Eight ways to protect your donor intent when funding academic centers

Funding an academic center at a university can be a worthy option for your philanthropic dollars in higher education. Adam Kissel, director of civic and higher education programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable, provides several considerations for donors interested in this avenue. These grow out of his experience directing gifts to higher education at the Charles Koch Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.

  • Build your program around a strong (ideally tenured) faculty member with both academic and administrative skills who shares your commitment to the proposed center’s mission. “It needs to be someone with an entrepreneurial vision, gravitas with his colleagues, and demonstrated ability to get the job done—not just someone who is a good scholar,” Kissel advises.
  • Ideally, the center should live within a department and play an important role in the university’s academic life. Otherwise, chances are that it will be isolated and languish in a remote corner of the institution.
  • Involve other faculty members and trustees as partners early in the process.
  • Make sure that any new permanent faculty brought into the center are full members of the department in which the center is housed. Equip the center to bring in visiting faculty as well to enhance the center’s research and teaching potential. 
  • Ensure that the institution’s development office will give the new center the necessary attention. 
  • Ensure that top administration leaders, right up to the president, respect academic freedom, particularly if you are launching a more controversial center, such as one centered around free markets or free expression.
  • Always allocate your funding in a year-to-year arrangement. Academic and administrative personnel will certainly change, and future arrivals may not share your interest in the center.
  • Ensure that the center allows for diversity of thought and opinion, which on most campuses means protecting right-of-center viewpoints. Two good models: Professor Robert George’s Madison Program at Princeton University which routinely pits George (a conservative Catholic thinker) against left-wing intellectual Cornel West; and Professor John Tomasi’s Political Theory Project at Brown University whose student wing, the Janus Forum, brings to campus thinkers of various ideological stripes to debate issues.