Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Why Severing Ties with a Toxic Donor Isn't So Simple

 cornell university. photo:  Lewis Liu /shutterstock

cornell university. photo: Lewis Liu/shutterstock

As of early 2018, at least 10 prominent men facing allegations of sexual misconduct also received honorary degrees from esteemed American universities. And while the course of action here seems pretty self-evident—simply revoke the degree!—a review of the cases found a surprising lack of consistency.

Juilliard School in New York, which gave an honorary doctorate to actor Kevin Spacey in 2000, did not revoke the degree, as mandated by its policy. But Marist College revoked an honorary degree awarded to Bill O'Reilly earlier this year.

Most recently, Cornell University cut the cord with alumnus and famed architect Richard Meier in the wake of sexual harassment claims made by five women, abandoning plans to name a department chair in his honor. 

In a letter posted on the school’s website, architecture dean Kent Kleinman wrote, "We will decline his new gift to name the chair of the Department of Architecture, and we are canceling the event that had been planned for next week to celebrate the gift."

Now, it’s one thing for a school to scrub a donor's name from a building or return a one-time gift. These are relatively "clean" revocations, although even such moves can entail fraught internal debates, legal complexities, and financial consequences for campus programs. A few years ago, for example, we reported that schools returned gifts from Bill Cosby following revelations about alleged sexual assaults on women. Those decisions weren't easy, even as criminal charges loomed against Cosby. 

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But the Meier case is a different animal. His relationship with Cornell dates back to the Eisenhower administration. More importantly, his philanthropic legacy is as deeply embedded in the school’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. Severing ties with such a donor can be far from clean.

Meier received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell in 1956. What followed was decades of consistent and impactful giving, resulting in the establishment of the Richard Meier Assistant Professorship in Architecture for young faculty, the Richard Meier Graduate Scholarship, and the Ana Meier Graduate Scholarship for promising students in the Master of Architecture degree program.  

In 2008, he completed Weill Hall, a life sciences research facility at the campus. The Meier family also gave regularly to the Cornell Annual Fund.

After the New York Times piece broke, Richard Meier & Partners issued a statement including an apology from Meier "to anyone who was offended by my behavior." It also announced that Meier would be taking a six-month leave of absence from the company.

While one could argue that Meier's admission and contrition was helpful—Bill O'Reilly, in contrast, said he was "mad at God" over his sexual harassment scandal; Harvey Weinstein argued he "came of age in the '60s and '70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different"—Cornell was unmoved. 

“Although he has apologized, the reported behavior is unacceptable," Kleinman wrote in his open letter.

Nor has Cornell been alone in distancing itself from the famed architect.

The J. Paul Getty Trust canceled a dinner that was set to honor Meier, who designed the Getty Center in L.A., on the occasion of the museum’s 20th anniversary. And Sotheby’s New York called for the early closure of an exhibition of Meier’s works, telling ARTnews the decision was made "in consultation with the Meier family."

For Cornell, the Getty Trust and Sotheby's, Meier's actions were sufficiently egregious for them to cut the cord. But as the #MeToo movement continues to roil the nonprofit landscape, the Meier saga underscores many of the nuances endemic in the difficult relationships between an organization and a disgraced donor. Organizations continue to operate without a roadmap.

USC revoked Weinstein's $5 million pledge to its School of Cinematic Arts despite the fact the gift, which was earmarked to endow grant scholarships for women filmmakers, had the potential to improve the film industry. But art institutions continue to take money from toxic donors like the Sackler family, who, critics allege, are complicit in the opioid epidemic ravaging the country.

RelatedPrinciple vs. Impact: When Should Institutions Keep Tainted Donations?

And as previously noted, schools like Juilliard and Marist University haven't revoked degrees to disgraced individuals due to arcane internal policy issues.

Even the Cornell case study isn't so black and white. After all, it's easy to say no to something that hasn't yet occurred. But Meier has given extensively to Cornell for decades. That money's in the bank. The school said it will "review" these donations, but will it actually return them? It's possible, but highly unlikely. From a purely legal standpoint, returning donations is a lot harder than it looks.

Cornell seems to understand this, and it's not making any promises.

In his open letter, Kleinman wrote, "We will swiftly explore what additional actions are appropriate with regard to endowments for professorships and scholarships previously donated to Cornell."

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