When are Donations to Universities Unacceptable?

by Jerome Cohen

(Matthews Hall, Harvard Yard, Photopin)

(Matthews Hall, Harvard Yard, Photopin)

Harvard has announced that it’s going to set up a new research institute in Shanghai. The institute is being funded by a donation from Wang Jianlin, the chairman of the Wanda Group, which according to this New York Times report, has financial ties with members of the most powerful families in China. This has raised the issues of whether Harvard should accept the donation and more broadly what sources of funding should be acceptable to universities and under what conditions.

These problems frequently arise at the elite schools, Harvard prominent among them. Some donations seem simply wrong and others are plainly angelic "no brainers". The rightness of many others turns on various specifics - eg, the donors, the purposes, the conditions if any, etc.

Having taken part in some fundraising, I know these are often not simple matters, and respectable arguments can frequently be made on both sides. At Harvard I raised money from many sources. Eg, the US Government Arms Control & Disarmament Agency. Should that grant to study Chinese policy and international law have been rejected because of the abominable misconduct of the US Government in any number of places including Vietnam, Chile, Iran etc? Should a grant from Mac Bundy at the Ford Foundation to study Vietnam's legal history have been rejected because Bundy had moved there following his White House years helping to mastermind the destruction of Vietnam? (And Henry Ford, the progenitor, was, of course, an anti-Semite.) Should a professorship of Japanese law to be established by the Mitsubishi Group at Harvard Law School have been rejected because periodically some member of the group is charged in some country with violation of antitrust, trade or even criminal laws?

In those three cases I thought the circumstances warranted acceptance, although I told Mitsubishi that we could not use their name for the professorship and they agreed. Later, after I left Harvard, somehow the name came into use regarding the chair.

A more interesting problem arose when I was invited to go to Japan by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation to give a public lecture in January 1975, probably because I had been openly critical of the Tanaka Government on the grounds of corruption and human rights in its actions at home and in relation to South Korea. I got to know my host during the few days he spent with my wife and me traveling around Japan, and it became clear that he would be willing to make a huge donation to Harvard Law School to support our East Asian research program. Mr. Sasakawa, who made a fortune as the king of motorboat racing, was in the midst of a sustained effort to do good deeds that might overcome his earlier reputation as a war criminal. When I returned to Harvard, I consulted my wise senior colleagues Fairbank and Reischauer as well as the young law professors from Japan who were either visiting scholars or grad students at Harvard Law School. Neither Fairbank nor Reischauer opposed the idea and they seemed to implicitly endorse it. Fairbank, a great supporter of research in East Asian law, said with a smile: "Harvard sanitizes money by accepting it". The Japanese law scholars, on the other hand, were adamantly opposed because of Sasakawa's record as a war criminal. One whom I respected greatly said: "No one from Japan will want to study here if you take his money." With considerable reluctance, I turned the opportunity away. Not long after, Sasakawa gave about US$10 million, real money in those halcyon days, to the UN Population Fund at the request of Robin Duke, one of the world's most charming women, who, with her husband, Angier Biddle Duke, had been courting Sasakawa at the same time we were there and who gave me the idea of trying to hit our host for a major gift. Was I right?

A few years after the Sasakawa incident, many in Cambridge were outraged when the Fletcher School accepted a chair from the Marcos Government in the Philippines. I took part in the protest and think I wrote a letter to the Boston Globe asking whether it would be called "The Ferdinand Marcos Chair in Human Rights". In any event, Fletcher soon decided to return the gift.