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Following the Money: A look into power and justice in higher education funding.

Recent news that convicted sex-offender Jefferey Epstein quietly donated $1.7 million dollars to M.I.T.’s Media Lab has some people questioning the morality of higher education funding. Joichi Ito, the director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, worked with others to conceal the origin of these funds, making them appear to be anonymous donations. When news got out, he resigned.

Some are concerned that accepting these donations enabled Epstein to rebuild his public image by boasting about the interactions with famous scientists which these donations made possible. However, besides indirectly enabling criminals to win popularity, there are deeper assumptions which undergird the moral horror many feel at the thought of accepting Epstein’s donations.

First, these moral objections often assume, consciously or unconsciously, that when you accept money from someone, you are tacitly affirming what that person does. In our society, moral condemnation occurs through boycotting; we socially or economically ostracize those whose money and reputation are now tainted by their deeds.

Second, it is difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. If you accept money, even if you rationalize it as a casual gift, it will affect the way you think about the giver. You will, if only subconsciously, look more favorably on the giver and perhaps feel the need to return the favor. This makes it difficult, not only publically, but internally as well, to criticize or condemn the giver.

But consider a parallel case. While Epstein, a private donor, accounts for $1.7 million in higher education funding, federal and state governments account for billions, and not just at state schools. Private schools, including Eastern, also participate in a funding program we know well: federal financial aid. According to J. Pernell Jones, Eastern’s Vice President of Finance and Operation, “Last year, EU students received approximately $30 million in federal financial aid (i.e., direct loans, Pell, SEOG, Federal Work Study, etc.).” Given that Eastern’s total revenue for the same year was $73 million, one can see just how substantial federal aid is to the Eastern community.

Given the moral assumptions outlined above, consider the implications.

First, if schools and individual students accept government aid, then they tacitly affirm the actions of that government. For good or ill, the government thereby makes itself a permanent good guy. (If you doubt this, consider the cringe we all felt when I mentioned financial aid. There’s no denying that we like government help in paying for college.)

Second, accepting funding makes it, if only subtly, more difficult to criticize the government, at least, difficult to do so without hypocrisy. After all, how can we criticize the government for interfering in the function of foreign governments for economic gain, like in Latin America, for instance, when we ourselves, if only indirectly, benefit from such gains and enjoy doing so?

There may be a third concern as well. If you’ve ever seen someone plan a wedding their parents are paying for, you know that money is quickly followed by control.

According to an article in Forbes by American economist Richard Vedder, there is only one school that takes the above logic seriously enough to reject all government aid: Hillsdale College. Granted, Hillsdale may have other motivations, but have we reached the same conclusion? This partly depends on whether you see the government as a kind of international sex offender (like Epstein) which should be condemned and contained or as a kind of parent who you’re hoping will pay for your wedding.

Sources: The New Yorker, The New York Times Forbes

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