May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

Anonymity, Liquidity, Mobility: A Quandary

Kenneth R. Manning, Lisa Parks

Since last fall, we and many others at MIT have been thinking about the question of fundraising – grants and gifts – and the circumstances surrounding them. We also have mulled over the use of fundraising in promotion and tenure review, and the role and relative weight that money plays in these cases. One issue we are concerned about is the role of anonymous gifts and grants, and whether and how these should factor in promotion and tenure decisions. As the Coronavirus pandemic continues, with funding sources growing scarcer, the Institute will need clear and transparent policies to help guide us through economically uncertain times. The pressure to skirt or relax ethical standards and to compromise longstanding values in the interest of financial stability will, inevitably, intensify in these troubled times.

Financial support has always been vital to advancing and sustaining careers in science, engineering, and (less so) the humanities and social sciences. Fundraising presents challenges all along the pipeline, from the highest to the lowest faculty ranks, and from discipline to discipline. The focus of our present concern is the role that fundraising plays in career advancement for junior faculty from first promotion to tenure.

Fundraising has traditionally been encouraged and rewarded, viewed as an important aspect of junior faculty profiles in promotion and tenure cases. Grants and gifts, the bigger the better as often thought, are itemized on candidates’ CVs and professional statements, and discussed and evaluated as part of the process.

At MIT the weight given varies from department to department and across disciplines. Many factors emerge when considering grants and gifts as part of a promotion or tenure case. Funding perceived as a positive result in one context might be thought of as negative in another. There is never, nor should there be, a universal view about how funding should be regarded in a personnel review. In evaluating a grant or gift, one looks at the source and amount of funding, the range of competition for it, the importance and quality of the work funded, and, last but not least, whether the grant’s goals have been met beyond the minimal expectations of an annual or final report. Whether or not one supports using grants and gifts as factors in promotion and tenure cases, these are all things that can be observed, measured, determined, and discussed before conclusions are drawn and a decision is made.

But such is not the case with funding given as “anonymous.” Though some junior candidates indicate on their professional statements and CVs that an anonymous grant has been “vetted,” such a term has no substantive meaning to anyone outside the central administration. Nothing is revealed to faculty reviewers and external reviewers about the source of funds, grantee’s relationship to donor, donor’s standing as a grant-giving agency or as a bona fide philanthropist, and other vital information. It seems to us that the Institute needs clarification on whether junior faculty should be encouraged (or permitted) to receive and present anonymous funding for consideration in promotion and tenure cases without better guidelines. Lack of transparency about the source, along with a vacuum of information regarding terms of the gift and related matters as delineated in the gift agreement and elsewhere, make it difficult if not impossible to evaluate an anonymous gift as an accomplishment appropriate for promotion or tenure evaluation.

Though these issues are vital in all faculty reviews, they are particularly important in junior faculty cases because the tenure process functions as a crucial phase of academic socialization. What happens during the early years of one’s academic career – what is valued and not valued, what is allowed and not allowed – ends up making a deep imprint on the mindset of that faculty member and will inevitably shape and inform his/her/their future decision-making and practice with regard to fundraising efforts, decisions on other colleagues’ cases, and graduate mentoring. Graduate students closely monitor what is happening with faculty members’ careers, including which parts of the research and fundraising records are celebrated and valued. Establishing guidelines related to anonymous fundraising reporting could have long-term, generational effects.

If MIT continues to sanction anonymous grants and gifts as part of the promotion and tenure process, accompanying gift agreements and related documents should be made accessible to faculty and external reviewers so that they can evaluate pertinent issues.

Potential concerns include, but are not limited to, reputation and motive of donor, relationship of donor to recipient, and donor’s past history of giving. Criteria clear for everyone need to be developed. While transparency may not eliminate inherent inequities in the system, it would at least lessen, or draw context around, the advantage and privilege that certain candidates might enjoy because of wealthy friends and associates able and willing to support them with strategic gifts.

At a minimum, if an “anonymous” gift or grant is allowed to appear on a CV, MIT should establish an official framework that would generically classify and publicize some of the gift or grant attributes. This might include, for example, donor type (e.g., self, individual, foundation, company), reason(s) for the anonymous designation (e.g., donor privacy, project sensitivity, political protection), and scope and purpose (e.g., research topic, curriculum development, lab support). Establishing such categories would require rigorous and inclusive discussion.

We believe full transparency of information regarding grants and gifts at MIT is preferable. We should know where monies that flow into MIT are coming from. Such transparency enables faculty, staff, and students – as individuals – to make ethical decisions about what units, projects, or faculty they want to ally with and which they may want to avoid. Many people have strong political, ethical, or moral objections to particular kinds of funding streams, and should have the knowledge and right to be able to navigate those waters accordingly in the academic work environment.

Attention to these matters is critical, particularly in light of the Institute’s recent regrettable history with anonymous gifts across multiple departments, where faculty were allowed, even encouraged, to seek funds from Jeffrey Epstein under the guise of anonymity.