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‘We are aligning ourselves with those organizations’: Professor voices concern over donations to Notre Dame

| Monday, November 1, 2021

When Notre Dame English professor John Duffy learned last August that the University received donations from The Napa Institute and the Koch brothers, he raised concerns to fellow faculty members and later to the Arts and Letters College Council.

“My view is that faculty shouldn’t discover these things, for example these particular donations, in a press release after this has already been decided,” Duffy said. 

According to an internal press release, the Napa Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation, along with others, provided funds to support the Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Studies, a new program that defines itself as a “hub of scholarship and education that strives to be a national focal point on Catholicism, constitutional government, and liberal democracy.”

Specifically, the Charles Koch Foundation donated $1.5 million to the Center, and according to the National Catholic Reporter, the Napa Institute will donate $500,000 over the next five years. The money will fund a range of the center’s activities, including research, academic fellowships and efforts to bring leading thinkers and politicians to Notre Dame.

In its first year, the Center helped bring Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to speak at Notre Dame for the Tocqueville Lecture

University spokesperson Dennis Brown said a benefactor cannot be involved in the administration of a gift or dictate use of a gift beyond its original agreed upon intent. According to this policy, the Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Studies has the final say over how the money is used, not the Napa Institute or the Charles Koch Foundation. Brown also said gifts must be directed toward a University priority, and benefactors may not promote a political or ideological agenda through a gift.

“A gift must be consonant with Notre Dame’s mission. We have turned down many gifts that did not meet this criterion,” Brown said. “If the purpose of a gift has the potential to compromise Notre Dame’s integrity, we will not accept it.”

Still, Duffy said the University should not associate itself with these two organizations, citing concerns over the “science denialism” of the Koch brothers and efforts by Napa Institute and its leaders to “undermine democracy.”

“With these organizations, when we take their money, we are aligning ourselves with those organizations, and saying that our values are consistent with their values. We’re giving them legitimacy, and I think we’re giving them cover,” Duffy said.

Duffy questioned how the values of the Koch Foundation and the Napa Institute align with Notre Dame’s values.

“The Koch Foundation has a long history of science denialism and climate denialism,” Duffy said. “So how does that square with a commitment to Pope Francis’ Laudato si’? How does it square with Fr. John’s commitments to sustainability?”

Climate interest groups, including Greenpeace, have accused the Koch brothers of undermining the threat of climate change and funding groups that sow confusion around the topic.

For the Napa Institute, board member Leonard Leo is one of Duffy’s concerns. Duffy said Leo is a key player in the Honest Elections Project, a group that helped file many lawsuits questioning the results of the 2020 election. Among many similar goals, the Honest Elections Project aims to strengthen voter identification standards and make absentee voting rarer and more secure. 

Objections against and support for the project largely fall along party lines, with right-leaning individuals favoring tighter voting laws and left-leaning individuals favoring looser voting laws and easier access to ballots.

Duffy said many people believe most voting restrictions and requirements disproportionately affect people of color and that the Napa Institute’s connection to Leonard Leo and the Honest Elections Project is one reason he opposes the donation.

“My view is that, to the extent that any organization is involved in undermining democracy, we shouldn’t take their money. We just should not,” Duffy said.

Given these concerns, Duffy recently spoke to the College Council and proposed two “guardrails” when deciding whether to accept money.

“No money from science denialists. No money from people who undermine democracy,” he said.

Duffy said these two donations demonstrate the need for faculty involvement.

“It’s a mistake for us to have accepted these donations. The bigger question is what is the process by which Notre Dame makes decisions about seeking or accepting funding,” he said. “The faculty are not sufficiently involved … and the fact that we’ve taken money from these organizations is evidence of that.”

The University maintains that the process for accepting financial gifts is comprehensive and includes many checks and balances.

“Any gift for academic purposes is reviewed by academic leadership to confirm that the gift is supported by and aligned with the strategic goals of the relevant unit,” Brown said.

The Fiduciary Committee in charge of vetting potential donations includes University leaders knowledgeable in investments, fiduciary duties, trust administration law, accounting, the Catholic Church and a range of other topics, he added.

However, Duffy still disagrees with how the University handles donations.

“That’s a top down process, and we need a more open process,” Duffy said.

The University said faculty objections to financial gifts are not out of the ordinary, especially given recent political polarization.

“There are gifts that have been given to Notre Dame through the years that some faculty have celebrated and others have found objectionable. And vice versa,” Brown said. “The political divide in our nation has only exacerbated that dynamic.”

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