Although the Board of Regents completed the agreement with the Gianforte Foundation to rename the MSU computer science department after Mr. Gianforte, the system has come under fire for the decision to allow Mr. Gianforte to politicize his donation. More importantly, they’ve come under criticism for the decision to rename the facility after someone with views deeply at odds with the mission of the school.
While the political concerns are real, given the suspect timing of the donation and its announcement, more troubling is that the Regents ignored the fact that Mr. Gianforte and his foundation have a history of donating to hate groups and those who advocate against the rights of all people. Students spoke eloquently about the message the University was sending by accepting a donation and naming a building after a person and Foundation that is committed to preserving discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including donations to groups that have called for criminal sanctions for “homosexual behavior.”
Not only were the Board and the Regents wrong to accept the gift, but they’ve created real problems for themselves in the future, given their choice to position themselves as having made the morally and legally superior position of defending free speech rights. Board of Regents spokesman Kevin McRae has been telling the press that the University system simply could not have rejected the donation, because it would be against the law to play politics with donations. He told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:
“We don’t play politics,” he said. “What we do in the University System is treat all donors and proposed donors equally. …
If the regents rejected such naming proposals and gifts, McRae added, “We’d be making a decision to keep Montana students back.” He added that Montana law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, race, age, sex, creed, national origin – and political belief.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle accepted this line of thought, writing in an editorial this weekend that “MSU can’t be in the business of vetting politics,” suggesting that while some groups or individuals might be too abhorrent to accept cash from, evaluating politics would “chill” donations to the university system.
That’s too clever by half. The Regents position has been clearly articulated: that it would be against the law to use those considerations when accepting donations. Applying a standard now would certainly invite court challenge and perhaps lead to some truly egregious renaming of buildings on our state’s campuses.
The suggestion that it would be an act of discrimination to reject a donation based on political or religious belief sounds high-minded, but it’s couching dangerously couching principles of pecuniary interest in promises of free speech. Given this publicly articulated position from the BoR, could the system reject a donation from white supremacist groups who want to name a building after George Wallace? Jefferson Davis? Adolf Hitler?
For the reading challenged, I’m not suggesting that Mr. Gianforte is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, although the comparisons to George Wallace are perhaps not off base. What I am suggesting is that the Board of Regents, by not taking the concern of students seriously, and by staking out an absolutist First Amendment defense of their cash grab, has created a dangerous precedent.
So why did the BoR stake out this absolutist position? Because they couldn’t say what was true: that while Mr. Gianforte and his Foundation have supported some abhorrent, anti-student, anti-rights positions, the lure of $8 million dollars was just more powerful. And more important than respecting the real principles of non-discrimination that should guide the University system.