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Editorial

Milken's money, UCLA's dilemma

Lowell Milken would probably be counted among the less pristine philanthropists, though not among the most scurrilous. But his $10-million gift to UCLA's law school should be accepted.

August 30, 2011
  • Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken, left, seen with Maywood Elementary teacher Tamara Garfio and L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines, is a major donor to educational issues.
Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken, left, seen with Maywood… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

If all philanthropists were required to be morally upright, hospitals would be low on new wings and colleges would be starved for buildings. We'd also be missing a few beloved institutions outright — Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities are cases in point. Charity is a virtue that should not be off-limits to scoundrels — if, in fact, they are truly giving to an institution rather than tethering their donations with strings that benefit them.

Lowell Milken would probably be counted among the less pristine philanthropists, though not among the most scurrilous. Tied to the Wall Street junk-bond scandals of the 1980s, he was banned from further work in the securities industry but was never tried criminally (though his brother Michael served time). He has been a steady donor in recent years, largely to educational causes. And now his $10-million gift to UCLA's law school is being questioned by a prominent professor who says, with some justification, that it would look odd to name an institute of business law after a man whose transgressions were in that very field.

The more serious ethical problem for universities lies in, say, accepting tobacco company money for research on smoking addiction (as UCLA did a few years ago) or in allowing faculty members to receive big consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they are evaluating. Even without a defined quid pro quo, money puts subtle pressure on researchers. And universities should be deeply wary of such donors as the head of Harris Ranch Beef Co., who threatened to reconsider his regular contributions to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo if the school went ahead with a planned lecture by Michael Pollan, a critic of industrial agriculture. To the college's shame, it caved and turned Pollan's talk into a panel discussion.

In the Milken case, though, the controversy appears overblown. Though Milken is hardly a model for UCLA students, it's unlikely they would think his name was an invitation to miscreant behavior. Details of the donation haven't been released, but if all Milken seeks is to have his name over the door, his less-than-sterling background shouldn't keep the university from accepting a valuable contribution.

Certainly, there are people whose behavior is so repellent that their money would taint any organization; the directors of nonprofits must weigh philanthropic good against the potential pitfalls, as UCLA appears to have done in this case. But the bigger concern, and one that receives less attention, is when a so-called gift comes with strings that can tie the organization's mission into knots.

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