Academia, Analysis, Media

Universities, donors, and undue influence


Over the past few days, I have watched the unfolding story involving the University of Alabama system and Hugh Culverhouse, a prominent donor. Culverhouse pledged to donate approximately $26 million dollars to the UA law school, which the UA system renamed in his honor.

Since that time, Culverhouse and the UA system have had a public falling out. Ultimately, the UA system chancellor recommended to the Board of Trustees that the system decline the pledged donation and return to Culverhouse the entirety of his donation to date, approximately $21 million dollars (UA System resolution to return Culverhouse donation).

Culverhouse has publicly claimed the system returned his money because of his criticism of the state’s recently passed abortion law. The UA system has publicly claimed they returned the money due to Culverhouse’s attempt to interfere with academic and operational functions at the law school.

Culverhouse has publicly claimed the UA system’s story was a lie, and that they were simply trying to cover their actions after the fact by lying about his alleged interference in academic and operational issues at the law school.

On Sunday, the UA system released a statement and a series of emails which support their claim that Culverhouse was attempting to interfere with operations at the law school (UA System Statement with supporting emails).

This should put an end to the story that the UA system returned Culverhouse’s donations because of his stance on the state’s recently passed abortion law. I encourage everyone to read the supporting emails for themselves, to get the complete picture of the behind-the-scenes actions from all parties.

Donors have the right to restrict their gifts, within accepted norms. However, no donor should ever be allowed to just walk into classrooms, or veto academic appointments – which is what Culverhouse wanted to do.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen friends support the UA System’s decision to return Culverhouse’s donations. They supported that decision because they believed it was the system’s response to Culverhouse complaining about the state’s recently passed abortion bill, and his stance that students should avoid attending the University of Alabama. This was a narrative being passed by Culverhouse, and echoed by the national media.

As the documentation shows, this is not what actually happened – and, that Culverhouse’s public account of events is not true.

While I also support the UA system’s decision to return Culverhouse’s donation, it is not because of Culverhouse’s public statements regarding the state’s abortion bill and his stance on students not attending the University of Alabama. In fact, I happen to agree with Culverhouse that the law is ridiculous, and will not stand up to legal challenges.

No, I support the UA system’s decision because Culverhouse showed himself to be a donor who wrongly believed that giving a university a huge check, allows that donor to interfere with academic and operational issues.

Giving back $21 million dollars is not an easy step for any university to take. However, universities cannot allow donors – any donors – to meddle like this.

(Full disclosure – I attended the University of Alabama as an undergraduate student).

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