Kinjo Kiema: A heightened need for transparency surrounding controversial gifts

Fundraising – otherwise known as the art of convincing people to give you money – can sometimes be a slimy business. That doesn’t mean the money the University receives has to come from slimy people, but we shouldn’t be surprised that GW doesn’t feel the same way.

The University has accepted more than $100,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in part to support students who work unpaid internships. That sum made GW the recipient of the charity’s 10th largest gift to a college in 2012.

You might have heard of the Koch brothers. But even if you don’t know exactly why they’re famous, you’re likely aware why some people wince when they hear their name.

Charles and David Koch are the owners of Koch Industries, a multinational corporation that invests heavily in oil refineries. The Charles Koch Foundation is well known for promoting small government and deregulation, while also lining the pockets of conservative politicians. The Kochs tend to donate to institutions that support market-based solutions, meaning they’re looking to build an army of young, conservative-minded students.

Cards on the table, I disagree with the Kochs’ ideology. They profit from oil refineries that harm the environment and then use the money to back politicians who will support pro-oil policies. It’s a twisted cycle, and it’s our messy political system at work.

But even though most of our student body leans left, we can’t expect our administration to reject hefty checks just because they’re from donors we don’t like. It wouldn’t make sense to argue that GW should avoid any and all politically charged donations.

Here’s the problem, though: It’s impossible to tell whether strings are attached to this donation. The University has declined to disclose if there were any conditions that came with accepting the money.

That should raise red flags. Students deserve to know whether politics play a role in these decisions. Donors can be outspoken Republicans or Democrats, yes, but fundraising requires transparency.

Skepticism regarding this donation isn’t just paranoia. At Florida State University, for example, the Koch Foundation gave money on the condition that the group could approve new hires. We need certainty that donors’ big money isn’t swaying the content of our education.

There are examples of prominent liberals donating to GW as well. George Soros, the left-leaning philanthropist counterpart to the Kochs, has donated more than $300,000 to GW to fund research about drug addiction and recovery.

The list of GW’s relationships with political or controversial figures doesn’t end there. Our public health school accepted a massive donation in March from Michael Milken, a Wall Street mogul who spent almost two years in prison for securities fraud and conspiracy. The name of a felon will now forever be plastered on the side of one of GW’s newest buildings.

And two years ago, GW gave an honorary degree to Carlos Slim and accepted a donation from the billionaire who has faced criticism for disadvantaging Mexico’s poor. GW also has an ongoing effort to try to acquire more research grants and donations from corporations – a smart move, but one fraught with risk of ethical breaches.

The University obviously relies on this money to pay for research, scholarships and program expansions. But at the end of the day, the primary goal of a university is to educate its students and generate new ideas.

We should ensure that the money we bring in never clouds this goal. We should be disturbed that donors of any political leaning could pull strings or influence our curriculum without our knowledge.

“When a donor’s reputation comes into question, the institution can face backlash by association. To the best of its ability, the institution should try to anticipate these possibilities as it makes a decision about accepting a gift,” according to a statement from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a professional association that has advised GW.

As the University embarks on what will likely be a $1 billion fundraising campaign, it must know that all eyes will scrutinize these gifts. Development officers must make every effort to not only rake in big gifts, but also allow the entire community to know where the money is going and whether strings are attached.

Transparency is key when academic freedom and the community’s trust is on the line.

Kinjo Kiema, a freshman majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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