Editorial: Donors should give to universities with no strings, not dictate their look or academics

Rendering showing exterior of Munger Hall at University of California Santa Barbara
A rendering shows Munger Hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The saying goes that a discount isn’t a bargain if the item on sale isn’t what you really wanted. The same wisdom could easily be applied to philanthropy in higher education: A donation isn’t much of a donation if it’s not used for something a university would have spent its own money on, if it had it.

But many universities don’t seem to agree. In recent years donors have increasingly offered gifts with strings that direct research, teaching and even healthcare in line with the donor’s beliefs. Now that problem has spread to architecture, with UC Santa Barbara planning to build a massive block of student housing in which only a few of the bedrooms would have windows. The dorm plans are based on the design of billionaire and would-be architect Charles T. Munger, who’s kicking in $200 million to the $1.5-billion project, but only if his plan is followed.

Universities historically have been seen as bastions of freedom of thought and expression. But efforts to grow their prestige and wealth — along with the need sometimes just to keep operations going — have led some to accept questionable gifts in recent years.


Five years ago, UC Irvine returned the first payments on a $6-million donation to set up four endowed chairs in Hindu studies, but only after faculty and students raised vehement objections to the political agenda of the donor, the Dharma Civilization Foundation. And three years ago, the university touted its health services’ offering of homeopathy — an alternative medical treatment not validated by scientific evidence — after receiving a $200-million donation for integrative medicine from the Henry and Susan Samueli Foundation. Susan Samueli is an avid proponent of homeopathy. The mention was scrubbed from its site after widespread criticism.

Foundations of the conservative Koch brothers have given millions to support university study on the free-market economy, along with some restrictive strings, while a foundation of liberal George Soros has donated to promote research into the effects of political campaign donations. Meanwhile, the head of a highly respected program at Yale University resigned from that post this year after what she described as the university’s willingness to cave to unacceptable interference by conservative donors.

I quit UCSB’s design review committee because this project, housing 4,500 students in windowless rooms, ignores their physical and emotional well-being as well as environmental sustainability.

Nov. 1, 2021

What makes the dormitory situation at UC Santa Barbara even more outrageous is that Munger isn’t picking up the full tab for the dorm, or even most of it. He’s leveraging other money — probably most of it from taxpayers — to test his crackpot theory that students can happily live in windowless cubicles despite substantial evidence that natural light is tied to better mental health, sleep and performance.

If UC leaders had used their budget and hired an architect to design a dorm just like this — well, then they’d just be guilty of bad taste and worse decision-making. But this flub and others in which universities allow donors too much sway over teaching, research and operations wear away at the reputation of higher education and make the public wonder whose interests they really serve.