Is Spelman College Unethical?

Spelman College has announced that it is suspending an endowed professorship in humanities that was funded by Bill and Camille Cosby. Spelman issued this one-paragraph statement:

December 14, 2014 — The William and Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Endowed Professorship was established to bring positive attention and accomplished visiting scholars to Spelman College in order to enhance our intellectual, cultural and creative life; however, the current context prevents us from continuing to meet these objectives fully. Consequently, we will suspend the program until such time that the original goals can again be met.”

The Cosby family donated $20 million to Spelman in 1988. In 1996, Spelman opened the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby EdD Academic Center. At that time, “an endowed professorship named for Drs. Cosby was also established to support visiting scholars in the fine arts, humanities and social sciences as well as Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art,” according to a November 25 written statement by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman’s president.

The November statement also explained:

The academic center and endowed professorship were funded through a philanthropic commitment from the Cosby family made more than 25 years ago, and at this time there are no discussions regarding changes to the terms of the gift.”

Just 19 days later, Spelman reversed its position and suspended the professorship. When contacted, several Spelman officials refused to comment. A representative for Cosby also declined to comment.

Bill Cosby by via Flickr

Bill Cosby

For the past several weeks, Bill Cosby has been the target of a large number of sexual assault allegations. However, no criminal charges have been filed against Cosby. Spelman knew this in November. It’s unclear why the College abruptly suspended the endowed professorship now. While additional allegations have been made in the intervening weeks, Cosby still has not been charged with a crime.

To paraphrase Tyler Perry, if Cosby did commit the sexual assaults, it’s a terrible situation. If Cosby did not commit the sexual assaults, it’s a terrible situation. I won’t comment on the Cosby situation beyond that. However, I do want to explore the Spelman news because it has broader implications for all nonprofit institutions.

Nonprofit organizations are ethically required to use a donor’s contribution in the way in which the donor intended. The applicable portions of the Donor Bill of Rights “declares that all donors have these rights”:

IV. To be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given….

V. To receive appropriate acknowledgement and recognition….

VI. To be assured that information about their donations is handled with respect and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.”

The relevant passages from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethical Principles state:

14.  Members shall take care to ensure that contributions are used in accordance with donors’ intentions….

16.  Members shall obtain explicit consent by donors before altering the conditions of financial transactions.”

The Spelman action raises a number of serious questions:

•Are there any conditions under which Spelman would permanently terminate the Cosby endowed professorship? For example, if Cosby is charged with a crime or if he is convicted, would that trigger further action? Conversely, what must happen for Spelman to restore the professorship?

• Why did Spelman go public with the announcement of the suspension when it could have handled it more quietly to protect the privacy of the Cosby family?

• During the suspension period, how will the endowment income be used?

• Is there a gift agreement between the Cosby family and Spelman? If so, does that gift agreement permit Spelman to take the action it has? If no written gift agreement exists, is Spelman’s action consistent with its understanding with the Cosby family at the time the gift was made?

• Did Spelman discuss its intended action with the Cosby family prior to taking action? Did Spelman receive permission from the Cosby family to suspend the endowed professorship?

• Since Spelman is no longer using the donated funds for the purpose intended, will it return all or part of the donation?

The answers to these questions might reveal that Spelman College has behaved unethically when it suspended the Cosby endowed professorship. That might be why Spelman officials refused to answer questions for this article.

While nonprofit institutions have an obligation to protect themselves, they also are required to protect the interests of donors, particularly when it comes to how gifts will be used. Yes, it’s possible that Spelman behaved perfectly reasonably. However, we simply don’t know for sure.

Spelman wants us to assume it has done the right thing at a time when its actions indicate it is not willing to give Bill Cosby the same benefit of the doubt.

Sadly, Spelman’s action not only punishes Bill Cosby, the subject of unproven allegations, it also mistreats Camille Cosby, an innocent bystander.

In an unrelated story  involving radically different circumstances, Lincoln Center announced last year that it is changing the name of its Avery Fisher Hall. Fisher donated $10 million in 1973 for the naming opportunity.

The Fisher family threatened to sue Lincoln Center 13 years ago when the issue of renaming first arose. Last year, Lincoln Center revealed that it had reached an agreement with the family. The Fisher family will receive $15 million, and Avery Fisher will be recognized prominently in the new lobby of the concert hall.

Lincoln Center now has the right  to offer the hall’s naming rights to another benefactor.

While I’m not entirely comfortable with the actions of Lincoln Center, the organization recognized that it was obligated to honor Fisher’s intentions. And the organization negotiated acceptable terms with the Fisher family.

If Spelman College wants to be ethical, it should follow the example of Lincoln Center, at a minimum. The College should discuss the situation with the Cosby family. In addition, if it is not going to use all or part of the Cosby donation as the family intended, it should return an appropriate portion of the funds to the family. Alternatively, the College should seek the Cosby family’s permission to use the funds in another way.

If Spelman College believes it has followed ethical protocols in this case, I encourage its officials to be transparent and forthcoming. By answering the questions posed in this article, Spelman has an opportunity to shed more light on the matter and provide a teachable moment.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

UPDATE (July 26, 2015): Spelman College announced that it has officially terminated the endowed professorship established by the Cosby family.

15 Responses to “Is Spelman College Unethical?”

  1. The Spelman situation is interesting and intriguing to those of us in the endowment development world. Gift policies should have been in place which may have laid a path for the use or re-naming of the endowment in extenuating situations. I am reviewing my institution’s policies.

    • Mimi, thank you for your comment. The Spelman-Cosby situation is a reminder that nonprofit organizations should periodically review their gift policies and have detailed gift agreements. I’m glad to know you’re taking the time to review your institution’s policies. It’s not glamorous work, but it is essential.

  2. It seems like the leadership of Spelman College was influenced by public opinion and the media, and tried to escape any negative association Dr. Cosby’s situation may bring them, and did not think through the responsibility and liability of their actions. Thank you, as always, for your clear and rational presentation of the logic which must be used when considering revocation or cancelling naming agreements.

    • Ken, thank you for sharing your thoughts. The Spelman-Cosby situation is complicated. Spelman might very well have considered all the issues. College officials might have thought through their responsibilities and the potential liabilities. They may have contacted the Cosby family to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, we simply don’t know. Spelman might have behaved ethically; it might not have. Sadly, Spelman’s failure to be transparent leaves many questions unanswered and could erode donor confidence, not just in Spelman, but the broader nonprofit sector as well.

  3. You raise some excellent points. I admit if I were the Cosby family I would consider changing the names of the endowments to ensure they continue to do the most good for the long-term and to ease any potential public concerns.

    • Carolyn, thank you for commenting and sharing the suggestion. Bill Cosby has demonstrated a willingness to insulate the nonprofit institutions he supports from the potentially damaging affiliation with him. For example, he resigned from the board of trustees at Temple University. We have no way of knowing if he was forced to resign or not, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he did so voluntarily. So, he might be receptive to renaming the endowment as you’ve suggested. While Spelman might have suggested that to him, we simply don’t know because neither party is commenting.

  4. The money was legally earned. If it were illegally earned, through fraud or theft, then it might obligate the NPO to return the money.

  5. In a way, this reminds me of the Komen-Planned Parenthood fiasco that occurred a few years ago. If you recall, Komen decided to temporarily stop future funding for PP when a congressman wanted to investigate them for allegedly misusing Federal funding for abortions. Like Cosby, no criminal charges were lodged against PP. Komen made that decision, just as Spelman has acted prematurely against Cosby. The difference is that Planned Parenthood went on the offensive and garnered a great deal of financial support from other donors, whereas Cosby has remained quiet and will not reap a financial reward from those that support him. In my opinion, Spelman may lose support either way.

  6. People should Bing “Elroy Stock” and Augsburg College. That was the first time I heard of a big donor’s request that was changed. Previously, donor requests were always honored no matter the issue. “Hendrix College and Wilbur Mills” about 15 years earlier and even today a number of Harvard donors (who have been convicted of crime like Mathew Martoma) get their donation honored.

    It is about damage control and reducing overall embarrassment for the institution. Harvard has a lot of good will and the embarrassment factor is small for them. In the Spelman case, you have their biggest and most well known donor so they needed to make a statement. The same issue was true for Augsburg.

    • Ellery, thank you for commenting and sharing a bit of history. I have no doubt about what motivated Spelman. It’s as you suggest. Two of the factors that made the situation impossible for Spelman to ignore are 1) that it is a women’s college and 2) Cosby is accused (though not charged) with sexual assaults. Spelman is certainly in a no-win situation. However, when taking action, did they handle the situation as appropriately and effectively as possible? While I hope so, we really don’t know. That uncertainty is bad for Spelman and bad for the entire nonprofit sector.


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