be transparent regarding funding sources and the role of financial donors in their work;
- alert funding agencies (e.g., the National Science Foundation) and journal editors of proposals and papers that warrant extra scrutiny because the research was funded by donations that violated well-accepted academic norms;
- help public policymakers distinguish between research that has been vetted through an academic peer-review process and research that has not been independently scrutinized for potential bias due to conflicts of interest;
- honor donors who financially support academic research without strings attached and by doing so support public trust in the integrity of scholarship.
The repository’s name, the Academic Capture Warning System, is inspired by Nobel laureate economist George Stigler’s theory of regulation (Stigler 1971). In principle, regulation is intended to serve the public interest. In practice, however, Stigler taught us that regulators may be “captured” by the very businesses that they are supposed to regulate. As a result, instead of serving the public interest, regulation may advance narrow commercial or political interests. A similar phenomenon potentially plagues donor-funded academic research. In principle, academic research is intended to serve the public interest. In practice, if institutions of higher education become “captured” by financial donors, then academic research is at greater risk of becoming (wittingly or unwittingly) biased towards donors’ own interests.
The ACWS will provide information on organizations and individuals that have engaged in violations of well-accepted academic norms involving financial donations. Organizations include private foundations, public charities, colleges, universities, departments, centers, and institutes; individuals include donors, administrators, directors, and researchers.
What does inappropriate donor influence look like?
We highlight two broad categories of the most common types of inappropriate financial donor influence:
1. Financial donor influence in hiring decisions. Such influence can take the form of a financial donor requesting that a specific individual be hired by a department, center, or institute that is part of a college or university. It can also manifest in a donor (or a donor representative) serving on a committee that reviews candidates or provides approval for the funding of a position for a specific individual in a department, center, or institute that is part of a college or university.
2. Financial donor influence in individual research projects. Influence in this context entails a financial donor providing direction and/or funding approval for individual research projects conducted under the auspices of a department, center, or institute that is part of a college or university, in violation of institutional independence.
Such violations of well-accepted norms allow financial donors to purchase the imprimatur of independent academic research, while breaking the very rules of the game that safeguard the independence and integrity of academic research.
Does the ACWS aim to change incentives?
Yes. The ACWS implements a recommendation of Zingales (2013) by bringing attention to organizations and individuals who do not adhere to basic principles of academic independence and integrity. Colleges and universities, administrators, and researchers are understandably concerned about their reputations. The risk of suffering reputational damage by failing to adhere to well-accepted academic norms in financial donations significantly raises the costs of accepting such donations, thereby helping to make them less likely. Alerting of funding agencies and journal editors to research funded by donations that violate well-accepted academic norms also raises the costs of accepting such contributions. Furthermore, the publicity surrounding donations that violate academic norms calls into question the charitable intent of donors, thereby reducing the value of such donations to philanthropic organizations and individuals who want to be perceived as generous.
We anticipate that the first vintage of the ACWS database will be available in approximately three months. The official release will include the criteria used to identify violations of academic norms and will provide all supporting documentation. An appropriate evidentiary standard will be used to determine when an organization or individual warrants inclusion in the database.
In its early days, we expect the ACWS database to focus on documenting cases of inappropriate donor influence. In the future, we anticipate the database to also include a library of model policies designed to help colleges and universities avoid undue donor influence. In addition, we expect the database to provide examples of donors who support public trust in the integrity of scholarship by choosing to abide well-accepted academic norms in their giving.
As we begin construction of the ACWS database, we invite the following:
- information on potential violations of academic norms;
- responses from organizations interested in supporting the ACWS in some capacity;
- responses from individuals interested in serving on the committee that will construct and manage the ACWS database.
Please contact the ACWS at email@example.com with information and responses.
Director of Campaigns & Co-Founder, UnKoch My Campus
Professor of Economics
John Simon Endowed Chair in Economics
Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business
Saint Louis University
Associate Professor of Economics
Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business
Saint Louis University
Bertrand, M., M. Bombardini, R.J. Fisman, and F. Trebbi (2018). “Tax-Exempt Lobbying: Corporate Philanthropy as a Tool for Political Influence.” NBER Working Paper No. 24451.
Giridharadas, A. (2018). Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Rapach, D. and B. Wilson (2018). “Pursuers of Truth or Peddlers of Influence?” ProMarket blog, September 21, 2018.
Reich, R. (2018). Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Saunders-Hastings, E. (2018). “Plutocratic Philanthropy.” Journal of Politics 80(1), 149–161.
Stigler, G. (1971). “The Theory of Economic Regulation.” The Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science 2(1), 3–21.
Zingales, L. (2013). “Preventing Economists’ Capture.” In Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence and How to Limit It, Moss, D. & Carpenter, D. (Eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 124–151.
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