Last week, one of Harvard Law School’s major corporate sponsors found itself embroiled in controversy when Milbank, a New York-based corporate law firm, asked that the $200,000 it gives annually for student activities at Harvard Law School be reallocated to other areas. The request came after Justice for Palestine, a student group, used funds contributed by the firm to sponsor an event titled, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack.” The event’s organizers put Milbank’s name on their promotional materials, a stipulation of the funding. After receiving complaints from pro-Israel watchdog organization NGO Monitor, however, Milbank first disassociated itself from the event and ultimately decided to discontinue its funding for all student events at the Law School.
This unfortunate incident shines a spotlight on Harvard’s institutional reliance on large donations from corporations and wealthy individuals. Undoubtedly, private money has been and remains essential to Harvard’s success. But every institution of higher education—including Harvard—should be careful about accepting funds with strings attached.
The Milbank case exemplifies the disruption that can result when corporate contributors become dissatisfied. In 2012, the law firm pledged to give Harvard Law School $200,000 per year over five years. Under the terms of the donation, the Dean of Students would allocate the funds to student groups, provided that the groups’ event materials recognize Milbank’s contribution.
Since Milbank pulled its funding, the Law School’s Dean of Students’ office has stepped in to plug the gap—but some student groups are still concerned that they may receive reduced funding. At least one student law practice group not eligible for the newly created Dean of Students fund might not receive any money at all.
Despite these as yet unresolved issues, the Law School deserves credit for its handling of the fallout from the Milbank controversy. Dean Minow’s response—to move around school funds so that donor preferences would not have the effect of stifling student speech—was timely and admirable, and should serve as a model for administrators facing similar situations in the future.
As it moves beyond the Milbank episode, however, we hope that Harvard makes clear to prospective donors that a gift cannot have the effect of undercutting student expression or pushing a political agenda. We understand that Harvard solicits contributions from outside sources out of a sense of duty to its students, and that these sources can help support key aspects of student life. But first and foremost, Harvard has a responsibility to foster an environment of free inquiry and free expression.
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