The Dark Side of University Donations

At the turn of the 20th century, Butte was the largest city between Minneapolis and Portland. The profits of the booming mining town created exceedingly wealthy corporations and businessmen, known as the Copper Kings.  The pocketbooks of these men grew parallel to their political and social influence until Montana politics and news were almost entirely owned by the mineral extraction industries. This experience brought a hard lesson to Montanans, and they did not quickly forget it. In 1912 Montana passed the Montana Corrupt Practices Act, a law to limited corporate spending in elections and protect free speech for all Montanans. This law remained in effect until two years ago when, despite continued overwhelming support of the law, the Supreme Court overturned it.

The rationale for this decision came from the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case. The law actually does not allow corporations to donate money directly to candidates as many believe. For all practical purposes, however, it does the equivalent. Under Citizens United, uncapped, anonymous corporate spending towards advertising and campaigning for or against a specific candidate is allowed. In effect, it funnels big money in politics.

The defending argument for Citizens United was that under the first amendment, people have a right to free speech, and donations have long been considered speech in politics. This rationale spurred the catch phrase “corporations aren’t people” from the many who oppose the ruling. In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Montana to retain the 1912 law due to the Citizens United ruling. This decision was considered major because it stated that Citizens United applied not only on a federal level but also on a state level.

Though there is still opposition to the law, the hype died down over the last two years. Why, then, should it be brought up in an opinion piece two years later?

At the start of the month the MSU department of engineering received a generous and exciting donation of $50 million from MSU graduate and Montana native, Norm Asbjornson. As MSU stated in the announcement, “Asbjornson, 78, is the founder and president of AAON, a NASDAQ-traded heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).” This gift opens exciting doors for the university and the gratitude felt in the community should not be overlooked.

This noted, Asbjornson is no stranger to donating large sums of money to institutions he supports. Sadly, what he supports has not always been as positive as higher education opportunities. When Montana lost the case to Citizens United in 2012, the biggest organization backing corporate influence in elections was the Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), now called American Tradition Partnership (ATP). WTP is, as defined on their website, “a 501 (c) (4) grassroots lobbying organization” and because of this they are not required to report their donors. Through recent reports from Frontline and ProPublica, it has been revealed that Asbjornson was the largest single donor to WTP, recorded as giving $70,000. This money was used to sway politics in the state and prevent Montana from maintaining it’s almost century-old law.

MSU, it appears, has a knack for accepting donations from WTP donors. According to Kim Barker of ProPublica and Emma Schwartz of FRONTLINE News, Jake Jabs, the donor who funded the business building currently being constructed on the north side of campus, was also a major donor to WTP. His proposed grant of $300,000 in 2008 was used to encourage the IRS to recognize WTP as a non-political nonprofit organization.

It may not be surprising that MSU’s big donors are involved in big money and, as a result politics, but the actions of WTP has serious implications for the people of Montana. The fact that MSU’s two major recent donors both helped to fund the destruction of this value is disconcerting.

Many may agree that, because universities are not politically affiliated, they should not discriminate towards students, facility or donors based on their political views. This argument holds water. If we want to encourage diversity of thought on campus, it is important the university does not blatantly associate with a specific political party, an illegal action.

If, however, we erase the imaginary political lines that help us maintain partisanship debates and look at the on-the-ground implications of WTP’s actions on Montana and U.S. citizens, we see a different view. No matter if you are democrat, republican, libertarian, anarchist or just prefer to go hiking and not mess with politics, having unreported, uncapped corporate money funding government is not good for you or for Montana. It allows large oil and gas companies to sway elections in counties with low populations with onslaughts of political ads in print and television, as well as violating the basic principle behind democracy — equal representation. By accepting massive donations from those who fund the depletion of our rights as U.S. citizens, one must wonder if we actually are politically affiliating, just with the more politically correct view.

As students and facility at MSU, we must ask ourselves what it means for our institution to accept these donations. Certainly the gifts are meaningful and greatly appreciated as the university grows, but on a fundamental human level, is it okay for education systems to be funded by those who dismantle our political systems? In the late 1800s, the Copper Kings ran our government and media, might this be a movement back to such a system where large corporate money controls how we are educated and governed? And if so, is that not something to take into account as an institution?