“The Past is Never Dead.” In a Campus Controversy, a Cautionary Tale for Alumni Donors

Gettysburg College. Photo: ESB Professional/shutterstock

Gettysburg College. Photo: ESB Professional/shutterstock

Back in 2016, I looked at how some alumni held back gifts to protest college administrators’ inability or unwillingness to stand up to what donors saw as political correctness run amok. We’ve also seen universities grapple with how to handle toxic donations from individuals like Bill Cosby, Steve Wynn and Harvey Weinstein. More often than not, the perpetrators’ crimes are sufficiently egregious to warrant the revocation of the donor’s gift without much debate.

News out of Pennsylvania, however, points to an ominous variant on this idea: What if the offender in question is a donor and trustee whose indiscretion took place 38 years ago when he was a college student? And what if many fair-minded people and fellow alumni consider the offense in question to be completely innocuous?

Given the penalty the donor ultimately paid for his indiscretion, it's enough to make any alumnus with the semblance of a skeleton in his closet think twice before cutting a check. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

A 38-Year-Old Photo Resurfaces

The story starts in 1980 when Gettysburg College sophomore Robert W. Garthwait Jr. attended a Halloween party dressed as a German soldier, complete with a swastika armband, based a character from the television comedy Hogan’s Heroes. The show, as you may recall, ran from 1965-1971 and was set in a German prisoner of war camp. A photo of Garthwait and friends was subsequently published in Spectrum, the Gettysburg College yearbook.

Fast-forward to early 2019. Garthwait is the chief executive of Waterbury, Connecticut-based Cly-Del Manufacturing Company. He’s a trustee at Gettysburg College and a major donor. The Garthwait Family name is the 37th to be engraved on the college’s Benefactors Wall, which recognizes individuals and organizations that have contributed $1 million or more.

He also funded the college’s Garthwait Leadership Center, which, “through collaborative partnerships across the institution, creates intellectual and experiential opportunities for students and alumni to develop leadership skills.”

In mid-February, the 1980 photo was discovered by students who presented it to Stephen Stern, chair of the College’s Judaic Studies Program. Upon learning of the photo, President Janet Morgan Riggs and Dean of Students Julie Ramsey reached out to the students. Riggs sent an email to the campus in which she called the image “deeply disturbing.” She added, "Antisemitism clearly contradicts our values as an institution today, as it did when this photo was taken."

On February 19th, Garthwait resigned as trustee, citing “the best intentions in mind for the college.”

“My Sincere Apologies”

The college released a statement from Garthwait. Here’s an excerpt:

As a sophomore in 1980, I was not fully aware of the significance of those symbols. While this is no excuse, I am deeply embarrassed and regret participating in this event where Nazi symbols were used. As an alumnus, it has been one of my great pleasures to be instrumental in the founding of the Garthwait Leadership Center, which focuses on the values of integrity, respect and inclusiveness. My sincere hope is that our current students will learn from my poor judgment 38 years ago and be more thoughtful than I was about the impact of their actions on others. I extend my sincere apologies to the entire Gettysburg College community, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.

Some Gettysburg faculty members were unmoved. Stern urged the school to return Garthwait’s donations, saying, “The longer we hang onto the money, the longer and more conflicted the story becomes.” Meanwhile, Scott Hancock, chair of the history department and associate professor of History and Africana Studies, implied that stripping Garthwait’s name from the walls of the center he founded was a foregone conclusion.

But many within the Gettysburg community felt that Garthwait was treated unfairly. Andy Hughes, director of the Garthwait Leadership Center, said, “the image does not represent who I know Bob to be.” Eric Jacobson, a Jewish classmate of Garthwait’s, said, “I was not in the same fraternity and I did not know Bob well, so I cannot speak to his character first-hand, however I never saw anything to lead me to believe that he had ill will toward anyone.”

Moreover, critics of Gettysburg’s response noted that Hogan’s Heroes portrayed Nazis as “a bunch of idiots,” echoing Mel Brooks’ contention that the best revenge on the Nazis is to make them look ridiculous. The show itself was created by two Jewish writers, Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy. The actors who played the four swastika-clad German roles—Werner Klemperer, John Banner, Leon Askin and Howard Caine—were Jewish. Banner had been held in a pre-war concentration camp. Askin was held in a pre-war French internment camp. 

Lastly, I admit that scanning comments to a news article is hardly a scientific method for gauging the community’s sentiments toward Garthwait’s resignation. That being said, practically every individual posting on the Gettysburgian, alumni included, believes the school over-reached. It’s definitely worth a read.

None of this context mattered. Garthwait was shown the door with nary a word of empathy or gratitude from administration officials, confirming Thomas Aquinas’ contention that “justice without mercy is cruelty.”

Don’t think other donors aren’t paying attention.

An Archetypal Regional Donor

In my 2016 piece on donor blowback to administrators who, to quote Yale alumnus Scott C. Johnston, “wilt before the activists like flowers,” I cited Amherst alumnus Scott MacConnell, who, in a letter to the college's alumni fund, announced that he was reducing his support to a token $5. “As an alumnus of the college, I feel that I have been lied to, patronized and basically dismissed as an old, white bigot.”

Fundraisers may feel inclined to wave off such complaints, but donor pushback has had a measurable impact at some schools. For instance, Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst's president, said she was “not surprised” that student protests had contributed to a 6.5 percent decline in alumni giving for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016.

The pendulum swings both ways. Billionaire hedge fund investor Kenneth Griffin rewarded the University of Chicago after its dean of students spoke out against practices like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that were gaining ground at other schools. Griffin praised the school as “fundamentally committed to free expression, fierce debate, and intellectual pursuit,” and a culture of “rigorous questioning and open discourse” upon announcing his $125 million gift to endow the school’s economics department in 2017.

But the Gettysburg drama is particularly jarring because it involves an archetypal alumnus donor—precisely the kind of donor fuelling the regional philanthropy boom at small universities across the nation—whose largesse funded a leadership center to help students and alumni “learn how to apply leadership skills ethically to make a positive impact.” Most donors can’t identify with Harvey Weinstein, but they can certainly identify with Bob Garthwait.

The center opened in 2011. Upon announcing the gift, Garthwait said, “As a student, alumnus and trustee, I have had many great experiences at Gettysburg. It is the responsibility of each of us to give back to the college and further strengthen the experience for future generations.”

President Riggs applauded Garthwait’s generosity at the time, noting, “This gift will advance the college’s mission of preparing students to be active leaders in the 21st century. Bob Garthwait’s generous gift will have direct impact on our students and alumni, and I am deeply appreciative of his continuing support of Gettysburg.”

Donors May Think Twice

In a Wall Street Journal piece last month titled “Don’t Give to Your Alma Mater,” Crispin Sartwell issued a stark warning to donors in the aftermath of the Gettysburg fiasco. “If you donate money to an institution of higher education today,” he wrote, “you open your whole life to examination for political transgressions, even trivial ones. The larger the donation, the more severe the scrutiny. If the inquisitors find anything, you’ll have the choice to confess and apologize or to attack the college.”

“Colleges portray themselves as communities of learning,” Sartwell continued, “But you can’t have a community when people are constantly denouncing each other, and you can’t have learning in a place where expression is so intensely constrained. Also, you can’t have a college without money—so donors shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of abuse.”

About a week ago, over 300 Gettysburg students, faculty and staff members answered President Riggs’ invitation to join a dialogue regarding the Garthwait resignation. The talk included a panel discussion with three faculty members: Steven Gimbel, professor of philosophy, Dina Lowy, Associate professor of history, and Hancock.

“Let’s see the Garthwait Center—or whatever it may be called in the future—develop and implement an explicitly anti-racist campaign that is not just about heightening awareness but also figures out how to make a material difference in dismantling whiteness and creating real opportunities for equity,” Hancock said.

In an interview directly following the event, Riggs said that she needed time for further reflection before she could determine what the college’s next step would be.