My post on Florida State’s sellout to a right-wing foundation deserves some more general, and less snarky, reflection on several aspects of the deal.

A distinctive, possibly unique, feature of the way Americans do our collective business, noted by de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago and long predating the tax preferences for charities and donors that many think ’causes’ it, is our delegation of what others do through government to the large and ramified non-profit sector. As Feld, Schuster and I discussed in the context of the arts [Patrons Despite Themselves, 1983 NYU Press], this system has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it diffuses control of programs and practices relative to a centralized government agency, encourages niche and “small-market” activity, and protects us from a lot of mischief. On the other, it gives wealthy donors more influence than they would have as voters, influence amplified by the income tax deduction that makes giving cheaper per dollar as one’s tax bracket is higher.

Charitable institutions with ethical or professional claims can always refuse gifts with inappropriate strings, but this power is at least partly illusory. The director of the Metropolitan Opera told us flatly that donors are not allowed to determine programming, and ten minutes later that the new production selected for the next season from several options was thus because it had a donor willing to fund it and the others didn’t. It’s naïve to think an institution doesn’t think about what sort of behavior might induce an “unrestricted” gift later, so this influence can be quite tacit. For explicit restrictions, institutions have codes of ethics and rules that make it easier to stand up to donors who wants to muscle them. For example, museums are not supposed to accept artworks with conditions that they be displayed, or how (though this is violated, sometimes spectacularly, for very big gifts). The powers that be at FSU might have viewed the Koch offer as something that would be implemented elsewhere if not there, and maybe with worse oversight and outcomes, so what’s the harm in getting it under the salutary regime of our own shop?

With all its faults, I do not think this philanthropic tradition is more dangerous or less effective than an all-government system (though I would much prefer a tax credit to the deduction). The policy challenge is not to avoid risk but to choose the right risks, and then to manage them, which is what FSU spectacularly failed at.

Governments and individuals want universities to do some things and not others. The land grant system was specifically designed to get brainpower directed to useful stuff like better agriculture and engineering; RISD and Mass Art were founded to help the textile industry make money with better fabric designs. It was our sister campus at Davis that put cheap good wine on your table and cleared away the cobwebs of myth and superstition from that industry, whose devotion to better uses of bioethanol (than driving cars) is itself admirable in my book. I have no problem with any of this; private or public, universities are given resources that could be used in other ways, and we have a duty to create value for the society, not to amuse ourselves. Yes, what looks like woolgathering and methodological navel-gazing is part of creating that value; those art schools were given painting and sculpture departments because the founders understood that the arts were integrated and cross-fertilizing.

The (somewhat fuzzy) line here is between directing academic attention to an issue area (how markets work and don’t, how to make wine, what might live on Mars) and directing findings about those things. If the Davis oenologists had been offered a gift conditional on showing that acquired characteristics of vines were inherited (what put Russian science in the toilet for a generation), or on hiring faculty who would teach that wine prevents heart attacks, they would have had none of it, and correctly so. We are always at risk of having our institutions corrupted to give someone a short-term benefit (even with the best intentions on all sides), but More’s caution to his careerist apprentice (at least in the movie) – about cutting down the laws when convenient and then having nothing to hide behind when the devil comes for you – applies in spades to science, including social science, and everything else in the academic grove. (Actually, I think playing by the rules for their own sake in the small because it pays off in the large applies to the sports subsidiary as well.) FSU crossed that line in football four years ago, and in economics in 2008; maybe the campus culture is generally that cheating is OK if you win? That anything that can be bought and sold should be? If a student ghostwrites a term paper for another for $100, can he defend himself by pointing to his economics prof?

No, it’s not OK if it makes money; universities could diffuse their management attention and resources, and spend their reputation, across all sorts of things that would be profitable, but a lot of them are inappropriate and a lot of them are mischievous and dangerous. Selling course content or research findings is one of those, and high up on the list. What FSU did besmirches the reputation of everything its faculty does from now on, in the classroom and in the lab, and because of the tacit anticipation issue noted in my first heading, properly so. Most troubling to me is that this scheme constitutes nearly flat-out lying to the citizens of Florida. If they are anything like California citizens, they are desperate to believe that they can have (for example) a fine university system without actually having to pay anything for it, and letting Koch (or anyone else) infect it this way enables that tragic wrong belief. What they will have on this plan is something completely different from a university, dressed up in a nice gown and mortarboard. We have an (imperfect, granted) accreditation system to help people distinguish a real university from that sort of thing and I think FSU deserves its attention.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.