The problem with philanthropy

By buying their way into academic, scientific and cultural institutions, the rich have quietly undermined democracy.


October 16, 2020 (

DAVE THOMPSON / GETTY IMAGESIn 2016, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates and former chancellor George Osborne announced UK research funding during a visit to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Charitable giving is one of the few things in the world that seems to be wholly good. Philanthropy, often characterised as private action for the public good, appears to earn the original meaning of the term: love of humanity. What could be a better example of virtue?

There’s no question that individuals giving to worthy causes provides important relief from states’ failures to promote justice and wellbeing. Philanthropy can also provide key support to resistance movements. Yet since wealthy foundations such as the Gates Foundation and Gates Trust hold assets that surpass many countries, there is reason to be concerned about the political significance of large-scale philanthropy.

Large-scale philanthropy is an exercise of power that is fundamentally undemocratic. Since charitable giving brings tax benefits, large-scale philanthropy can undermine the people’s will in favour of the donor’s own values. In effect, taxpayers subsidise the freedom of the rich to realise their own vision of what is good while simultaneously depriving democratically chosen programmes of valuable public funds.

The structure of philanthropy around the world is increasingly a manifestation of plutocracy – government by the wealthy. Rewarding large-scale philanthropy through tax relief and other subsidies gives the rich even more power than their wealth already provides to create a society that furthers their interests at the expense of others.

In fact, the decline of democracy and the rise of vast wealth disparities produces a looping effect: through funding political campaigns and legislative lobbying along with media management of public opinion, the rich can influence the government to protect the institutions and practices that enable them to accumulate even greater wealth. Wealth begets power and power begets wealth.

Not all large-scale philanthropy is the same. Donations to the arts, research, education and poverty relief would seem to be more benign forms of generosity. However, we should hesitate before drawing broad conclusions. Let’s consider the role of philanthropy in the academic world.

[See also: How the Cambridge Analytica scandal unravelled]

With the decline of US governmental support for higher education, colleges and universities rely increasingly on big donors. Science is expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere, so research is often paid for by the super-rich. But there are serious problems with academic plutocracy that involve burnishing reputations, neglecting research in the public interest, and marginalising humanistic and artistic endeavours.

To adapt Balzac, behind many great fortunes there are great crimes. It is difficult to hold the wealthy accountable for ethically questionable actions in any case, and large-scale philanthropy can make them untouchable. For example, the notable academic philanthropist, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, has an estimated net worth of $19.2bn. He recently gave $350m to MIT and £150m to Oxford. Schwarzman, reportedly, benefited personally from the sub-prime mortgage crisis which caused millions to default on their home loans.

Jeffrey Epstein was a major donor to scientific research and contributed millions to Harvard and MIT, with the hope, among other things, to “seed the human race with his DNA”. He was also a convicted sex offender, and although he never made it to trial for additional allegations, he was plausibly engaged in long-term sex trafficking. The Koch brothers donate money to universities across the US and are also known for their misinformation campaigns about climate change and efforts to repeal social security and minimum wage. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible for untold human rights violations, including the torture of feminist activists and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet this does not stop universities accepting donations from the Crown Prince.

Some argue that there is no problem in accepting large donations from the super-wealthy because there is no such thing as “dirty money”, or that using bad money for good is the best thing we can do to offset the bad actions that generated it. But burnishing the reputation of donors can prevent them from being held responsible for the “great crimes” that produced their money, or legitimise illicit practices through association with prestigious, well-respected institutions like universities. But as Theodore Roosevelt said of Rockefeller: “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

Moreover, gift exchange is reciprocal, whether this is intentional or not. Although gifts do not require immediate compensation, the point of gifts is to create or sustain relationships, and such relationships involve reciprocity of some kind. When academic institutions enter into dependence relationships with bad actors, they are vulnerable to influence in ways that are at odds with the ideals of academic integrity. This has been shown to be the case for Harvard’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.

Corporations also donate to higher education through sponsored research. This is not exactly “philanthropy” because there are explicit agreements between researchers and industry that specify the nature of the project and its goals, the timing, funding, and so on. A substantial portion of scientific research would not be possible without such sponsorships. And there is no doubt that such research is often useful for a variety of applications beyond the intended corporate use.

However, even if not philanthropy, such arrangements are at risk of fostering academic plutocracy. Corporations contribute millions to labs in order to promote and guide research that improves their product and enhances their likelihood of making a profit. Some would argue that this is an important part of what research universities are for. But it is also clear that this funding model incentivises research on certain topics and not others, promoting certain ends and not others.

Although all inquiry is value-laden, there is little oversight or reflection concerning which values are guiding research. Scientific inquiry and engineering projects that address systematic injustice and the needs of the poor and marginalised do not have the same access to corporate funding. And those who have ethical scruples about the funder or the product are left with difficult choices: sign up or give up.

It is also a common complaint among those in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even those engaged in purely theoretical science, that universities have been “corporatised”. This means, among other things, that disciplines unable to attract large donors are often perceived as “luxuries” and have lost power in the academy. As a result, we are seeing significant reductions in funding for the humanities and even cuts to liberal arts programmes.

The corporatisation of the university also means that senior administrative posts are often filled by those who are effective in attracting “big money” and organising the institution to be maximally efficient – not in producing knowledge, but in sustaining itself financially. University administrators’ focus on finances is the predictable result of a structural problem: the state’s relinquishment of its responsibilities to higher education.

Treating universities as places where corporations can outsource their research and development has profound social consequences. Education in the arts, humanities and social sciences allows for deep reflection on democratic values; it expands our horizons by exposing us to different points of view; it provides historical self-understanding; and it gives us the skills to communicate creatively across differences.

Unlike a corporation, a university is a place that supports the simultaneous pursuit of scientific and critical inquiry: the interaction between different disciplines, including natural and social science, law, medicine, liberal arts and creative arts, promotes objectivity. In short, academic plutocracy – governance by the wealthy and those who must court the wealthy – undermines democracy and the pursuit of knowledge.

In the US at least, there is little hope for changes at the federal or state level to address these problems. We need more discussion of what might be done. There should be greater transparency, accountability, and oversight for research projects that depend on philanthropic or corporate funding.  For example, universities should, in collaboration with researchers, articulate clear ethical guidelines for acceptance of gifts and sponsorships and institute measures to uphold these guidelines.  Greater democratic self-governance could make universities more responsive to public concerns. And new funding models could redirect a percentage of donations to research in the public interest that does not attract the attention of corporations and large-scale philanthropists.

None of these suggestions would solve the problems completely. Money will always play a role in determining what science does, just as monied interests will always play a role in what public institutions and services are offered. But the stakes are high for the academy and for democracy generally. The question is whether power ought to lie in the hands of a few rich individuals and corporations or, if not, how we should better organise the collective pursuit of knowledge. Clearly, the wealthy are already in charge. Their philanthropy needs to be checked and the state must fulfil its responsibilities to the public.

Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT. She is the author of Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique. This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @ajwendland.

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