Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is a town steeped in Americana. It was the site of one of the most important battles in the Civil War, memorialized by a cemetery that Abraham Lincoln dedicated with perhaps his most important address. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower lived there; his home and farm are now a national historic site. One of the nation’s oldest and most highly regarded liberal arts colleges is located there, whose alumnae include the moderator of this blog.
Now it is also nationally known for a controversy over tainted money.
Bob Garthwait, a Gettysburg College alumnus and major donor, resigned from the board of trustees after a 1980 yearbook photograph surfaced, showing him in a Nazi uniform for a party themed on the once-popular situation comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes.” As he stepped down, the college’s president, Janet Morgan Riggs, observed, “Anti-Semitism clearly contradicts our values as an institution today, as it did when this photo was taken.” Mr. Garthwait was contrite, saying, “My sincere hope is that our current students will learn from my poor judgment 38 years ago and be more thoughtful than I was about the impact of their actions on others.” Even so, a faculty member is demanding that the college return Garthwait’s donations, including for a leadership center that bears his name.
This episode is reminiscent of another and more publicized controversy over a donation 30 years ago. Ralph Engelstad was a pioneering casino operator in Las Vegas and a devoted alumnus of the University of North Dakota to which he had been contributing for over 20 years. However, his casino had an unusual private suite, a “war room” stocked with Nazi posters and other memorabilia, as well as a collection of cars used by Hitler, Mussolini, Göring, and Himmler. On at least two occasions, he used the suite to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, complete with German food and a cake decorated with a swastika. Although Mr. Engelstad denied he was a Nazi sympathizer and claimed he was only putting on a “spoof,” he was fined by the Nevada Gaming Control Board for damaging Las Vegas’ reputation.
In 1988, the university needed a new rink for its chief inter-collegiate sport (ice hockey) and Engelstad, who had been a goalie for the hockey team in his undergraduate days, offered to give $5 million. Knowing of his tarnished reputation, the school sent a delegation of faculty and administrators to investigate. After Engelstad promised to sell his Nazi collection, the school accepted the gift. “It would be ideal if he had no warts,” a university official noted later. “But there are not many people like that, particularly among those who have battled their way from modest beginnings to positions of extraordinary wealth.”
(This was not the end of controversy involving Engelstad. When the university sought to build a new rink a decade later, he again offered to make a sizable lead gift, but on the condition that the school resist pressure to drop the “Fighting Sioux” nickname for its teams, which the NCAA deemed offensive to Native-Americans. After a protracted legal and political struggle, the university capitulated; its teams are now called the “Fighting Hawks.” Engelstad passed away before the dispute was resolved.)
Was the University of North Dakota right to take Ralph Engelstad’s money? Should Gettysburg College forgive Bob Garthwait’s youthful indiscretion? Concerns about “tainted money” are not new to philanthropy, but typically involve taking donations from people who earned their fortunes in dishonorable or illegal ways. When a backlash against his gifts arose, John D. Rockefeller was under attack for violating Federal anti-trust laws and other allegedly ruthless business practices.
In the North Dakota and Gettysburg cases, the personal conduct of the donors is at issue. Both Engelstad and Garthwait had long been benefactors of their schools; no questions had been raised about taking their contributions. However, when revelations about their participation in questionable incidents came to light, their money became “tainted.”
Few fortune-holders—or for that matter, those of us without fortunes—have lived entirely spotless lives. Should their transgressions be held against their efforts to do good? And which ones? Henry Ford, for example, published anti-Semitic tracts during his lifetime, but no one—least of all the very progressive groups that get most of its funding—is calling for returning Ford Foundation grants. Should they? Or should we accept that though people are not angels, they can still try to act virtuously?
What do you think?
Leslie Lenkowsky, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in Public Affairs and Philanthropy at Indiana University.