On October 7, Ben Nelson posted an article about vetting donors on the Minerva Community Portal in response to the recent discussion around former Minerva Dean Stephen Kosslyn’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein’s. 

Nelson’s article didn’t define how Minerva vets donors; instead, it asked Minerva’s students and staff to consider the nuance of these decisions. Nelson started the article by saying how “appalling it is that Harvard named Stephen” without naming others who also accepted donations.

The rest of the article was framed around four donor types from a Medium article by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig: “all good money”; “morally ambiguous, but legal money”; “criminals, but legal money”; and “unambiguously bad”. He said only the fourth was never a valid source of funding. 

Nelson’s essay hinged on two points — 

  1. How to define who or what is immoral enough to elicit fund rejection.
  2. The difference between the source and the use of donated funds. 

To make the first point, Nelson asked us to consider, “which crimes should disqualify an individual from making a donation?” Does the way the money was made matter?  “Who gets to set the moral boundaries for the charity?” He didn’t provide a solution to these questions but used them to highlight the inherent difficulties in making moral decisions like this as money and donors become more ambiguous. 

For the second point, Nelson questioned how we should weigh the moral implications of how funds are used against where they come from. His big point here was that Minerva needs funds “to find the world’s best students and provide scholarships for them.” He then pointed out that the college has a responsibility to accomplish this goal and raised the question: is it worse to reject funding from an ambiguous source and reduce scholarships or to accept the funding and increase scholarships? 

Kay Wenger commented on Nelson’s post, eliciting a rebuttal from Nelson. The Quest then reached out to her and she asked to revise her argument to respond to Nelson’s comment. In this interview, she highlighted a couple of key points of contention in the article. She said that although she respects Nelson’s perspective on needing money for scholarships, she feels that “the focus on money is misplaced.” While Wenger acknowledged that Minerva and its donors don’t have to have the same values, she asks Nelson and the community to consider the “messages we send to students about our values [and] the type of future donors we attract” by being an institution that Epstein would want to support. Although Nelson didn’t condone accepting funds from Epstein, Kay believes these considerations were not given enough weight in his article. This omission made Nelson’s article read as if the issue were too complicated to make a decision about who we should accept funds from. 

In a response to Kay’s comment on the Portal, Nelson reiterated two important points. First, it is incredibly difficult to raise the five million dollars the school needs to raise. Second, he said he and other Minerva staff “determined that we would never ask [Epstein] for [funding] and, if offered, reject it.” Despite Nelson receiving criticism for framing the article as if Minerva might accept money from Epstein, this statement reveals Minerva does draw a line past which a donor becomes too morally objectionable to justify using their money to pay for student scholarships. Although this line is still undefined, Nelson told the Quest he hopes this article will get Minervans to think hard about donations and that “these frameworks… would be useful in that process.”