Do Corporate Donations Hurt Academic Independence?

The growing funding from businessmen and corporations for academic institutions gives rise to some ethical conundrums, says Professor Gabi Weimann from Haifa University.

"Even when businessmen are offering donations that supposedly have no strings attached, it could influence academic activity. There have been cases of severe manipulation of scientific research because of business interests," says Weimann.

Weimann has particular reservations about business tycoons' involvement in academic institutions that teach about the media.

One such institution is scheduled to open soon at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya's media school. Next year, the school's luxurious building - which was donated by Israel Corporation founder Sammy Ofer - will house the new "center for conscious media." A sum of $1.5 million for the center will come from billionaire Shari Arison.

"The Ofer family bears a long grudge for some people and groups in the media. They have had to contend with damaging media investigations," says Weimann. "When the Ofer family establishes a school for media that employs many journalists, that's a dangerous conflict of interest. These journalists are on the payroll of a business corporation. As for Arison, she is using her donation to promote her own agenda."

Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich-Latar, dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications and Information at the IDC, says that Arison did not make any demands or stipulate a condition before giving the funding. "All donations were given unconditionally and the IDC maintains total independence. The salaries for our teachers come from tuition, and the donors have no say in the policies taught at the school," Lemelshtrich-Latar said.

Private donations at the IDC are particularly prevalent because it is a private institution that receives no government funding. But public colleges and universities too are seeing more donations from businessmen in recent years.

Nowadays, there are more businessmen in the supervisory boards of public academic institutions. Universities and colleges are receiving more funding for research centers from magnates and corporations. This has already affected curricula and the nature of research projects, academics have said.

Another center at the IDC's Sammy Ofer School of Communications and Information at the IDC was funded by telecom company Bezeq International. In fact, the funds for the Bezeq International Research Center for Internet Psychology at the IDC came out of the firm's marketing budget.

"We gave the money because we want to be recognized as a leading force in the research the new center will carry out," Bezeq International told Haaretz. Yair Amichai-Hamburger, director of the Bezeq International Research Center, said the company did not interfere with the center's activity.

"It's not fair. On the one hand, people complain about how high-tech companies and technology firms aren't doing enough to improve society. But when they do offer support for public organizations, people think it looks suspicious," Amichai-Hamburger said.

"It has always been the case. Higher-education institutions in Israel and abroad have always had to rely on donations," Ofer's public relations office said. "Without the donations and on its own, the higher education system's ability to promote scholarly pursuits would have been limited."

But others argue that donations have come to resemble business investments. "Some donor firms demand the right to veto research projects that are carried out in centers that they funded," a senior board member at one of Israel's universities told Haaretz.

According to the board member, private donors also expect financial rewards from their donations. And there is some evidence of unusual cases of cooperation between companies and academic institutions.

Intel Corp., for example, has a representative on the board of a research center the company donated to Tel Aviv University. The same university gave Clal Biotechnology Industries exclusive access to research results after Clal donated some $2 million for the university's Research Institute for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.