NEW YORK, May 11 (JTA) — This year, the Harvard Divinity School is researching the "growing diversity of Islam in a democratic society."
This $348,000 project, funded by the Ford Foundation, is among dozens of projects totaling tens of millions of dollars that are stirring a growing debate. It pits Harvard and eight other elite schools against the prestigious Ford and Rockefeller foundations, who are major supporters of the academic world.
The debate erupted late last month when Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania sent the foundations a letter charging that new stipulations forcing grant recipients to agree not to promote bigotry, terrorism, violence or any nation's destruction threaten their First Amendment rights of protected academic speech.
Ford and Rockefeller are refusing to back down, and several Jewish groups and activists are applauding their stance.
"This is our language, these are our values, this is what we stand by and this is what we'll be using going forward," Ford Foundation spokesman Alex Wilde told JTA.
Ford's new grant conditions were created after a JTA investigative series last October, "Funding Hate," revealed that Ford was funding some Palestinian non-governmental organizations that promoted violence against Israel and helped foment anti-Israel agitation at the 2001 U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.
With the Ford Foundation long working to escape the shadow of Henry Ford's anti-Semitism and a growing political furor over the JTA series, the foundation pledged to scrutinize its grants more closely and impose new guidelines.
The debate with the universities is the latest development in which foundations, facing new U.S. government regulations, struggle to figure out how to ensure that their dollars do not wind up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
Indeed, this month's issue of Foundation magazine includes several articles on the subject.
In January, Ford told its recipients that they must pledge to "not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state" and must not funnel any Ford grant money to those who do.
Rockefeller used similar language in issuing its guidelines, saying that the language was a further step toward the commitment that its funds not be diverted from charitable purposes.
But the universities are charging that the new conditions are "too vague" and would "regulate universities' behavior and speech beyond the scope of the grant — indeed, beyond the bounds of the universities."
Provosts of the nine universities who signed the letters either declined to discuss their objections or did not return JTA's calls for comments.
Several university spokesmen said the letters, which were on Princeton stationery, did not arise out of fear that any specific event or program was at risk, but a general concern that the new language could limit speech on campus.
In a Wall Street Journal article last week, University of Chicago's provost, Richard Saller, said the new language left the foundations prey to pressure from "advocacy groups" who objected to activities such as a recent Palestinian film festival on campus.
On one level, the standoff amounted to a classic conflict between philanthropic ethics and freedom of speech, said one observer of the foundation sector.
"Academic institutions have every right to protect their status as defenders of free speech, and funders have every right to push back and say there are limits to discourse," said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network.
Foundations also must ensure that projects they support match their mission, otherwise they could lose their tax-exempt status, he added.
In a larger sense, this is about "the health and future of a particular foundation," Charendoff said.
Ford remains the third-largest U.S. foundation, with $10.4 billion in assets. In fiscal year 2003, Ford awarded nearly $35 million to higher education. The foundation no longer has ties to the Ford Motor Co.
Among the nine universities that co-signed the appeal, Harvard topped the list of recipients, with $7 million in 2002 and 2003.
Rockefeller, with $2.8 billion in assets, allocated $15 million in 2003 grants to higher education and $17 million in 2002.
The steps taken by these two leading foundations already was creating a ripple effect in the foundation world, Charendoff said, with several foundations taking note of the new grant contractual language.
"The leadership they're providing in the funding world can have a great impact in the funding community," he said.
Though no one could point to any specific Ford or Rockefeller foundation grant that seemed at risk because of the new wording, some Jewish activists said anti-Israel rhetoric remains so pervasive on U.S. campuses that the grant debate could impact that mood.
"The ‘destruction of any state' clause sure rings a bell — advocacy for the destruction of Israel is widespread in universities," said Daniel Pipes, director of Campus Watch, which monitors Middle East studies programs and anti-Israel activities on campuses.
"The Palestinian ‘right of return' is a more polite way of saying ‘the destruction of Israel,' and Middle East studies programs are full of people who, in polite ways, advocate destruction of Israel," Pipes said.
The new grant language could mean that any university recipient of foundation funds that hosts a Palestinian or Muslim student group that in some venue calls for Israel's destruction could "no longer be eligible," Pipes said.
The universities raised that very question in their letters to Ford and Rockefeller, asking whether the language applies to their administrations, all employees, or "to constituent parts, including student organizations."
While foundations must monitor their grantees, and Israel supporters should be concerned about anti-Israel activity, the free-speech debate is a legitimate one, Charendoff said.
"I question if it's in the public interest to narrow the parameters of public debate too narrowly," he said.
Foundation officials said their new grant language was meant not to limit speech, but to meet new government laws against the domestic funding or support of any organization supporting terrorism.
"Were committed to ensuring our funds are used for their intended charitable purposes, and that free speech is protected," said Rockefeller Foundation spokesman Andre Oliver.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, (D-N.Y.), who in the aftermath of the JTA investigation helped broker talks on the funding issue last year among members of Congress, Jewish groups and the Ford Foundation, lauded the foundations' steps.
"Ford wants to make sure its money doesn't promote anti-Semitism and racism, and that's hard to discount," he said.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which advised Ford on crafting the new language, said that rather than calling for Ford to reword its grant contracts in a kind of "Talmudic discussion about the restraints of free speech," the schools should distance themselves from any campus hate speech that surfaces.
"They should certainly disassociate themselves from violence against women or support of suicide bombings," Harris said.
Officials of the schools and the foundations were due to meet soon to discuss the new grant pacts, but Ford's Wilde said his group would not budge.
"We don't think this is about freedom of speech. This is about the values of the Ford Foundation and the responsible use of Ford Foundation funds," Wilde said.