Distracting Donations

The University should not let large donations undermine its intellectual independence

Yesterday’s announcement by reclusive millionaire Jeffrey Epstein of his plans to contribute $30 million to fund a center for the study of mathematical biology provides a chance for redemption to the University, which recently lost a $12 million pledge by donor-activist Jane Fonda. Last week, Fonda reneged on her gift to the Graduate School of Education (GSE) in part because of the divergence of her vision of the center and that of the University.

There were major problems with the structure of Fonda’s gift. She had originally contributed the money to create a center to build upon the work of former Graham professor of gender studies Carol Gilligan. But when GSE administrators could not find another gender studies expert willing to fill the center’s endowed chair after Gilligan’s departure, Fonda pulled the plug on the funding.

Although it is unfortunate to lose all but a tiny portion of the gift, the vision of GSE’s dean clearly did not comport with Fonda’s pet project. Lagemann’s goal—focusing on research of K-12 education—must take precedence over the fancies of wealthy donors. Try as she might to turn her dollars into intellectual clout, Fonda—as well as other donors—must leave the direction of academic institutions to the academics.

However, the new gift by Epstein will hopefully be more successful, as it already has not only the coordinative backing of the University administration on the highest level, but also a well-renowned professor—Martin Nowak, a recognized leader in mathematical biology from Princeton—who has already been secured for stewardship of this project.

A new policy on academic centers approved this December by the Deans rightfully requires that new centers extend beyond the interest of one or two professors and not simply duplicate the work of preexisting programs. Presently, over 100 centers exist at Harvard, and while some aptly complement its academic mission, others spring from the peculiarities of one eccentric donor. It is unclear what new opportunities Fonda’s center would have contributed to the GSE. On the contrary, mathematical biology is an interdisciplinary field which can yield tremendous research opportunities to professors in several departments under Nowak’s leadership.

Lagemann’s sluggishness in strengthening Fonda’s center should not be interpreted as a rejection of gender studies as a whole. Large gifts can benefit both humanities and sciences, but the structure and planning must be well coordinated for these gifts to create a successful academic legacy.

It’s unfortunate that the University squandered its opportunity for Fonda’s $12 million since Harvard relies on charity to carry out research. In finalizing the Epstein donation, the University should find the happy medium, where it can negotiate with the donor while maintaining its academic integrity. Though it is unclear whether Fonda would have budged, the University should have put more effort into negotiating the gift’s structure instead of lapsing into negligence. Harvard has a knack for putting money to good use, and if it combines a respect for donors’ wishes with its deans’ formulated goals, it will be successful in cultivating productive research.

Gender studies is an important field of research that could have benefited from such a large gift but for the lack of coordination. Let’s hope that mathematical biology will have a more prosperous future at Harvard.