Citing “language that is not consistent with University policies related to religious and academic freedom,” UCI’s Humanities Executive Council (HEC) unanimously rejected a $3 million donation from a controversial private donor on Feb. 18, and have recommended that UCI reconsider taking an additional $3 million from the same donor. The HEC also established an ad hoc committee to review donor interests in future private gifts to UCI, as the university begins relying more on private financial support as a result of declining state funds.
The $6 million total, originally pledged to UCI in Jan. 2015 by the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) — an organization with Hindu nationalist ties — would have established four new endowed chairs in UCI’s South Asian Studies Department. The proposed chairs in Modern India Studies and Indic and Vedic Civilization Studies were rejected by the HEC. The committee has recommended that the gifts to establish chairs in Sikh Studies and Jain Studies be reconsidered by UCI.
The HEC’s opposition to the gift stems from the DCF’s controversial reputation for Hindu nationalist ideologies and ties to militant nationalist groups in India. In early February, over 150 professors and educators throughout the international academic community released an “Open Letter to UCI” petition, urging the university not to accept the DCF’s donation and noting that the DCF has a history of altering educational materials, suppressing established Indic thought in favor of Hindu nationalist ideologies, supporting militant groups responsible for pogroms in India and exclusively staffing endowed chairs at other schools with approved scholar-practitioners who agree to exclude Muslim, Christian and Zoroastrian curricula in Indic Studies courses.
The DCF donation to UCI bypassed approval by the School of Humanities until Dec. 2015, when they assembled an ad hoc committee to review the details of the gift, after School of Humanities Dean Georges van den Abbeele had already approved the gift and met with the donors and administration. The ad hoc committee then learned that the gift was conditional upon UCI selecting DCF-approved professors to fill the four chairs, to which the committee raised objections about the religious implications of hiring Hindu nationalist scholar-practitioners.
According to the HEC’s ad hoc report, “all four [donation agreements] include language that is not consistent with University policies related to religious and academic freedom… We find that association with the DCF, the intents and views of which have been set down in public statements, is inconsistent with UCI’s core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration and respect.”
Many UCI humanities professors have expressed support for the HEC’s decision to reject two of the endowed chairs, arguing that this case could set a precedent for UCI’s acceptance of private donations in the future.
Brook Thomas, Chancellor’s professor of English at UCI, notes that UC Irvine is a public university reliant on ever-decreasing support from the state of California. In recent years, the UC system has had to turn to outside sources of support, leading to the increasing privatization of the university. This results in the potential for donor influence on university teachings, which in the case of the DCF donation, can be detrimental to the religious and academic freedom of public universities.
“The DCF controversy got a lot of publicity because it is ideologically charged, but there are less publicized ways in which this privatization is affecting the university’s mission,” said Thomas. “Congress has drastically reduced public funding. As a result, [university students] will more and more become dependent on private sources of funding. The effect of such grants on unbiased research may be very hard to determine.”
Other professors argue that more transparency and broader faculty review of donations is necessary to ensure that UC education remains unbiased and free of private donor influence.
“Because of the systematic defunding of the UC by the state of California, academic freedom itself is under attack as well as academic quality,” said Catherine Liu, a UCI professor of film and media studies. “Students are paying more for their education than ever before. They should demand greater accountability and transparency from the administration.”