Ill-Gotten Gifts to Colleges

ALL over the country, a tide of criticism is rising against the acceptance by churches, charities, and colleges, of wealth won by methods which the moral sense of the community is beginning to distrust. One need not use a misleading phrase such as bad money, one need hold no quarrel with monopolies, to feel that there is cause for the scruple. No one questions that the mammoth fortunes which are coming to be a distinctive feature of American life are sometimes made by methods which are cruel if not technically dishonest, methods pushed perilously near the limits of what even the crude conscience expressed in common law considers legitimate, — pushed some say, though the fact can rarely be proved, beyond those limits. Wealth exists which has been piled together by means unscrupulous and unchristian. It stands in the public mind as a symbol of unrestrained self-seeking and greed; it has to the knowledge of many left behind its shining heaps a ravaged desert track of despair. There is a growing tendency on the part of owners of money of this kind to spend lavishly on works of public utility, on the endowment of churches, charities, universities. It is a paradoxical situation. With the one hand, the owner of such wealth thrusts his competitors into the abyss of commercial ruin, or grinds the faces of the poor : with the other, he hands the resultant gain to the Christian institutions of the land, which gratefully accept it, and rise to chant the pæan of democracy triumphant.

This seems to some persons a spectacle distinctly injurious to the morals of our republic. Churches and colleges represent what is best, most unworldly, most disinterested, in our democracy ; it were useless to deny that wealth of this order represents what is worst. The juxtaposition of the two is unfortunate. It excites suspicion, often doubtless unfounded but none the less harmful, lest the noblest things in America enter, consciously or not, into subjection to the less noble, lest their freedom be hampered, their independent witness to righteousness and social honor impaired.

It is time that this situation were clearly faced. No one, by discussing the criticism upon the acceptance of suspected money, invents it; it is here already ; it increases in volume every day. It occurs to the foreigners visiting our shores, to the laborers in our streets. “ I thought,” said a young German Ph. D. lately, “I thought, learning in Europe is the slave of the state ; in America it is free ; I will go to America. What do I find ? Your learning is not free. It is more slave than in Europe ; it is slave to the millionaire.” For the academic and religious world to ignore this criticism is not only wrong, it is inexpedient. A conference on this subject was lately held in Boston, attended by many persons of significance; the whole course of the discussion made evident how widespread a perplexity and trouble of conscience were already aroused. Courage and candor are emphatically called for, to define and analyze, if not to decide, the issue.

Two extreme positions on the subject are possible. The first holds that ethical scrutiny of the sources of wealth is wholly uncalled for, since use sanctifies the gift; it considers that the endowment of churches and colleges is so important that money should be accepted without question from any source ; that if this money has been made by dishonest means, the sooner it is reclaimed to honest uses the better ; that when the Lord declares that the wrath of men shall praise Him, and we see flowers grow where blood waters the earth in battle, it behooves us to remember that we should never refuse to let any one help to do the Lord’s work in this world. This was the common position of Godfearing men in the past. We need not refer to the Middle Ages and the spoils gratefully accepted by the mediæval Church; the American Board has accepted gifts from Western gamblers for the Indian missions, and American colleges were in more than one instance founded in prayer and holy aspiration from the results of lotteries. The position remains logical and deserving of respect. Few, however, will hold to it today, when it is pushed to its ultimates, and question is raised concerning money made by a gambling house, or worse.

On the other extreme are those persons who think that even a considerable degree of popular odium attached to money should make a Christian institution shrink from accepting it, as we should shrink from meat that makes our brother to offend.

Between these two views are countless shades of opinion. That any firm ground can be reached on which a number of people may stand together it is perhaps too soon to hope, but we may at least begin to feel our way. A few cases may be fenced off at the outset. We must obviously distinguish between the money of the dead and that of the living. All wealth must sooner or later be reclaimed to social use, and no object would be served in refusing money left by bequest or offered by innocent survivors. Moreover, all gifts offered with the avowed purpose of expiation should of course be gladly welcomed.

A good deal of ground will be cleared in this way ; but it would be absurd to claim that in remaining cases the issue is plain. Seldom indeed is it granted us to discover in the confusion of modern life the sharp antithesis of an absolute logic. The modern mind rarely finds the satisfaction of a Choice of Hercules :

“ Les siècles en passant ont fait leur grande route
Entre les deux sentiers, dont il ne reste rien.”

The ceaseless ethical struggle by which we live will consist more and more in a sensitive balancing of considerations. Diverse, indeed, will be the answers to a problem made up, like this, of different elements in each separate case. One thing, however, is sure ; the way to find a true and noble answer is not to cast about in one’s mind for justification in receiving any money that may be offered. One would not depreciate the value of money in helping the life of the intellect. Libraries, laboratories, large salaries, museums, add efficiency as well as dignity to Learning ; they are in a way her essential servants. Yet it is also true that institutions, like men, live not by bread alone. In a civilization like ours the forces tending to materialism are notoriously young and lusty ; we must keep jealous watch lest the very life centres which should foster our more spiritual activities be subtly invaded, unconsciously to themselves, by those very forces which they exist to counteract. Bare were the walls of the old New England colleges, cold their recitation rooms and dormitories, narrow their curriculum, small the salaries of their professors. But from these colleges came forth a race of men whom we, apparatus-equipped, apparatus-hungry though we be, delight to honor.

There are two broad positive reasons why churches and colleges should at least exercise far more caution than they have been doing of late, in the acceptance of proffered gifts.

First, to ignore a scruple is to help suppress it. Every institution which accepts without explanation money under suspicion or indictment weakens the awakening demand for ethical scrutiny of the sources of wealth. If we regard this demand as morbid and unwise, we shall not consider such a result unfortunate. If, however, we believe it to be one of the most healthful signs in the democracy, we shall feel otherwise. Institutions of religion and learning lead always a curious double life. On the one hand, they swing free of the established fact, are hot centres of new thought, and send forth young men and women with faces set to the East. On the other hand, they are imbedded deep in the existing order of things, draw their sustenance from it, and fear to disturb it. Forces of progress and of conservation coexist in them more dramatically than in society at large. In a college, the faculty, as a rule, includes representatives of the first set of forces, — woe to the college in which it does not, — the trustees are usually solid exponents of the second. For the ordinary run of things, it is well that the two forces unite to form the organic whole. But there are times when one longs to see the forces of advance conquer. As soon as a new ethical instinct quivers into existence, its very presence gives it a presumption of authority. To be on the side of inertia, apathy, and custom, when such an instinct is thrilling across the nerves of the community, is to lose the finest opportunity that life affords. These are the times when one grieves to see the colleges unresponsive; if they cannot set the pace, one would have them at least keep it. Slowly the moral instinct moves into wider fields : slowly it conquers the outlying regions of life political, industrial, social. Slowly indeed ! But if we did not believe the process to be vital and continuous, we should lose courage for living, for this is the history of the advance of civilization. Our duty is to be, as Maeterlinck puts it, in a constant state of moral expectation ; to watch the moment when the new principle is surmised; and dauntlessly and joyously to range ourselves on its side. In this advance toward the future, the Church and the University, standing as they do for the subjugation of the gross automatic instincts of the race by conscience and reason, are our most safe and natural guides ; and ill betides the country where they hold the rear rather than the van. The attitude of self-justification in which certain institutions find themselves to-day is in itself a grave public misfortune. For a college or church which accepts questionable money as a matter of course injures far more than itself. It stifles the breath of new life in our civilization, and the higher its standing and the stronger its influence, the more fatally does it effect this end.

Another reason, equally practical, equally cogent, should impose caution in the acceptance of money, the danger lest our colleges forfeit the respect of the people. Learning, half apprehended, is too often a dividing force. It creates an intellectual aristocracy, it increases the difficulty of understanding between class and class. In a democracy, it should be, on the other hand, a uniting force. “ The men of culture,” said Matthew Arnold, “ are the true apostles of equality.” The ideal of American learning is surely that our scholars, our intellectually chosen, who possess what cannot yet be the heritage of all, should at least be the representatives of all; that our colleges should be the expression of the will of the whole people, a vital part of the national life, schools of civic virtue and social honor. How unfortunate, how fatal, is it then, when these colleges come to be regarded as dependencies of a single class! Yet this is precisely what is happening to-day. No one can move among working people in an informal and intimate fashion without realizing how entirely they lack confidence in the integrity of our academic life, how honest and sincere is the scorn with which they view it. It is said by the head worker of one of the largest settlements in New York, that economic argument with the clever young socialists of the East Side is rendered useless by their contempt for the traditions she represents and the authorities she cites. “ Of course Professor This and Professor That hold such views ; they have salaries to draw,” is the constant rejoinder. Whether this attitude be just or no, is not the question ; that it is almost wholly unjust, any one who knows our academic life from within is of course aware. There is no lack in our colleges of moral courage or of intellectual independence. Yet a few cases where there is good reason to fear lest freedom of thought and speech have been inhibited by the conditions of the institution — and such cases exist — are enough to weaken confidence in the whole academic world. We cannot afford to disregard this lack of confidence, nor to treat it with contempt. It is a menace. It places dangerous emphasis on that intellectual cleavage between classes which is far more alarming than mere divergence of material interests. There is little enough in America to spiritualize this vast democracy, to harmonize its clashing elements and bring them into higher unity. If the great throng of the unprivileged come to distrust the centres whence these unifying forces should proceed, and to view them as class-institutions, where is our hope for the future ? Better than this, let poverty be the portion of our colleges, as it has been the portion of some of the strongest centres of intellectual life that the world has known.

It is by no means clear, however, that the refusal of gifts from a dubious source would entail such a destiny. Surely, the gifts of the millionaire are not the only means by which a great country can support its colleges. It is conceivable that the first institution to refuse an offer of ill-gotten money might draw to itself students from the length and breadth of the land. Countless eager contributions from the modest means of many might flow in upon it, and bring within its reach those riches which it had shown itself strong to do without.

It is, however, clear to very few that mere suspicion or popular odium constitutes in itself sufficient ground for refusing money. Obviously, wealth draws to itself an immense amount of unjust criticism. Hesitation to accept a favor, or even courteous refusal, is by no means, to be sure, equivalent either to accusation or to condemnation ; yet it may of course involve injustice of a subtle kind. In the opinion of many, not even definite and unanswered indictment should justify refusal. But indictment, odium, suspicion even, are, if not a call to refuse, assuredly a call to consider. At present, the public has no reason to believe that American colleges recognize any responsibility toward the sources of the wealth offered them. But the time will surely come when to accept suspected money without investigation or explanation will be regarded as a clear violation of morality. Let once the public be reassured on this point; let the principle of responsibility be established, and faithfulness to it demonstrated, and the acceptance or rejection of individual gifts will be matter of detail.

What if a college, after due investigation, were to refuse, with all courtesy and gentleness, the offer of money won by notoriously unscrupulous means, stating that it judged no man nor corporation, but that it owed to its constituency and its public to keep its right of witness to social and national honor unchallenged ? Can any one doubt that by such action that college would appeal to the best instincts of our democracy, or that its power as an ethical teacher would be increased fourfold ? Such an act would distinctly help to create ethical standards which might render the accumulation of wealth by unscrupulous business methods as impossible to the rising generation as the methods of pillage by which the devout robber barons of the Middle Ages endowed the mediæval Church are to us to-day. There is no duty before the academic and religious world in America more pressing than the duty of strengthening the demand that methods of acquiring wealth come wholly under the dominion of the moral sense. There is no opportunity more significant, more in danger of closing forever, than the opportunity of convincing the public at large, by definite sacrifice of worldly advantage, if need be, that the intellectual life of the country, as represented by its organized centres, is disinterested, honest, and free.

Vida D. Scudder.