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Expensive gift

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What's wrong with taking money from a conservative foundation for an undergraduate studies program at a public university? Not a thing--unless that foundation has an agenda that's antithetical to the principles of academic freedom and cultural diversity the university has vowed to uphold.

As Barbara Solow reveals this week, administrators and faculty at UNC are facing such a choice right now. The conservative John Pope Foundation--whose benefactors, Art Pope and John Pope Sr. are both UNC graduates--has expressed interest in funding a new program in Western civilization.

In their eagerness to secure donations for teaching and research, college administrators have already agreed to some strings: The committee writing the proposal is being paid with a $25,000 "planning grant" from the foundation, and the program would be funded on a five-year trial basis after which the Popes will decide if it merits endowing. But what if professors want to explore the shared roots of Islam and Judeo-Christian teachings? What if they want to create a program that takes current global realities into account in its examination of "the West?" Will the foundation be as likely five years from now to commit a potential $25 million endowment? Or will administrators keep that in mind while designing the program?

Faculty were dismayed that the university would accept funding from the financial backers of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which has been on a crusade against "liberal bias" at UNC and its lack of "Western studies" requirements as compared to "politically correct" courses in multiculturalism.

As critics of the new Western studies program point out, not all private offers meet the smell test. In this case, it's impossible to separate the Pope Foundation's interest in contributing to undergraduate programs with its founders' desire to influence the content of that study.

"These conservative foundations know how to mobilize resources for their ideological causes," the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy said in a report this year on grantmaking. "They do it well, to the detriment of the populations that are not served by their nonprofit clients' assaults on civil rights, tax equity, affirmative action, gay and lesbian rights and many other concerns of ordinary Americans."

Is the Pope Foundation wrong for wanting to fund an area of interest to its founders? Of course not. That's what foundations do. But university leaders should heed the concerns of faculty about whether designing a proposal to match the Popes' interest gives its founders undue influence over academic programs.

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