Sunday, July 05, 2009

Should we automatically assume that a donation to a university will be used responsibly?

Previously, I questioned the assumption that giving Tennessee State University a chance to build an agricultural research center on Bells Bend would support agriculture even if the primary research focus is more on agribusiness than on farmers. I've not seen any other May Town Center opponent question the assumptions of the TSU donation, and while I don't reap any rewards from playing the pessimist about philanthropy, I also feel the need question a recent claim that because TSU might have an archaeology program, it is likely to protect Bells Bend's tribal burial sites and to be less driven to bring in more revenues by maximizing the surplus value of acreage donated.

Universities are economic interests as much as they are academic communities. While it is a private institution with fewer obligations than TSU to state requirements, Fisk University attempted to sell pieces of its world-renowned Alfred Stieglitz collection that had been donated in 1949 by Georgia O'Keefe. Despite Fisk's long-time commitment to providing art education at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, president Hazel O'Leary attempted to remedy the university's overextended finances by trying to selling off art that provides the very opportunity for education. The issue here is not how freer than TSU Fisk is to undermine its own educational strengths, but that universities do whatever they can get away with in order to survive, even if doing so might damage their academic reputation.

While I would hope that TSU would strongly commit itself to preserve history and pre-history in Bells Bend, realism cautions me against any unexamined faith in the university without them providing an explicit chart for the course they intend to follow with respect to research and education. What have they done so far that would cause us to extend them the benefit of the doubt when there is so much money to be made off of undeveloped land in Davidson County, especially for cash-starved universities?

1 comment:

  1. S-Town Mike, I share your concerns about what TSU will ultimately do with the land in Bells Bend if and when they receive it. Due to the likely disingenuous origins of giving of the "gift", this has always been an extremely sticky issue. Now that the fate of May Town Center is so uncertain, the complex web woven by the MTC proponents has become stickier than ever. Many questions remain: Will the land ever be owned by TSU? If TSU does receive this land, what will they do with it since they already own at least one large piece of farmland elsewhere. What about the important archeologic sites on the land? Wouldn't an agricultural research center be better located on TSU campus which is accessible in all the ways that rural Bells Bend is not? Organic farms are currently taking root in Bells Bend and Scottsboro. While we welcome more organic farming, large scale conventional agribusiness and agri-research such as growing genetically modified crops would be much less welcome due to their potentially adverse impact on the land and the pre-existing organic farms. And as you mention, like Fisk and the decision to sell their rare art collection, TSU could opt to sell this land to another developer and we'll be back to square one again.