Donor Non Grata: When a Philanthropist and His Money Turn Radioactive

In a higher education space where naming rights controversies tend to exist on an ambiguous and confusing plane, news that the name of Roger Ailes will be removed from a newsroom at Ohio University is both expected and refreshing. The school will also return a $500,000 gift Ailes made in 2007.

University President Roderick McDavis said that given the allegations against Ailes, a 1962 Ohio University graduate, and the circumstances surrounding his departure from Fox News, the appropriate action is to return his gift in accordance with the school's values.

(For those of you just tuning in, Ailes stepped down as the longtime CEO of Fox News in July after a lawsuit filed by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson accused him of sexual harassment. More than 20 women came forward with additional allegations during a company internal investigation. The lawsuit was recently settled with Carlson for $20 million.)

This episode reminds us quite a bit of another returned gift we covered as Spellman College moved to distance itself from a past donor, Bill Cosby. 


As we noted in the Cosby case, returning money can be quite challenging. (What if the donor won't take it back, for example?)

Then there was the case back in July, when University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendif, withdrew a $3 million gift to rename the school's multicultural building because their name would be replacing William Monroe Trotter's name, and Trotter was African American.

On the bright side, at least the University of Michigan—and presumably Ohio University—avoided a court battle, unlike Paul Smith's College naming rights imbroglio.

But there are some similarities at play, here. The Detroit Free Press reported that after the Bernstein gift was announced, U-M officials began to hear from students, faculty and staff who were glad for the gift, but displeased to have Trotter's name taken off the building. In this case, a number of OU students demanded the removal of Ailes' name from the newsroom and last week, the university's Graduate Student Senate approved a resolution calling for the removal.

I'm also intrigued by the Ailes un-naming because as an inherently cynical individual, I can't help but wonder what's next for Ailes (besides hefty lawyer bills and a new cable news network with Donald Trump, should he lose). After all, there seems to be a highly unscientific causal relationship between individuals who curiously see the philanthropic light soon after their legal troubles hit the front page. Are Ailes' handlers hunkered down in a Manhattan office contemplating a whiteboard listing a dozen or so causes that may be worthy of a portion of his Fox fortune?

Indeed, Ailes and his wife Elizabeth have their own charity, ACI Senior Development Corp., and a rather black box-y one at that. I couldn't dig up any major gifts over the past 12 months. In fact, it sounds like Ailes' handlers may have successfully put a bug in his ear, because the most reported news about ACI involved its recent $500,000 donation toward the completion of a senior center in Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York.

How nice. Ailes and his wife cut a check to a senior center. Straight out of the Philanthropy-for-Good-PR handbook. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, at a August 2nd public hearing, residents voiced their concerns with the donation, citing the sexual harassment accusations against him and, just for good measure, previously undisclosed conditions attached to the proposed gift. The next day, Ailes withdrew the gift.

"This project has never passed the smell test," said Cold Spring resident Kathleen Foley, who spearheaded a petition campaign by Putnam County Taxpayers for Transparency and Integrity. "He’s a bully and morally bankrupt sexual predator."

In related analysis, check out a recent piece titled "Just Say No: When Should Arts Organizations Refuse a Gift?", which examines the more opaque scenarios whereby a donation should be sent back.