Sunday, December 17, 2023

Endowed Chairs and the "Dark Matter" of Higher Education

[The Higher Education Inquirer encourages college newspapers to explore their own schools for information on endowed chairs and to share it with us.]  

More than a century ago, Thorstein Veblen and Upton Sinclair critically exposed the structure and history of US higher education. Others have followed. Yet there is still much that the public doesn't know about the higher education business. Endowed chairs and their donors are one area of "dark matter" worthy of investigation. 

The Association of American Colleges and Universities estimated in 2011 that there were approximately 10,000 endowed chairs in the United States.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education reported in 2018 that the average endowment for a new chair position was $3 million. This suggests that there may be tens of thousands of endowed positions nationwide. 

A 2021 study by Inside Higher Ed found that there were over 8,500 endowed positions advertised on the Chronicle of Higher Education job board between 2016 and 2021.

While it may not be possible to determine the exact number of endowed chair positions in the US, it is clear that they play a significant role in supporting higher education and research.

Some highly controversial donors have been involved in funding endowed chairs, including the Sackler family, heirs to the Purdue Pharma fortune. 

Quid Pro Quo Arrangements

Determining the frequency of quid pro quo arrangements in creating endowed chairs is challenging due to the limited transparency and inconsistent reporting practices. However, several factors suggest that these arrangements may occur more often than publicly acknowledged.

Factors suggesting the prevalence of quid pro quo: 

Lack of transparency: Universities often lack clear and transparent guidelines regarding the creation and funding of endowed chairs. This lack of transparency creates fertile ground for potential quid pro quo arrangements. 

Donor influence: Donors offering significant financial contributions often have certain expectations, which may include influencing curriculum, research focus, or even faculty appointments. This can create pressure for universities to accommodate these expectations, even if they deviate from academic merit or institutional priorities. 

Competitive pressure: Universities face intense competition for funding, leading them to be more receptive to donors' demands, particularly when dealing with large sums. This creates a situation where donors can leverage their financial power to influence decisions.

Challenges in quantifying the frequency:
Subtle and indirect forms of influence: Quid pro quo arrangements can be subtle and indirect, making them difficult to identify and quantify. For instance, a donor may not explicitly demand specific research outcomes but might indirectly influence them through conversations, gifts, or other forms of pressure. 

Lack of reporting: Universities rarely disclose the details of their agreements with donors, making it difficult to assess the extent to which quid pro quo arrangements exist.

Fear of retaliation: Academics and university officials may be hesitant to come forward and report cases of quid pro quo due to fear of retaliation, further obscuring the true scope of the issue. 


Related links:

HEI Resources

The Business of Higher Education 

A People's History of Higher Education in the US?

One Fascism or Two?: The Reemergence of "Fascism(s)" in US Higher Education




Strelnikov said...

Yes, American universities are full of odd little pockets, racks of money growing in ledgers, and all these stupid Endowed Chairs and all of the warpage of reality caused by Koch money to Economics departments. These schools (especially the private colleges) are as close to living in a medieval kingdom as you can get in the modern world when it comes to all the odd jobs "the gentry" are allowed to take on.

Higher Education Inquirer said...

You are quite correct about that. That's why I encourage others to dig deeper.