Behind Taubman's $56 Million Gift — and its Dissidents

In Michigan, you're either green or blue. Alfred A. Taubman — billionaire philanthropist, convicted felon, and University of Michigan drop-out — is blue through and through. The fact that Taubman has a criminal record made a few University of Michigan officials a bit prickly when he made his $56 million donation to U of M's Medical School in 2011. (See Fundraising for Medical Schools). Convicted felon or not, the U of M Board of Regents took the money, effectively telling all of those opposed to deal with it.

Given the large number of corporate scandals that came to light throughout the 2000s, billionaire convicted felons are not as rare as they used to be. For his felonious efforts, Taubman served nine months in a federal prison. Before and after his release, the billionaire shopping mall mogul has gifted the university $142 million. $100 million of Taubman's generosity going toward the support of medical science. That's a lot of good Karma points. That is, if Taubman was in the market for making such a purchase.

Taubman's largest gift to date of $56 million is funding "high-risk" stem-cell therapy research into neurodegenerative disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Mr. Taubman himself does not suffer from the disease, but a good friend of his lost his battle with Lou Gehrig's in 1981 and serves as the catalyst to Taubman's stem cell research funding.

Stem cell research is considered high-risk because it is so controversial and open to abuse by unscrupulous doctors and scientists. Given these facts, it is often difficult to find government and civilian funding for its research and therapies. Annual medical research costs are astounding. In 2011, U of M's research bill hit $1.25 billion. Well aware of the costs and potential life-changing benefits of stem cell research, some U of M officials continued to claim that accepting the donation sets a bad example for the students. Those opposed believed that the university should decline the gift and "…find funding elsewhere." 

For the record, Taubman was convicted on a price-fixing scandal with Christie's when he was the major shareholder of Sotheby's. Yes, it's a crime to make the grotesquely wealthy pay more for their expensive trinkets by colluding with a major competitor. But is it a big enough crime to turn down potentially lifesaving research that would likely otherwise go unfunded? The U of M Board of Regents say no, and responded in vocal and public support of Taubman and his millions. One year later, all seems quiet on the Wolverine front and the dissidents have all but disappeared.