Donations and Politics: How the Two Impact Community Reputation

 /  Dec. 14, 2020, 10:30 a.m.

saieh hall

While the Presidential race was the first topic on everyone’s mind for all of November, a key piece of legislation was nixed, one that affects UChicago and the greater Hyde Park community. The ‘Fair Tax Act,’ an amendment to change the Illinois state income tax from a flat to graduated rate, failed to pass as 55 percent voted no and 45 percent voted yes with 98 percent of the vote counted. 

The amendment to the state constitution was contentious. It was first brought up in 2019, endorsed by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, the namesake of the Pritzker Foundation and of the Pritzker School of Medicine here at UChicago. Another large UChicago donor, Kenneth C. Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund manager of Citadel, was on the opposite side of the aisle, leading the charge against the bill. Griffin alone spent around $48 million USD on measures to prevent the tax act from passing. Both men are high-profile donors to UChicago and hold strong political beliefs, Pritzker a Democrat and Griffin a Republican. And both of their names are on buildings on campus, so their connection to the University is undeniable. Thus, do their political associations transitively influence those of the University at large, one that has historically stayed away from partisanship and any polarizing issues for that matter? Should the University continue to put the names of high-profile donors on buildings in and around campus?

The two men in question have given a lot to the University. On top of its previous contributions, Governor Pritzker’s foundation donated an additional $75 million USD for the creation of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering to bring Pritzker’s lifetime donations to $100 million USD. “The generous support of the Pritzker Foundation will enable us to both deepen and broaden our efforts in areas of global significance,” said Matthew Tirrell, the dean of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. And Kenneth Griffin, who also serves on the University’s board of trustees, recently donated $125 million USD to the UChicago Department of Economics, which has since been renamed the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics in his honor.

Name Recognition and its Effects

Every time a student, faculty member, or visitor walks by one of those buildings, they see a name on a plaque and may associate it with the structure itself. Students and staffers alike refer to the athletic center, library, and dining commons by their donor names — Ratner, the Reg (Regenstein), and Baker/Bartlett, respectively. To hear a name with such high name recognition can change the way one views the building and, more generally, the University. Consider downtown Chicago, where tourists and city folk alike walk by Trump Tower in the thousands. However non-partisan and politically-averse the tenants and staff are, they still are living operating under the name of a person with some of the most provocative views in the country and world. This might affect the way they are treated by onlookers. While not such an extreme case, a similar thing may occur on campus. When UChicago faculty and students attach a title to their name (i.e. Professor/Student at the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics/Pritzker School), they assume the responsibility of working under that name, and whatever consequences come with that. And the University shares in that liability. It is not quite clear whether or not this has affected the University as of yet, but there is the possibility it could happen in the future.

The Necessity of the Donations

While there may be problems created by naming buildings, the money these donors give is invaluable. It is not used to further the political beliefs of donors, but rather to better certain departments or programs, an idea on which those from both sides of the aisle can agree. Kenneth Griffin’s donation, for instance, will support upperclassmen undergraduates and graduate students through stipends and scholarships, and will help fund faculty research. Similarly, Pritzker’s donation helped create a molecular biology lab and will fund internship projects as well as University-run programs for students K-12. Donations from both men directly contribute to a breeding ground for free thought and innovation, an integral part of the college experience.

There is also an argument to be made that these donations are necessary for UChicago's budget. UChicago’s endowment is worth almost $9 billion USD as of 2019. This endowment accounts for 16.8 percent of UChicago’s operating budget. Aside from prudent investing, the only way the endowment grows is through alumni contributions. UChicago needs this money to operate and expand to meet the growing list of needs that incoming students demand. Modern facilities, a career advising office, and a mental health center are just some of the new additions to the UChicago experience. Furthermore, the UChicago Medical Campus’s operating costs are also paid for through the endowment. If donors aren’t able to have their names on the project they directly helped fund, they might not be willing to make a contribution. This would cause the endowment to erode and would strain the University even more than it already is in times of COVID-19.

What to Look Out For

It’s unlikely that the University will step in and change the way donations are made, and even less likely that they will ever refuse a donation on the basis of political belief. However, this is an issue that affects every single person linked with the University. It will not come as a surprise then if students and/or faculty call the administration out. In the past, they have not shied away from protesting contentious issues and taking action on campus. There is an ongoing call to ‘Defund UCPD,’ happening in tandem with the Black Lives Matter movement and push for racial equality in and around Hyde Park as well as the country. Students activists from CareNotCops saw an issue and acted, staging a silent sit-in at the UCPD headquarters. The issue of naming buildings after political figures is not nearly as publicized and argumentative. However, University community members are anything but timid—if they perceive something as wrong they’ll do their best to change it.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here

Henry Branch


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