Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Defining the Institution's Values
Four questions to guide discussions of gift acceptance

By Kirk O. Hanson

Most institutions will find it easy to rule against accepting gifts from donors who participate in illegal activities. The ethical dilemmas begin when the prospective donor engages in a behavior that some find morally objectionable.

My own university provides a good example. On March 4, a group of "concerned students for justice and peace" distributed an e-mail message to the entire Santa Clara University community protesting the School of Engineering’s acceptance of a $50,000 gift from Lockheed Martin Corp.

Its position was that Lockheed Martin profits from the militarization of the United States and other countries, sells arms to repressive third-world countries, has contracts to design nuclear warheads and produce land mines, and is part of an effort to maintain U.S. political and economic dominance, creating greater global stratification into "haves" and "have-nots." The students urged the Santa Clara administration to reject the gift as inconsistent with the Jesuit commitment to the poor and oppressed.

Although university officials welcomed the students' opinions, their decision to accept the gift stands. "Only new facts after acceptance of a gift would lead any responsible institution to such a dramatic act" as returning a gift, says James Purcell, Santa Clara’s vice president for university relations. In response to the student protests, however, SCU President Paul Locatelli will work directly with senior administrators to draft a policy—with community input—to guide the university in accepting future gifts. In doing so, the administrators should consider the following questions:

Who decides the institution's values? Are the values only those that have been written down? Or do they need to reflect the values of its constituencies?

Administrators must respect the values of all members of the campus community—students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni. For instance, in the United States, tobacco and land mines are legal products, and there is no restriction on the sale of arms to Israel. One segment of the campus community might object to any one of these products or activities while another segment is just as likely to support it.

In many cases the institution can face a vocal group that represents a minority opinion. The protesting students at Santa Clara were few in number, probably fewer than the number of ROTC students on campus and certainly fewer than the 400 alumni who work for Lockheed Martin. In other situations, student protesters may not share the same values as another segment of the campus community.

Does the objectionable behavior have to be habitual or just sufficiently grave? A great amount of damage can be done by a head-in-the-sand attitude toward a consistent pattern of corporate malfeasance, even if the company has justified each alleged behavior. On the other hand, just one sufficiently serious offense may be enough to justify ending the campus's relationship with the organization. In my view, a policy should ban gifts from companies with "consistent, repeated, and serious" offenses, and the policy should set a relatively high bar for these distinctions.

Are certain businesses fundamentally inconsistent with the institution's core values? Conservative Christian institutions might want to avoid associations with companies that have liquor or gambling interests. Medical schools might decide tobacco company contributions are inconsistent with their mission. But today's conglomerates make these distinctions more difficult. What if a food company has a tobacco division? What if a pharmaceutical company produces abortion drugs?

At Santa Clara, we debated whether a Jesuit university committed to social justice and the poor must automatically turn down all defense industry gifts. Catholic and Jesuit writings embrace at least two ethical traditions—pacifism and just war. And the chain of causality—from modern arms production to promoting militarism and repression—is at least unproven.

What is the appropriate response when the campus community objects to a donor or gift? The most common strategy is probably silence—and at times this is appropriate, such as when the protest is from a vocal minority. At other times, silence might imply the institution does not respect its protesting constituents.

The administration cannot show too much sympathy for the protestors' position lest donors fear the campus will abandon them at the first sign of controversy. On the other hand, it cannot issue a ringing defense of the donor for fear it will inflame protesters. In some cases, delay can be useful in stemming controversy.

Regardless of the institution's decision, the event itself creates a "teachable moment." After the student e-mail protest, Santa Clara administrators asked the ethics center to host an open campus forum on whether the university should have a formal gift acceptance policy. The 90-minute forum featured presentations by students on both sides of the issue as well as comments by the engineering school dean and Purcell; Locatelli was on hand to listen to comments. Several professors made the controversy the topic of a class session. The event highlighted many of the complexities in separating companies into the good and the bad.

Copyright © 1998 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


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