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August 31, 2007

A SHOCKING LAPSE IN JUDGMENT: This story on fugitive campaign donor Norman Hsu contains a passage that's not about politics, and that reflects badly on academia:

Mr. Kerrey said he was introduced to Mr. Hsu about two years ago, and shortly thereafter Mr. Hsu joined the board of governors at the Eugene Lang College for liberal arts at the New School. He joined the university’s board of trustees last July.

“So much of the university is about the immigrant culture, and I liked his personal story, coming from China, and he had an interest in fashion as well,” Mr. Kerrey said. “It all intrigued me.”

He said that the university did not do background checks of prospective trustees, and that he saw no reason to ask Mr. Hsu to resign from its board.

This is probably not that unusual -- guy seems nice, has a lot of money to donate, and the diversity factor is a plus. So why look deeper? But it's wrong. Universities are, in fact, large and wealthy corporations possessing special legal status and imbued with public trust. Their boards oversee large expenditures in a fiduciary capacity. It's true that university administrators prefer for the boards to be mere rubber-stamps, but the management of most corporations would prefer less oversight from the board, too. We've moved away from that in the for-profit sector, but nonprofits haven't caught up. They need to, because there's a lot of money in the nonprofit sector now, and nowhere near the scrutiny over where it goes, either internally or externally.

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