University of Washington
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In 2016, Rebecca Benaroya, a Seattle philanthropist, gave $5 million to the University of Washington to create the Jack and Rebecca Benaroya Endowed Fund for Excellence in Israel Studies, and endowed a professorship. Benaroya became concerned recently when the holder of the endowed chair, Professor Liora Halperin (no relation to the author), signed a 2021 “Statement on Israel/Palestine” which condemned Israeli actions during the recent Gaza conflict and stated that “the Zionist movement…was and is still shaped by settler colonial paradigms.” She refers in her course offerings to “Israel/Palestine” rather than “Israel.”

Benaroya’s expectations for the endowed professorship “were not and could not legally have been stated in the endowment agreement,” Halperin said. After several months of meetings, the university just returned Ms. Benaroya’s $5 million and eliminated the endowed professorship. Daniel Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, supports Professor Halperin and feels that “We should not be imposing litmus tests on who is and who is not virtuous enough to receive an endowed chair at a university.”

There may be leaders in higher education who think it is intuitively obvious that wealthy people will make philanthropic donations to universities and then trust the university to do what they promised with the money with no further accountability. I have been a college chancellor for ten years and was a medical school dean for six years before that. I’ve raised money in both jobs. I always follow the rule, “It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you document.”

If you are asking someone to toss several million philanthropic dollars over the transom to your university and give you complete freedom of action to spend the money in perpetuity as you think best, then you need to put that in writing in the gift agreement. You and the donor need to sign it. Professor Halperin says that a donor’s expectations for an endowment agreement can “not and could not legally have been stated in the endowment agreement.” She’s wrong. If a donor has expectations for how his/her money will or won’t be spent, and how the recipients of the benefits of the donation will or won’t conduct themselves, then that needs to be put in writing. If the university doesn’t like the conditions of the donation, then it can decline to accept i

As a college chancellor I was offered an endowed chair donation in bioethics. The donor made his expectations to direct the scholarly work of the holder of the chair clear. I said no. In another case, I declined to take a gift for an endowed chair when the donor, a tobacco company, indicated that they expected to influence the chair holder’s scholarly work regarding smoking cessation. The essence of the problem isn’t a legal matter. It is a matter of communications and documentation of donor expectations.

I disagree with Professor Myer’s assertion that universities should not decide “who is virtuous enough to receive an endowed chair at a university.” Virtue, honor, character and the quality of teaching and scholarship are all appropriate litmus tests. Professors have the right to freedom of speech possessed by any citizen. When, however, they speak as officers of the university, they need to comport themselves within the standards set by the university. I would never, for example, support the awarding of an endowed professorship in pediatrics to someone who believed they could use the professorship to disseminate falsehoods about the benefits of childhood vaccinations for polio, measles, mumps, and rubella.

In recent years, when professors and university administrators make insensitive or disparaging remarks about people and their race, religion or sexuality, public exposure and reprimands generally follow; except when it concerns Jews and Israel. Among the basic human rights is the right to self-determination. The right self-determination by Jews is fulfilled by the existence of the State of Israel. Denying Jews this basic right is anti-Semitism. Attacking the right of the Israel to exist as a nation seems to make some academics circle the wagons and invoke academic freedom and free speech. When anti-Semitism is brought up, there always seems to be an excuse by some academics as to why it cannot be condemned.

The issue before us is not one of “free speech”. There is no shortage of venues wherein professors can express their views about Israel as private citizens. The issue before us is whether a college professor should use an academic platform created for them by a donor and, contrary to the donor’s wishes, choose to promote attacks on the right of Israel to exist as a national homeland for the Jewish people. Professors like to use their university pulpit to promote their views but, when they are called-to-task for misusing their position, they retreat behind a defense of “academic freedom.”

I hope some people in higher education will be chastened by the events at the University of Washington and learn to either write clearer philanthropic gift agreements which meet donor expectations or, if they view the conditions of the proposed gift unacceptable, to decline donations. Universities asserting that people should blindly trust them and their professors to “do the right thing” with their donations is a form of hubris. Donors who believe in the right of Israel to exist, a right granted to any nation-state, should be wary of making gifts to people and organizations who don’t share that belief.

Edward C. Halperin M.D., M.A., teaches history of medicine at the New York Medical College of Touro University where he is also the college's Chancellor/CEO. This essay represents his opinion and not that of the college.