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Donors: too much say on campus speech?

Colleges feel more pressure from givers who want to help determine who'll be speaking on campus.

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When controversial scholar Ward Churchill tried to speak last week at Hamilton College, a number of contributors to the institution answered with a message that's gaining currency from New York to Nevada: not on our dime.

According to Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart, angry benefactors threatened to quit giving if the Clinton, N.Y., college were to give a podium to the University of Colorado professor who had likened World Trade Center workers to Nazis in a 2001 essay. In doing so, they employed an increasingly popular tactic used at colleges in Utah, Nevada and Virginia with mixed degrees of success last fall in attempts to derail scheduled appearances by "Fahrenheit 9-11" filmmaker Michael Moore.

Although demanding givers are nothing new, observers of higher education see in recent events signs of mounting clout for private interests to determine which ideas get a prominent platform on campus and which ones don't. Faced with such pressures, administrators say they're trying to resist manipulation. Mr. Hamilton canceled Mr. Churchill's speech, Stewart said, only after a series of death threats pushed the situation "beyond our capacity to ensure the safety of our students and visitors."

Yet in an age when financiers increasingly want to set the terms for how their gifts are to be used, those responsible for the presentation of ideas and speakers seem to be approaching them much like other commodities on campus.

"People are wanting their values portrayed and wanting institutions to do exactly what they want them to do," said Dr. Wes Willmer, vice president of university advancement at Biola University in La Miranda, Calif., and a frequent writer on the topic of university fundraising. "They're not giving for the common good. They're giving because they want to accomplish something, and that plays out in the speaker realm as well."

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