What are the appropriate limits on how outside contributors to a university may shape what gets taught and who gets hired into a dept? This is an interesting and complicated question. I’ll offer some thoughts but mostly I’d like us to hear each other’s thoughts on the topic. I’ll admit I have not thought about this topic a lot so what I say here are initial impressions. While a descriptive discussion of what happened in the past has its place, so too does the more general and normative discussion of the topic of the sort I encourage here. Here I ask us to not focus on the question of what has and has not happened, but rather what should and should not.
I assume we think that if a private citizen fell in love with her philosophy of science undergrad class and wanted to fund an endowed position in philosophy of science at her alma mater, we would think that terrific. However, if she wanted a say, or influence over who got say, over who got hired for the position, that would be unacceptable. Further if she wanted to create an endowed position in which the person who takes the position must be favorably disposed and publicly advocate for a particular ideology, that would be, I assume we think, problematic. (Of course, it often goes unspoken that not embracing, at least as a research focus, certain outrageous ideologies, e.g. white supremacy, is, legitimately, a precondition for positions.) But if she wanted to fund a position dedicated to thought, for and against, a particular ideology, that would be fine so long as the dept retained complete control over who filled the position. Further, we also don’t want money to be able to determine what counts as a reasonable area for a philosophy dept to cover. Some rich but misguided fool probably ought not to be permitted to create a chair in Sobel Studies or the philosophy of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even if no particular attitude towards these subjects is mandated. Experts in the field get to determine what is important enough to be taught in their field.
Broadly, it seems we want to let money in to further research and philosophical excellence and improve and strengthen departments even if it moves a dept in a direction it would not have itself chosen, so long as that path is one of the paths the dept deems a reasonable direction—a direction they might reasonably have chosen without the outside money. (This seems roughly similar to the role deans may legitimately play in shaping the direction dept’s hire in.) But we don’t want such money to be able to buy advocates for points of view within the academy or subvert control from experts in a field concerning what gets taught in their field. Professors in a particular field have, and are often seen to have, a kind of expertise which rationalizes, for example, requiring students to take classes in some areas or public attention to views of those within the field (think, for example, about climate scientists in the academy). If professorships and their views could be bought, that would have a tendency to kill the goose that continues to lay such golden eggs.
An interesting sort of case would be where a dept might itself be willing to accept a deal where it gets control over 2 new lines so long as the funder gets control over one. In a world like ours with incredible concentrations of wealth, higher ed increasingly unaffordable, and many colleges and universities under such severe financial stress that some predict nearly a quarter are threatened with becoming insolvent, such cases might confront us with poignant choices.