The College Donor Digest

Respecting Academic Freedom

July 18, 2022

The pursuit of truth is the defining feature of American higher education, motivating schools to recruit students and faculty, form course content, increase research, and encourage studies abroad. This drive to discover and finesse truth requires a strong commitment to academic freedom. When giving, philanthropists should be mindful of the delicate balance between giving thoughtful, restricted gifts and respecting academic freedom. 

Ideally, colleges and universities cherish the freedom to teach, research, and publish—uninhibited by external political or religious influence—for all campus members. While institutions’ actual record of upholding this principle is stained, academic freedom is a worthy principle to protect. The Fund for Academic Renewal’s publication, The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving, advises philanthropists to bear this freedom in mind throughout the gift agreement process.  

Giving is most effective when the two parties understand one another’s priorities and values. Higher education institutions typically avoid any gift requirement that might give donors undue, direct influence. For example, a donor may choose to fund an endowed chair and ask to review the resumes of final candidates, but the college or university maintains the right to make the ultimate hiring decision. A donor may choose to support a program that teaches students about the Great Books, but he or she cannot dictate the pedagogical style or the final selection of course materials or content.  

Colleges and universities have the option to reject gifts entirely that do not align with their vision. The Intelligent Donor’s Guide notes, “While colleges should accept outside help that strengthens academic programs, they rightly reject efforts to make them comply with someone’s particular political, religious, or personal agenda.” However, donors should not abandon higher education if their gift is not the right fit for the first institution they have in mind. Different schools may have different boundaries for academic freedom. If one college rejects a gift because it views the donor’s requirements as too restrictive, another school may be interested in the gift, even with the same stipulations.  

Academic freedom is an essential value in American higher education, and donors can successfully balance making effective gifts that achieve their goals while also respecting college and university's independence.


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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.