Liam Adams is an independent journalist in Denver writing for local and national outlets.  

Anxieties Over a Donor’s Role in a Faculty Search Boil Over at Case Western

Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In December 2015 a dozen faculty members at Case Western Reserve University wrote a letter protesting that a six-person search committee to fill an endowed chair had two members from outside the institution — specifically, from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. The letter argued that the process infringed "academic integrity and faculty self-governance." A larger faculty group later followed up with a second letter.

The dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, Cyrus C. Taylor, responded to their concerns months later with a blistering six-page letter in which he said he had read the second letter to "impugn my personal integrity." The university, he went on, was obligated to include the members of the federation on the committee because of a decades-old understanding with the nonprofit organization, and those members had no say in the final choice. Faculty involvement in the search, he said, was "robust."

The conflict over the still-unfilled position illustrates the difficulties that such endowed chairs can cause for a campus — for professors who say they should play the exclusive role in hiring, and for administrators who must balance obligations to donors with faculty demands.

The story of the controversy dates to 1964, when Case Western received a gift to create the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Judaic Studies in the department of religious studies. The original contract for the gift stipulates that the search committee be composed of six individuals, three of them Jewish Federation representatives. When the position fell vacant and the university geared up for a search, in 2015, Mr. Taylor asked the federation to occupy just two seats on the search committee, not three, to ensure a faculty majority. The federation accepted.

But after learning about the search and the Jewish Federation’s involvement, 13 faculty members sent a letter to the department, asking that the search be put on hold and the federation representatives dismissed. The signatories recognized that the department was obligated, under the contract, to allow the representatives to serve on the search committee, and was under pressure to "make the apparently pragmatic choice." Nonetheless, they said, "the matter of academic integrity is paramount."

Seventeen faculty members later sent a second letter to the chair of the college’s executive committee, asking that a special meeting be convened to allow faculty members to voice their concerns. The federation members do not have "scholarly expertise in the field," they said, and having donors on a search committee could be problematic because they might advocate for "outside interests."

Critics have accused the Charles Koch Foundation of pushing free-market ideas into Florida State University’s and Utah State University’s economics departments by funding endowed chairs and sitting on the search committees. A similar controversy broke out at Clemson University with BMW as the donor.

Mr. Taylor said in an interview that the search for a holder of the Silver Chair isn’t "analogous" to the Koch Foundation’s influence at the other colleges because the Jewish Federation representatives serve only on the screening committee, which chooses three finalists. The new hire is selected by members of the department.

According to the federation’s Form 990, a tax document filed by all nonprofit organizations, in 2015-16 it donated about $1.7 million to Case Western. In addition, the federation’s Maltz Family Foundation gave a total of $30 million to Case Western in 2010 to build the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center.

Henry Adams, a professor of art history who signed both letters, said he recognized that it would be difficult to expel a donor from a search committee "without offending people" — the people, in this case, being officers of a major donor.

But Mr. Taylor disputed the implication that he was resisting faculty requests because it might offend a major donor, calling the insinuation "factually insulting." He said that what he’s doing is "the right thing to do" and that "it’s a matter of the obligations we have taken on as an institution."

The Dean’s Response

In response to the second faculty letter, Mr. Taylor wrote a letter to the College of Arts and Sciences in February 2016 in which he responded to the faculty members’ claims, point by point.

The source of the protesters’ surprise, Mr. Taylor suggested in his letter, may have been a "miscommunication" in 2010, when he told members of the history department that no new faculty chairs would be established with outside members on the search committee. Some professors may have understood him to refer to all such chairs, not just new ones. "I am sorry that there was evidently miscommunication," he wrote.

The Silver Chair is still vacant, while the federation representatives remain on the search committee. One cycle of searching was completed in August 2016, but no one was hired. Mr. Taylor wouldn’t specify why the search had not chosen someone.

Meanwhile, faculty members in the college passed a resolution in March 2016 that called on the university to refuse to accept gifts for endowed chairs if a donor insists on being part of the search committee. The resolution also asked the dean to notify past donors that the university now disapproves of donors on search committees. Mr. Taylor said he considered the proposals to be a "workable."

Scholarship or Advocacy

Stephen Hoffman, president of the federation, serves on the search committee for the Silver Chair. Faculty critics say they became more concerned about his service on the committee after a video surfaced, in October 2016, in which he makes disparaging comments about Muslims in France.

In the video, which shows a 2015 interview with Mr. Hoffman, he says radicalized Muslims are coming to France with "anti-Semitic teachings that are in the Quran" and "hatred from the Middle East in general."

Mr. Hoffman also says the Quran tells Muslims to kill Jews, but the Torah does not advocate the killing of others.

A call to Mr. Hoffman’s office seeking an interview was directed to the federation’s media-relations staff, which declined to comment on his behalf.

A member of Case Western’s religious-studies department who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned about his career prospects said he was concerned that Mr. Hoffman would "eventually have a say in picking someone who might share his views." Mr. Taylor said he doesn’t believe Mr. Hoffman, whom he said he has known for 12 years, is an "Islamophobe," adding that he would "be able to play the appropriate role" in the search process.

Mr. Adams, the art-history professor, said the faculty critics are concerned that Mr. Hoffman might impose an ideological "litmus test" on any candidate for the Silver Chair. He added that he doesn’t want such concerns about Mr. Hoffman to be misconstrued as "anti-Semitic." Other faculty members who asked to remain anonymous said they were concerned about what effect Mr. Hoffman’s views might have on the search.

Aaron Hughes, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Rochester, interviewed for the Silver Chair in 2016. He said he recalled feeling "very uncomfortable that someone from the federation" was on the search committee. He said he feared Mr. Hoffman would judge him with a "Zionistic or religious lens."

Mr. Hughes has interviewed for Jewish-studies positions at other colleges, where a meeting with members of the local Jewish community is not uncommon. But he said faculty members should have complete control of search committees, in order to prevent scholarship from bordering on advocacy.

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