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Higher Ed’s Dirty-Money Problem

There’s a story people tell to explain how college leaders think about money that comes from ethically dubious sources. The protagonists change, but other details stay the same. 

Someone asks the leader of an institution what he or she thinks of “tainted money.” 

“The only problem with tainted money,” the leader answers, “is tain’t enough of it.” 

The adage was first attributed to William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, which took donations from anyone. But Stanley N. Katz, a professor at Princeton University, remembers hearing it from Johnnetta B. Cole, a former president of Spelman and Bennett Colleges. According to a Chronicle article from 1990, Cole also clarified that “tain’t enough money in the world” that would entice her to accept a gift that allowed the donor to dictate what was taught at her college. 

Last year the head of a grantmakers association said that she heard the “president of a major medical school,” whom she did not name, use almost the exact same line during a discussion about whether tobacco money should be accepted to help finance an effort to lower infant-mortality rates, given the research showing that smoking during pregnancy contributes to low birth weights. 

But that line doesn’t cut it anymore. In the modern university, all sources of money, be they gifts from donors, corporate grants, or investments, can be tainted in some way. As one headline after another exposes unsavory billionaires and corrupt companies, students, faculty members, and alumni say their colleges’ sources of funding should reflect better values. They are demanding that universities take responsibility for their role in laundering wealthy philanthropists’ reputations and allowing outside influence on research.