The independent news organization of Duke University

Money talks

As a 12-year veteran of the cash-strapped Maryland public school system, I had a hard time getting used to the comparative lavishness that is inherent to an elite private university such as Duke. I went from a severely overcrowded school that often suffered shortages of basic supplies and necessary equipment to a school that gave all of its incoming freshmen free iPods.

These amenities, our educations and everything else that Duke undertakes come directly from the staggering $1.426 billion that is budgeted for the 2004-2005 academic year; this figure is about 85 percent of the operating budget of my entire 140,000-student local school district and is easily higher than the operating budgets of large state universities with many times the number of students, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Tuition, although quite high, is not enough to support the multi-billion dollar operations of the University; it is the support of the alumni and other outside donors that has allowed Duke to become one of the foremost academic institutions in the United States and has greatly improved both the quality of life of students and the education they receive. Financial support is the single most significant driving force behind Duke’s success, and we would not be what we are today without it.

Given the immense importance of the support of the alumni, however, there is comparatively little discussion about exactly where that money comes from and exactly what influences it has beyond the obvious benefits to Duke.

Decades of reform have brought some level of transparency to the political process and to campaign finance, but that transparency does not exist at a school that is effectively controlled by a 35-member board of wealthy alumni that often meets behind closed doors. And often, questions directly related to the alumni and the trustees significantly impact the day-to-day operations of the University and add an important dimension to the happenings on campus.

For example, during the long discourse on the adequacy of ARAMARK’s food service, there was never any public mention of the fact that the current executive vice president and chief financial officer of ARAMARK happens to be a significant financial contributor to Duke and also currently sits on the Arts and Sciences Board.

By its own description, the Trinity Board “has been particularly involved with such issues as the all-first-year East Campus...[and] residential life.” This connection between Duke and ARAMARK is significant and raises the possibility of conflict of interest; at the very least, it should have been part of the debate about ARAMARK’s future at Duke.

These questions also reach beyond the creation of official University policy. During the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, the incredible outpouring of support from alumni and other outsiders to Students Against Terror had a solely political motive that was not necessarily indicative of overall student opinion towards the conference.

Earlier this semester, a Chronicle columnist pointed out that Duke is currently honoring an alumnus who provided significant financial support to the dubious political organization “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” He legitimately asked whether Duke should “ever reject donations from an individual based on his or her financial activities?”

We must go a step further, however, and also ask whether Duke should place strict limits on the influence of donors over how their money is spent and over how Duke is operated as a whole, even knowing that it would result in less income for the University.

This bi-weekly column will be dedicated to these issues. Who are these people running the University? Where does this money come from and are strings attached? Just how much influence do major donors have over both the day-to-day operation of Duke and the overall direction of the University? And most importantly, what qualifies them to exert that influence beyond the mere fact that they provide financial support to Duke?

While the generous and extremely necessary support of our alumni should not be discounted, it is important to address these issues that permeate all aspects of the University, including the overall direction that Duke will take in the future, what academic fields are given priority, who is actually admitted and even who gets basketball tickets.

Elliott Wolf is a Pratt freshman. His column appears every other Tuesday.

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