UW returns $5 million to donor after disagreement over professor’s views

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The University of Washington returned $5 million to a donor unhappy with the views expressed by the president of its Israel Studies program, whose position and other aspects of the program were largely funded by the donation.

This rare action, tapping into the emotional divisions of the Jewish people and society at large over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, has drawn criticism from scholars across the country and beyond. Nearly 1,000 on Thursday signed an open letter accusing UW of infringing on academic freedom — though the university says that’s exactly what it was trying to protect in late January by returning the endowment to the longtime philanthropist Becky Benaroya.

His decision revealed the ambiguity of the relationship between donors and universities, which are increasingly dependent on philanthropy. UW has an endowment fund worth nearly $5 billion as of last June, according to its 2021 financial report.

“Does this mean that each endowment is essentially vulnerable to the ideological preferences of the donor? asked Eva Cherniavsky, president of the UW chapter of the American Association of University Teachers, who this week wrote her own letter of protest to university president Ana Mari Cauce.

The university is committed to continuing to support the Israel Studies program and its president, Liora Halperin. According to a statement, nearly $6 million remains in an endowment for the program due to interest on Benaroya’s donation, $2.5 million donated by the university and other investments. UW spokesman Victor Balta said the university has committed to $20,000 a year in additional money over three years and plans to add more money to compensate for much or all that was lost.

Still, questions remain, not least of Halperin herself.

“The university has publicly declared that I will be cured,” she wrote in a statement to the Seattle Times. “I am happy with this commitment. However, the university has yet to deliver on that promise, or explain exactly how and when it will. She called the program “in jeopardy”.

The controversy has pained many professors and members of the supportive community associated with the prominent Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, of which the program is a part.

“It is time to reset and rebuild,” wrote Mika Ahuvia, who takes over as director of the center in July, in an email last week to his Jewish studies colleagues. “Which bridges have been burned and with which do we still have hope of repair?” she also asked.

In May last year, Halperin was among dozens of Israel and Jewish studies professors who signed a statement criticizing Israel as it launched heavy airstrikes on Gaza in retaliation for Hamas rockets fired at Israel. The statement sympathizes with the pain and loss of loved ones on both sides, and denounces anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia. He also referred to the Zionist movement as shaped by “colonial settler paradigms” that led to “Jewish supremacy, emotional segregation, discrimination and violence against Palestinians…”

Devin Naar, head of UW’s Sephardic Studies program, also signed the statement. Naar, “within Seattle’s Sephardi community, was treated like a god,” said Sonny Gorasht, echoing remarks he made to The Cholent, a Seattle Jewish newsletter that first wrote about Controversy. Naar’s signing was “a total slap in the face” to supporters who assumed his views on Israel were the same as theirs, according to Gorasht, a former chairman of the center’s advisory board.

Still, some members of the community focused on the Israel Studies program and Halperin, who held an endowed chair in Benaroya’s name. Gorasht said he and others understood the intention of the program, created in 2016 with the philanthropist’s donation, to portray Israel in a more positive light. On campus, support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was often heard.

Those who wanted a positive opinion were not only irritated by Halperin’s signature on the statement, but by his use of the term “Israel/Palestine” in the description of the courses. Gorasht calls it a code “which suggests that Israel has no right to exist”.

Halperin said she didn’t use the term that way, but rather to reflect “the land’s layered political history and its status as an object of the aspirations of multiple groups.”

His use of the term shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Before joining UW in 2017, Halperin was an endowed professor of Israeli-Palestinian studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Still, some community members felt cheated, according to Emily Alhadeff, who wrote the Ccholent article and manages the newsletter.

Benaroya, 99 and still very active, according to her son Larry Benaroya, could not be reached. “My mum wishes this never became public and doesn’t want to continue or add to the story,” he said via email.

“If there was a misfit, it was around something I only learned about after I accepted the college offer and started work,” Halperin said in her statement, adding that she had “held the highest academic standards”. David Myers, who supervised Halperin’s dissertation at UCLA, where he holds the Kahn Professorship of Jewish History, said she was well-regarded in the field, known for her work on the cultural life of Jews .

Balta, the UW spokesman, referred to the written agreement with Benaroya when asked about the intention to create the Israel Studies program. The nine-page document says the endowed chair will disseminate “knowledge about Jews and Judaism as well as modern Israel” and build relationships with Israeli institutions and faculties. It does not specify a positive outlook.

He clarifies, as Balta pointed out, that the deal can be changed by mutual consent of the UW and Benaroya.

“Ms. Benaroya initially requested that the endowment agreement be amended in several ways, including to prohibit the incumbent from making political statements or signing agreements deemed hostile to Israel,” the university’s statement read. “UW would not agree to these amendments. The return of the original $5 million gift was, in UW’s view, the best way to protect academic freedom, to clarify that endowment agreements cannot in any way to limit academic freedom, and to keep the program free from outside influence and pressure to adopt any specific positions.

Halperin sees it differently. “By making the almost unprecedented choice to return endowment money – in the absence of any contractual obligation to do so – UW has sent an ominous message about the potential professional and material consequences of engaging in political speech. principled,” she said.

She also noted the influence of StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel group. Randy Kessler, executive director of the North West chapter, acknowledged attending a meeting with Benaroya, Halperin and university officials. He said he could not confirm that Benaroya gave the returned $5 million to his organization, as reported by The Cholent.

“Ms. Benaroya brought advisers into the discussion, but no one at the meeting was introduced as representing an organization,” Balta said via email, when asked about Kessler and StandWithUs. “These conversations were made from good faith and, in hindsight, we would not have allowed this individual to attend the meeting had we known he would be soliciting Ms. Benaroya.”

The return of Benaroya’s money means Halperin will no longer hold the endowed pulpit in his name. UW, however, says reports that Halperin was stripped of a chair are incorrect. She will occupy a new chair of Jewish studies.

Halperin says he wasn’t told that at first. “At this time,” she said on Friday, “I have not yet been officially offered a new, equivalently endowed chair or clarified whether the Israel Studies program will continue to operate at its previous levels and with what funds. “.

That remains to be determined, Balta said. Minus Benaroya’s money, the difference in endowment amounts to about $180,000 a year, he calculated. In addition to Halperin’s salary, program funding is dedicated to research, conferences, and student support.

In addition to determining funding, the university is working on new language for donor agreements in an effort to avoid similar situations in the future, Balta said, adding that the language will clearly indicate the university’s commitment. university in favor of academic freedom.

This can, however, face headwinds. In an article on the UW controversy, Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, wrote that donors have every right to “put strings on their donations” and “demand their money back if they think a university is failing.” fulfill the intention of their endowment”. .”

For AAUP’s Cherniavsky, this amounts to donor scrutiny of academic work. Donors must either relinquish control, she said, or recognize that “private research funding is a terrible model.”

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