Don’t trust philanthropists – they’re often up to something. Although the idea of a selfless billionaire who puts their hard-earned money into the service of the people is undoubtedly an attractive one, it presents several serious ethical and practical problems. The latest imbroglio with the Mulroney Institute goes to show this, and demonstrates why institutions must have higher standards about where they get their money from. We can do better than this near-cartoonish ensemble of the 1%, corrupt patsies, and actual criminals. Even if intentions are good, there needs to be a broader social skepticism towards the power of the wealthy to reshape society and a return to faith in public goods.
Obviously, there’s a fairly easy moral objection to the Mulroney funding – it’s dirty money. Take Mr. Wafic Said, for example. It’s fairly common knowledge that he made scads of money from being a middleman in an exceptionally corrupt arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The fighter jets which Mr. Said was paid to sell off were used to blow up funerals and hospitals in Yemen. The deal Mr. Said presided over was so corrupt that the Saudi regime threatened to suspend security cooperation with England – likely meaning allowing their friendly terrorist networks to launch attacks there – if the government investigation was not quashed. In other words, the money StFX is using to build the Mulroney Institute is blood money directly earned from human suffering and crime. Worth noting, Prime Minister Mulroney was a key advisor for Mr. Said in the 2000s, apparently giving him useful advice on how not to pay taxes.
Mr. Said is not the only person throwing the wages of sin at the Mulroney Institute. Our most illustrious alumnus seems to have attracted quite a crowd. The Institute has also received money from several other dubious people. One donor, Galen Weston, is the heir of the absurdly wealthy Weston business dynasty. His great-grandfather started from nothing, a poor immigrant, by opening a bakery in Toronto. Galen Weston, through the Loblaws supermarket chain, engaged in bread price-fixing and defrauded consumers of hundreds of millions of dollars. Peter Munk, another big donor, is the founder of Barrick Gold. Barrick, already known for doubtful academic entanglements with U of T, has a trend of hiring private “security forces,” or paying off local police forces which intimidate local communities and have been involved in rape, extortion, land theft, and pillaging. Their names will probably end up on a thank-you plaque.
Why does this matter? By taking this money, StFX is not honouring its commitment to social justice and fairness. In fact, it is sanitizing moral wrongs. Philanthropy allows economic piracy to be hidden behind a benign mask. Long after Barrick’s crimes and Weston’s frauds are forgotten, their donations will be remembered. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Andrew Carnegie is well-remembered for his founding of the New York public library system. John Rockefeller built the University of Chicago from the ground up. Both men also made their money through aggressive monopoly-building, extortion, and using private armies to massacre striking workers. In the long run, Peter Munk will be remembered more for the Munk School of Business than grotesque human rights abuses that only get addressed after they’ve already been dragged through the media. For that matter, Brian Mulroney will probably be remembered more on campus for the Mulroney Institute than for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money for illegal lobbying activities. Funny how things work!
Furthermore, accepting this kind of money is dangerous. One of the most infamous names on the list of donors is David Koch, an absurdly rich American oil baron. Along with his brother, David Koch is one of the richest men in America. He’s also infamous for running a massive network of front groups. Many of them are aimed at directly advocating for and funding some of the worst political actors in America, from union-crushing Scott Walker to Sam Brownback, who singlehandedly drove Kansas from economic prosperity to a point where it can’t pay for schools and road maintenance.
Where the Koch networks have been most toxic, however, is in the sphere of education. There have been dozens of well-reported stories of Koch groups starting out with fairly banal grants to universities, which are gradually used to leverage greater and greater influence in universities. Koch money has been used as a bludgeon to directly affect hiring processes in Economics and Political Science departments across America, pushing the advancement of an extreme-right economic agenda. Although it’s doubtful that donors will directly come knocking and ask for changes in programs, even the weight of power and the source of this money naturally warps everything around it.
This is all profoundly disturbing. They have more money than they themselves – or any generation down the line – would ever need. More money than God and no real accountability. No change in policy short of bringing all their assets under public control would change this. Tax rates don’t matter because, as the Paradise Papers revealed, these people are rich enough that they can get good lawyers and send their money to Bermuda in a completely legal fashion. The 0.1% are wealthy enough that they can do almost anything they want at any time without significant consequences.
As Oscar Wilde noted, once this point has been reached, one transfers from the realm of necessity or particular morality to aesthetics. Koch political lobbying or the Westons devoting time to naming things after themselves have no bearing on their prosperity – they do it because they have the means to shape society to their own personal whims and no real reason not to. It’s the same reason why the rich statistically prefer to donate money to cultural institutions and big ugly buildings, rather than help alleviate real struggles of the middle-class and poor. We are at the mercy of their taste, and their taste is bad. None of these activities seem to have any more meaning to the ultra-rich than matching collared shirts with pastel shorts for the yachting trip.
There are any number of other issues one could delve into with these donations – the university’s cover-ups, the lack of accountability, the honorary doctorates being offered to crooks – but that’s just window dressing on an already-thick layer of moral filth. We can do better, and we must do better. The academic space, like all other spaces, must be vigorously defended as a public enterprise which serves the people and their needs, rather than the fancy of a decaying and pointless elite. Down with philanthropy!
Editors’ Note: The original article was published containing a number of factually incorrect statements. The article described the Mulroney Institute as “the institute for Political Science and Governance”. This is incorrect and has been rectified as the building is a stand-alone research institute and not simply “for Political Science.” The article also described Mulroney Hall as “the political science building.” The building will house multiple faculties ad departments and is not exclusively for the Political Science Department. The article makes reference to the Koch brothers’ funding of faculty positions at American universities and stated that “StFX is accepting money for a Political Science faculty from them.” This is a faculty incorrect statement as the Department of Political Science is not hiring any faculty member with the Koch brothers’ money, nor with any other funds that have been raised for the Mulroney Institute. The funding for the Department of Political Science comes from StFX’s regular operating budget. The Xaverian Weekly defends the opinions expressed by the author, however, the Xaverian would like to offer an apology to its readers for misleading them with factually incorrect statements and assertions and is retracting them as such.