When a person makes a charitable contribution, does the giver expect anything more than the warm feeling that comes from doing something good for society?
Sometimes donors expect specific results, especially if they are passionate about a cause. They may even intend to realize an indirect benefit from their generosity, in the form of better health care, enhanced education, reduced poverty or other factors that improve the quality of life in their communities.
However, there is something unseemly about the direction of recent corporate gifts to the University of Arkansas from Wal-Mart and other companies. The line between practical benefit and selfish manipulation in these cases is admittedly blurry and subjective, but it appears to have been crossed.
By practical benefit I mean the valid argument that a land-grant university should prepare its students for the job market. It is certainly a good thing that Arkansas is the home to Fortune 500 companies and as a result can support leading programs in fields like business logistics and poultry science.
But a public university should not evolve into a wholly owned subsidiary of those companies with indistinguishable priorities.
Recently Wal-Mart Stores sponsored a study of radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems conducted by faculty at UA’s Sam M. Walton College of Business. This technology is expected to save companies like Wal-Mart millions of dollars a year by improving the efficiency of product shipping and tracking.
The study was released by the Walton College’s Information Technology Research Institute, and a conference about similar technologies was organized by UA’s Supply Chain Management Research Center.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Walton College is controlled by Wal-Mart. Its degree programs and research institutes coincide perfectly with the interests of the company. Can you reasonably assume that the faculty and administration would be able to resist a dictate from Wal-Mart executives?
By becoming dependent on the generosity of corporations, UA has made itself a taxpayer-subsidized vehicle for maximizing their profits.
Calling it generosity may itself be charitable. Corporate donations are better viewed as a great investment. Think about it: A major contribution permanently gets your name on a college, terrific media exposure, control over a publicly financed research and development operation and free cutting-edge training for future employees. Then you get to write off the contribution on your taxes. What a deal!
Wal-Mart’s intentions in particular are suspect because the Walton family notably does not support the existing concept of public primary and secondary schools. It is hard to imagine they feel differently when it comes to public higher education and want to help UA for solely altruistic reasons.
Furthermore, using public money for private benefit is a consistent theme with the Walton family. They were instrumental in establishing a Department of Education Reform at UA this year, and as Doug Smith wrote in these pages, “the department’s research and recommendations would unfailingly advance the educational interests of the Waltons, particularly the use of public money for vouchers to help children attend private schools.”
Last week the Waltons won the approval of the Bentonville City Council to create a tax increment financing district comprised of their valuable property (including the site of the new Walton art museum). That means all property tax increases in that district for the next 25 years will be used for improvements inside the district instead of funding the public schools for which the taxes were approved by voters in the first place.
It’s that kind of selfishness that also leads some members of the Walton family to declare their residencies outside of Arkansas to avoid paying income taxes here. And that is why Wal-Mart’s gifts to UA should be seen for what they are.
UA is still a public university, after all, primarily financed with our tax dollars. Its mission is to educate Arkansas citizens, not ensure the profitability of companies — as important as those companies may be to the state economy. This is a crucial point to remember as voters are urged this month to approve a bond program that would commit up to $250 million in public debt for UA and other institutions.
Unfortunately our state government’s unwillingness to fund higher education at an appropriately vigorous level has made private support an inescapable necessity. And most of that support represents laudable generosity and a commitment to helping the next generation prepare to move Arkansas forward. When companies like Wal-Mart forge major connections with UA, benefits certainly accrue to the university through enhanced reputation, job preparedness for graduates, and the ability to attract better professors and students.
But that would be true even if the university flat-out sold itself to the highest bidder. Assuming that has not happened yet, a line must be drawn between donors and the academic departments to protect the institution’s integrity.