Pitt’s new gift acceptance and naming policy upholds ‘academic freedom’ for faculty

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Pitt’s new Gift Acceptance and Naming policy went into effect on April 27 and established the standards and requirements for the acceptance of gifts and naming on behalf of the University.

By Quentin Tan, For The Pitt News

Pitt’s new Gift Acceptance and Naming policy upholds a major aspect of faculty research — academic freedom. Despite the amount of money donated to name a building or faculty position, University officials said the new policy ensures faculty members are protected from conflicts of interest.

This policy went into effect on April 27 and established updated standards and requirements for the acceptance of gifts and naming on behalf of the University. Kris Davitt, senior vice chancellor for philanthropic and alumni engagement, said this new policy is more aligned with the University’s values, such as academic freedom, or the ability for Pitt professors to teach and research freely and truthfully without a conflict of interest from donors.

For example, if a company with ties to the fossil fuel industry makes a donation to Pitt, the policy allows professors to do research on fossil fuels without the influence of that donor. In other words, the professors, researchers and students wouldn’t be pressured to skew their research to fit the demands of the donor.

Davitt and PAE — which Pitt established in 2018 to restructure various fundraising, donor and alumni engagement functions into one integrated unit — oversees Pitt’s review, acceptance and processing of gifts and naming.

Davitt said the Office of Policy Development and Management led the process to update the policy. She said the process included establishing a policy committee “charged with proposing a draft policy on gift acceptance and naming.” The Council of Deans, Senate committee on tenure and academic freedom, Faculty Assembly, Senate Council and other campus leaders also reviewed the policy. There was also a public comment period. 

According to an Aug. 13 announcement from Pitt, the new policy states that the naming of a building must be approved by Pitt’s Board of Trustees. Other naming opportunities — such as endowments, academic centers and capital spaces — must be reviewed by senior leaders, such as Davitt, “with final approval by the chancellor or their designee.” 

Davitt said the new policy is “much more detailed” because of the academic freedom component. 

Abbe de Vallejo, co-chair of the University Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee, said he helped create the policy. He stressed how important it is that Pitt’s research be independent of outside influences.

“Conflict of interest is built into the very principle of academic freedom. We do not want a third party influencing our research,” de Vallejo said. “It cannot and it should not have an influence on whatever projects that it [the donation] would be used for.” 

According to the new policy, a gift or donation should “provide significant value to support the University,” and gifts or donations that the University accepts must coincide with its “values, mission and priorities, including its principles of academic freedom.” 

PAE is able to decline or return a gift if it “jeopardizes” academic independence, creates a conflict of interest or if it “involves an impermissible exchange of goods” or the “purpose of the Gift is determined to violate the University’s policies, values or legal requirements,” according to the policy.

As another example, de Vallejo said that with the new policy, vaccine companies cannot donate to the University to influence Pitt’s research in favor of a certain vaccine type. According to de Vallejo, Pitt will not allow or accept those donations because there is a clear conflict of interest. 

“The design of how the trials are run cannot be dictated by those companies,” de Vallejo said. “Because you don’t want to bias the study according to what they are expecting.” 

Davitt said the gift acceptance and naming policy needed to be updated, since the old policy dated back to 2014.

“Pitt’s existing policy dated back to our last fundraising campaign, which ended in 2014,” Davitt said. “We updated the policy to make it more comprehensive and to bring our policy in line with peer schools and best practices.” 

The policy also notes that Davitt will establish a standing advisory committee with members of the University community to “consult with and advise on matters related to the University’s acceptance of gifts and naming.” Davitt said it will consist of students, faculty and staff.

Davitt said the new policy is especially important for academic freedom and for Pitt to attract new resources. 

“Taken together, these changes give us a policy that will help us to attract the resources needed to help Pitt continue to expand its leadership while ensuring that we maintain the culture of academic freedom and mutual respect that is vital to our educational and research missions,” Davitt said. 

This article originally incorrectly attributed quotes about the policy. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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