Reactions to the U-M 2020 MLK Symposium: Part I, philanthropy and social justice

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Planning Committee chose the timely theme “The (Mis)Education of US.” As I tuned in to watch the live stream of the MLK Symposium keynote featuring Dr. Angela Davis, I was struck by two video messages from Warde Manuel, Michigan’s Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics, and Scott DeRue, Edward J. Frey Dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. The videos struck me as being out of place and certainly not the forum. As the impeccable Dr. Angela Davis began speaking, she made a remark thanking the sponsors and cosponsors of the event while noting that they had been heavily mentioned throughout prior to her coming on stage.

Those of us watching from home did not see those frequent mentions which made me wonder just who the sponsors are. This information was not readily available on the general announcements by the University of Michigan, The University Record, or the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives. But the cosponsors are noted as being the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, under the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Michigan Athletics, and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, supported by the William K. McInally Memorial Lecture Fund per Lauren Love and Ross School of Business. This makes the appearances of Warde Manuel and Scott DeRue seem less out of place, but more questions arise.

The figure that is Stephen M. Ross looms over Michigan’s school of business, athletics department, and the general campus largely. Ross is the largest donor in University of Michigan history, contributing a reported $378 million to specific departments or projects, rather than the general campus community. While Ross founded the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving race relations through collegiate and professional sports-based initiatives” in 2017.

Indeed, it appears commonplace for billionaires and those with financial and/or political power to create foundations, non-profits, think tanks, etc. and engage in  behaviors that appear to be philanthropic. Just over 200 extremely wealthy individuals have committed to The Giving Pledge where extremely wealthy individuals promise to give away to philanthropy over the course of their lives or upon their death. The movement was led by Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet and has recruited persons like Michael Bloomblerg, MacKenzie Bezos, Elon Musk, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz AlSaud, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan.

In 2010, Zuckerberg pledged 100 million to Newark, New Jersey schools which was equally matched by donors. Zuckerberg joined forces with former Newark Mayor and current US Senator Cory Booker and the funds ultimately was spent towards dismantling teacher unions, increasing charter schools, and lots of consultants. The lesson Zuckerberg expressed learning the importance to listen to and learn from all constituency groups and that support take time to be built. Similarly, RISE, in its attempt to use sports to address racism and unify the US, has made splashy headlines with the hiring of CEO Diahann Billings-Burford and pledged support from NBA and NFL athletes like Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Larry Fitzgerald, LeBron James, Ryan Tannehill, Justin Tuck, and DeMarcus Ware.

However, on the board of directors of RISE are persons like SpringHill Entertainment CEO, and LeBron James business partner, Maverick Carter and current, and a couple former, heads of the NBA, NFL, MLB, NASCAR, NCAA, NACDA, MLS, PGA, USTA, AVP, and USA Track & Field. The inclusion of the heads of most sport leagues appears to be a positive. But some other interesting figures sit on the board of directors. For starters George Casey Jr, a retired US Army general who served as Chief of Staff of the Army under George W. Bush. RSE Ventures, of which Ross is the chairperson, President Matt Higgins also sits on the board. Also executives from NBC Sports, Turner Sports, Fox Sports, ESPN, and CBS Sports are board members. Further women are wholly underrepresented as only three women sit on the board of directors, including Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

The RISE board displays an example of individuals being placed in positions of power and ownership while being far from the community they claim they wish to support and help. Even with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Priscilla Chan and her husband Mark Zuckerberg, their leadership team arguably lacks on the ground community members or activists, but instead is peppered with Silicon Valley and political leaders. There is an active choice in deciding who has access to the uppermost leadership positions of these organizations. This is one of many elements of control that are implemented through such organizations.

Instead of contributing to our government’s general fund through paying fair tax percentages, these influencers promise to do good by giving back and being attentive to the needs that government fails to address (read cannot reasonably solve given lack of funds).  The trade-off of demonizing “the government” is that they get to reap positive social esteem by engaging in philanthropic behaviors while also controlling what, where, and how funds are spent. A desire to keep and accumulate monies is directly tied to a desire to control. At the end of the day, each of these individuals maintain some (read large) belief that their respective vision, belief system, or plan is correct and that they alone should determine how funds are spent. Often these people sign up for noble social causes or partner with those of positive social esteem or character.

Some, like Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi, have championed Ross as a leader for social causes, but questioned some allegiances and comments. Though Stephen M. Ross also has committed to the Giving Pledge, aside from the reasons above, there is more to consider. In fact, there are reasons that Stephen M. Ross’ name should not be associated with an event celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King and those whose names we may not know but have contributed to actively fighting injustice above all over things. For instance, Ross has been found to have overvalued charitable tax reductions to the University of Michigan. Ross was heavily criticized by some here at the university and around the country for hosting a fundraiser for the forty-fifth US President who has a strong and growing record of racist and bigoted actions, statements, and policies. Alone, this fundraiser choice led to the billionaire stepping down from the NFL’s social justice committee. Further,  In 2018, Ross stated, per Christian Red of NY Daily Times, that all Miami Dolphins players would stand for the national anthem as he felt the message of kneeling was unsupportive for the US or its military. While Ross did slightly walk those comments back, the initial message was one that strongly correlated to conservative, ring-wing, anti-social justice talking points.

The optics of any of these actions and stances do not align to a social justice brand image. One thing corporations strongly adhere to, and hold their spokespersons to, is their public brand image. I think we can assume that the NFL felt the decision to host the fundraiser did not align well with the leagues branding of their diversity and social justice initiative. Though I believe in imperfection and redemption, I am slow to provide leeway for those who should know better. Particularly those who are marketed as influential role models on account of their financial accumulation which is often equated with success. While some of these persons and organizations engaging in socially conscious behaviors skew positive, there is a need for the public to generally question motives and actions of those persons. It is essential to maintain a high level of criticality of those who attain access to inequitable power and influence. This is a necessity given the greater societal costs at stake and the potential for those to continue to unjustly financially benefit off the labor of those typically underrepresented in positions of power. For it is not simply enough to provide employment for those doing community work; there must be legitimate representation at the highest levels of an organization.