The academic direction of Yale’s Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies has prompted the program’s namesake to criticize the University’s management of donations for academic programs, but Yale officials say their policies consistently ensure that donations benefit all parties.
Since Kramer ’57 and the University began negotiating terms for a large gift in his name more than seven years ago, the two parties have differed over the role Kramer should have in steering the academic mission of the gift. The LKI was launched with a $1 million gift in 2001 but the program’s establishment did not end disputes between Kramer and Yale’s academic and development officials. Kramer says he thinks LKI’s focus is too narrow and should include more gay history in addition to gay theory.
In an interview late last week, Kramer said he thinks the University’s donor regulations are too rigid and Yale should treat gifts on a case-by-case basis. The agreement regarding LKI was vague because there had never been a Yale program like it before, Kramer said.
“You can’t make a blanket rule,” Kramer said. “LKI can’t be run the same way chemistry can.”
But Acting Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said most similar agreements are designed to be flexible in order to ensure that the gifts will serve the evolving needs of the University.
“When they pay for an endowed fund, you want to make sure you write something where the language is going to be valid in a hundred years,” O’Neill said.
A uniquely hands-on approach
Throughout his often tumultuous negotiations with the University, Kramer has tried to be more intensely involved in the direction of LKI than most donors for similar programs, said a high-ranking Yale official who asked not to be named.
“But after all, his passion is what has made him an important figure,” the official said.
Still, while Yale’s donors generally play key roles in determining the larger goals of the funds they establish, those roles are, by necessity, reduced to a consultative basis once the programs are in place, Provost Andrew Hamilton said.
Nationally, universities generally listen to their donors’ concerns, but leave ultimate financial decisions to their own management officers, Commonfund Institute Executive Director John Griswold ’67 said.
The Commonfund Institute is the educational arm of Commonfund, which manages funds and gives investment advice for nonprofits, mainly universities.
In 1997, Yale rejected Kramer’s offer to endow a permanent professorship in gay and lesbian studies on the grounds that the field was an underdeveloped academic discipline at the time. In 2001, after a four-year tug-of-war, the University and Kramer reconciled, agreeing to launch the LKI when Kramer, a noted playwright and AIDS activist, donated his manuscripts and personal correspondence to Yale’s collection and his brother, Arthur Kramer ’49, donated $1 million to endow the initiative for five years.
In the case of an endowed professorship like the one Kramer initially requested, the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest decision-making body, has the final say after the proposal is approved by Yale President Richard Levin and the related department’s chairperson, O’Neill said.
Kramer, who said he once considered suing Yale to remove his name from LKI, said he believes LKI has deviated from its stated objectives. Kramer met with History Department chairman Paul Freedman last week to discuss Kramer’s proposal to move LKI to the History Department, a move Freedman rejected.
In his defense, Kramer said he is less concerned with the minutiae of LKI’s administration than he is with its over-arching mission.
“I’m not trying to dictate anything except a return to the original intention,” Kramer said.
Kramer’s friend Calvin Trillin ’57, who served on the Yale Corporation from 1988 to 1994, said he does not think the University is intentionally misappropriating the LKI donation.
“I would distinguish it from a sort of subterfuge,” Trillin said. “I think what happens is somebody gives money to a program and has a vision of it that in practice may not turn out to be precisely what he envisioned.”
The development office, which is responsible for soliciting donations, works to build long-term relationships with its donors, O’Neill said.
“We want it to be a lasting relationship, not just a one-time ‘We’ll take your money and run,'” O’Neill said.
Donor spats are not new
Most of Yale’s donor relationships are amicable, but the Yale-Kramer discord is not the first time the University has been at loggerheads with a major donor.
In 1991, Lee Bass ’79 donated $20 million to create a Western Civilization curriculum, but its implementation was delayed by the year’s major administrative turnovers, and the administration’s failure to design courses or appoint professors. After four years of heated negotiations, Yale administrators surprisingly rejected the program and returned the $20 million to the Texas billionaire, a move that garnered the University a wave of negative media attention across the country.
Before the University returned Bass’s donation, five professorships had been endowed and senior faculty members were named to the Bass-funded posts, but the new curriculum had yet to be designed and assistant professors still had to be named.
Bass wanted to be able to approve the assistant professors before they were hired, maintaining veto rights. But Yale administrators believed Bass’ stipulations would violate Yale’s tradition of academic freedom and set a dangerous precedent of relinquishing academic control to donors.
“It galvanized a lot of the older classes,” Griswold said. “It gave them the impression that Yale was run by a bunch of liberals who were teaching global studies and didn’t care about Western civilization.”
But the return of Bass’ gift has been the only instance of irreconcilable differences between a donor and the University during his 11-year tenure as president, Levin said in an e-mail.
“My approach has been consistent for the past 11 years,” Levin said. “We only accept programmatic gifts that are consistent with our academic programs as defined by the faculty and administration.”
Greater national attention
Beyond Yale, donors across the country have become more interested in how universities use their gifts in recent years.
An heir of the A&P supermarket fortune sued Princeton University in 2002 for the return of almost $600 million in funds. Princeton alumnus William Robertson claims the university misappropriated funds beyond the original scope of The Robertson Foundation, which was established at Princeton in his family’s name to encourage graduates of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to pursue careers in public service.
Donors’ increased concerns with the use of their gifts have deep national roots, said Joye Barksdale, a spokeswoman for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a national alumni relations association.
“It is certainly true that donors have becomes a group certainly much more interested in how their gifts are going to be used,” Barksdale said. “It sort of reflects the tenor of the times in the sense that there are calls for accountability in all parts of our society.”