Rachel Furlow: The dark side of an $80 million gift

Media Credit: Photo used under the Wikimedia Commons license

Michael Milken

With the announcement of the mega gift that renamed the Milken Institute School of Public Health on Tuesday, GW joined the ranks of universities such as Missouri and Brown – but not in terms of research prowess.

Media Credit: Photo used under the Wikimedia Commons license
Michael Milken

Rather, GW became another university to accept large donations from a corporate criminal.

The public health college will now be emblazoned with the name of billionaire business tycoon Michael Milken, whose combined gift with billionaire philanthropist Sumner Redstone amounted to $80 million, the largest donation in GW history.

Milken, a former finance mogul, is known for epitomizing Wall Street greed during the 1980s. He was convicted on charges of securities and reporting violations, and spent 22 months in prison.

The junk bonds he developed became bankers’ toys that helped cause the financial crisis years later – inflicting real-world pain on millions of Americans. Although Milken has turned into a philanthropist and his jail time is over, his name is still tied to those immoral tactics.

Giving tens of million to public health research in Foggy Bottom certainly helps the University’s research capabilities and represents a win for University President Steven Knapp’s administration.

But money – even if it helps GW – shouldn’t stop us from seeing the other side of this story. The man who gave the public health school tens of millions of dollars is a billionaire philanthropist, yes. But he is also a billionaire crook.

Milken also drew criticism at University of California, Los Angeles after he donated $10 million for a business law institute in 2011. Students and faculty here should be disappointed – as some at UCLA were – that our school could be associated with his ethically irresponsible character. Don’t let the dollar signs cloud that reality.

It’s one thing to accept such a significant donation, but branding his name on the public health school building should have presented a serious moral dilemma for the University.

Apparently, it didn’t.

Knapp, who can now count the gift as one of the signature moments of his presidency, told The Hatchet in an interview Tuesday that Milken’s philanthropy work prevails.

“We’re talking about someone who’s played a greater role than anybody I can think of bringing about the commitment of our nation to health care and research,” Knapp said. “He has really brought that whole agenda forward in a way that’s unprecedented and unparalleled.”

But the precedent that GW is setting with the donation by Milken is a dangerous one. By accepting naming schools after a criminal, GW is broadcasting that they value the money someone can give them so much that it will disregard how the person has lived up to the law.

And it seems like the University’s connection to controversial corporatists is becoming a trend.

In 2011, then-richest man in the world Carlos Slim was awarded an honorary degree at Commencement, and subsequently founded a scholarship program.

At the time, Latin American community organizers protested outside Rice Hall, saying that Slim shouldn’t be rewarded for what they argued were unfair price hikes on services offered by his two Mexico-based telecommunications companies.

Over and over in news coverage across the country, we hear how our country is devastated by a widening income gap and of how our generation is to blame as we put money over morality.

But we are part of the problem when we see the universities that are supposed to shape our education give recognition to individuals who – no matter how good their intentions – were guilty of perpetuating the cycle of money over morality.

GW can take the money. It will likely do some good in furthering public health research. But let’s not forget the meaning behind the new name of the public health school.

Rachel Furlow, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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