Monday, August 03, 2009

Strings attached 

Several months ago Brandeis University announced that, to help close a $10 million deficit in its budget, it would close a museum on campus and sell the art within. It has since said it would keep the museum open, but would still sell much of the art within. Now they are being sued by three overseers of the museum to try to prevent the sale. The museum, despite the university's intentions, remains open, and its website even says mockingly "To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

In the WSJ's Political Diary today, Naomi Schaefer Riley takes aim at Brandeis, wondering how it can claim that it needs the money for core educational agenda when it spends much money on athletic programs and on dorms that include "a large community space with a big-screen TV and billiards and foosball tables." But if you don't have those things, how do you attract students to attend Brandeis and see the art?

Brandeis is located in Waltham, Massachusetts, less than a thirty minute drive from most of the very fine art museums of Boston. Students have many wonderful opportunities, therefore, to see good art. I wonder instead why the plaintiffs of this lawsuit gave the art to Brandeis.

This is a very old debate among universities and their endowment and alumni boards: To what extent does acceptance of a gift bind the university to cede some of their management rights? Usually these gifts, to the extent there is an obligation on the university, come with an agreement that spells those obligations out. In a moment of stress for any organization that solicits donations -- be it university, symphony, or your local Little League foundation -- there are attempts to move monies to meet existential threats. If the donors didn't spell out that the gifts could not be converted for the university's benefit, then we'd assume that the gifts were meant to benefit the university as they see fit.

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