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Each year the University Development Office and the gift offices of each of the schools spend immense time and energy soliciting donations from alumni and potential donors, aiding the massive inflow of funds needed to keep Harvard running. But the dance between wealthy and often powerful donors and the University can become more complicated than simply cashing the checks.
The $2.5 million given to Harvard Divinity School (HDS) by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan, president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) presents a disturbing moral challenge to school administrators. Sheikh Zayed is the founder of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up, a think tank that has been charged with supporting grossly anti-Semitic and anti-American views. Divinity School Dean William A. Graham has wisely pledged to return the gift if the connection between the Zayed Center and the offensive writings can be substantiated. Views promoted on the Zayed Center’s site range from denials of the Holocaust to claims that the United States orchestrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The executive director of the center reportedly called Jews “the enemies of all nations” in a speech last year. Certainly these are not ideas with which HDS should be associated, even indirectly.
Graham’s pledge to return the money is a bold one in the current economic climate. Budgets are tight across campus, and the Islamic studies professorship the gift would have established would surely have been very useful for HDS. Despite these circumstances, Graham has admirably shown that freedom from association with such bigoted views is of greater value to HDS than a single professorship.
The broader issues raised by the Zayed gift have complicated ramifications for many other large donations to the University and its schools. Harvard University Art Museums has done admirable work in looking to return art that may have been looted by the Nazis. Clearly gifts from those who endorse hate and bigotry have no place at Harvard.
But the University must continue to be vigilant in making sure donors share the values of the University. The corporate scandals of the past several years have created a substantial new class of wealthy criminals, many of whom have donated to institutions of higher education. Seton Hall University has buildings named for Dennis Kozlowski, Frank Walsh and Robert Brennan, known more for committing major corporate crimes than for their generosity. At Harvard, a significant portion of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) is housed in a building named for A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby’s who went to jail last April after being convicted of a price fixing scheme that involved vast sums. It is an embarrassment that the facility of our school for ‘good government’ is named for so unscrupulous a figure.
Certainly there are substantial difficulties in returning Taubman’s $15 million gift, especially when the building named for him has stood for a decade, but for the sake of our own dignity we must investigate steps to remove his name. Seton Hall’s administrators have investigated revisions to their gift policies that would allow them to remove the names of shamed donors from their buildings. Harvard should follow their lead. We should be certain that we are carefully screening our donors from the outset of the giving process and should include provisions in our contracts with them that would allow us to remove their names at our discretion.
This is an issue on which principle must override pragmatism. When we accept a gift we implicitly condone its source, and may indeed become guilty by association. Dean Graham has taken an important step by vigorously investigating Sheikh Zayed’s gift, a move that will send a clear message that we will not list criminals and racists among our sponsors. Declining their gifts shows that there is no room for bigotry and corruption at Harvard, not even in our pocket books.
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