Stanford and others challenge Ford Foundation guidelines

new york | This year, the Harvard Divinity School is researching the “growing diversity of Islam in a democratic society.”

This $348,000 project, funded by the Ford Foundation, is among dozens of projects totaling tens of millions of dollars that are stirring a growing debate. It pits Harvard and eight other elite schools, including Stanford, against the prestigious Ford and Rockefeller foundations, who are major supporters of the academic world.

The debate erupted late last month when Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania sent the foundations a letter charging that new stipulations forcing grant recipients to agree not to promote bigotry, terrorism, violence or any nation’s destruction threaten their First Amendment rights of protected academic speech.

Ford and Rockefeller are refusing to back down, and several Jewish groups and activists are applauding their stance.

“This is our language, these are our values, this is what we stand by and this is what we’ll be using going forward,” Ford Foundation spokesman Alex Wilde said.

Ford’s new grant conditions were created after a JTA investigative series last October, “Funding Hate,” revealed that Ford was funding some Palestinian nongovernmental organizations that promoted violence against Israel and helped foment anti-Israel agitation at the 2001 U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.

With the Ford Foundation long working to escape the shadow of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism and a growing political furor over the JTA series, the foundation pledged to scrutinize its grants more closely and impose new guidelines.

The debate with the universities is the latest development in which foundations, facing new U.S. government regulations, struggle to figure out how to ensure that their dollars do not wind up in the hands of terrorist organizations.

Indeed, this month’s issue of Foundation magazine includes several articles on the subject.

In January, Ford told its recipients they must pledge to “not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state” and must not funnel any Ford grant money to those who do.

Rockefeller used similar language in issuing its guidelines, saying that the language was a further step toward the commitment that its funds not be diverted from charitable purposes.

But the universities are charging that the new conditions are “too vague” and would “regulate universities’ behavior and speech beyond the scope of the grant — indeed, beyond the bounds of the universities.”

Provosts of the nine universities who signed the letters either declined to discuss their objections or did not return calls for comments.

Several university spokesmen said the letters, which were on Princeton stationery, did not arise out of fear that any specific event or program was at risk, but a general concern that the new language could limit speech on campus.

In a Wall Street Journal article last week, University of Chicago’s provost, Richard Saller, said the new language left the foundations prey to pressure from “advocacy groups” objecting to activities such as a recent Palestinian film festival on campus.

On one level, the standoff amounted to a classic conflict between philanthropic ethics and freedom of speech, said one observer of the foundation sector.

“Academic institutions have every right to protect their status as defenders of free speech, and funders have every right to push back and say there are limits to discourse,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. Foundations also must ensure that projects they support match their mission, otherwise they could lose their tax-exempt status, he added.