Education

In age of #metoo, honor can quickly become disgrace

University of Iowa among institutions unwittingly drawn into dealing with controversy

The name of donor Stephen A. Wynn was removed late last week from the University of Iowa's Institute for Vision Research in Iowa City. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The name of donor Stephen A. Wynn was removed late last week from the University of Iowa's Institute for Vision Research in Iowa City. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — On the same day in January that the Wall Street Journal broke accusations that Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn had engaged in sexual misconduct for years, University of Iowa administrators considered the implications for their own campus.

“I suspect that there will be significant pressure on the university to distance itself from this story,” Edwin Stone wrote in a Jan. 26 email to colleagues.

Stone directs what was at the time was called the UI Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research. Just hours after the Journal story broke, he coordinated conversations with campus and institute leaders “to discuss how we should best respond to these stories … in the near term and long term to minimize their negative effects on our incredibly important mission.”

What the UI decided was to strip Wynn’s name from its world-renowned institute that supports 29 faculty from eight departments working to develop treatments for all forms of genetic blindness. His name was removed late last week.

Administrators weighed how to communicate the change to the public, how to coordinate the reverse christening and how to deliver news of the decision to Wynn.

Emails reviewed by The Gazette don’t reveal serious discussions about returning any of the $25 million that Wynn had committed to the research that earned him name recognition on the campus. But administrators did discuss how much of the $20 million that has come in so far has been spent — or not.

“This could make the derelict $5M a blessing,” ophthalmology and visual sciences professor Robert Mullins wrote.

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The UI quandary of how to untangle from the snare of controversy encircling one of its most generous donors illustrates the dilemmas more and more institutions are facing nationally as a growing number of high-profile and wealthy figures find themselves implicated in the #metoo movement.

After dozens of women came out with accusations of sexual assault against comedian Bill Cosby, numerous entities cut ties — including Spelman College, which discontinued its endowed professorship with Cosby; New York University, which removed “William H. Cosby” from the title of its Future Filmmakers Workshop; Drexel University, which revoked his honorary degree; and the University of Pittsburgh, which rescinded an honorary doctorate.

In the wake of an avalanche of sexual assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the University of Buffalo rescinded an honorary degree it awarded him.

And the University of Kansas and Arizona State University both pulled journalism awards granted to Charlie Rose following accusations against the former news anchor.

One day after the UI announced plans Jan. 31 to remove Wynn’s name from the vision institute, the University of Pennsylvania said it would strip the Wynn name from a plaza on campus, take his name off a scholarship fund and revoke honorary degrees granted to both Wynn and Cosby, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The UI couldn’t officially proceed with the name removal until receiving permission from the Board of Regents, which had approved affixing Wynn’s name in 2013.

The board during its Feb. 22 meeting OK’d the removal, noting that as part of an original agreement with Wynn, the university stipulated “the board may reconsider the naming if the prior approved naming may be damaging to the reputation of the board or UI.”

University officials communicated the name removal to Wynn and to his longtime business partner Steven Dezii, both by email and in a formal letter.

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“In light of the recent public disclosures of alleged sexual misconduct by Mr. Wynn, the university will request the Board of Regents approve the removal of the Wynn name from the institute as the university has determined it is damaging to the reputation of the University of Iowa,” UI President Bruce Harreld wrote to Wynn and his associates Jan. 31.

 

The university never received a response from Wynn, who has fervently denied the allegations even as he resigned as finance chair of the Republican National Committee to avoid further “distraction.”

In an interview with The Gazette, Dezii said he thinks UI’s decision to take back the recognition of Wynn’s generosity is premature.

“I really don’t understand it, to be honest with you,” said Dezii, who directs Wynn’s charitable foundation. “There was no shred of proof of anything other than women saying. … It looks like all you have to do is — someone just has to accuse you, and boy you’re on the chopping block. I don’t know what the hell happened with due process.”

Maria DiMento, who covers high net worth donors and their gifts for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, said institutions like the UI are reacting quicker on accusations than in the past because “we’re in the internet and social media age.”

“Previously, it would take a long time for news to get out, and people had more time to make a decision about what they were going to do,” she said. “Now, news breaks so quickly, things move so swiftly that people feel compelled to come to a decision about what to do much faster.”

But rescissions and retractions can be slippery slopes, as one UI community member asked whether Iowa is going to change the name of its Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center because of Johnson’s involvement in what has become known as the “monster study” — a stuttering experiment performed on orphans in Iowa in 1939.

“If heinous acts are the standard by which a name can be removed from a building, then I would submit that the name of Wendell Johnson be immediately removed from the building that bears his name,” UI associate professor Cassim Igram wrote to administrators Jan. 31.

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck last week told The Gazette the university “has apologized for the experiment conducted nearly 80 years ago, before currently accepted safeguards for human subjects were established.”

“Dr. Johnson, a stutterer himself, produced a large collection of significant scientific information beyond that study and remains a prominent figure in speech pathology,” she said.

As soon as the university announced plans to strip the Wynn name, members of the public and UI community began asking if it also planned to return any of the gift.

UI officials said they have no plans to return the money, saying “the naming was in recognition of the gift, and not a condition of the gift.”

Dezii agreed the money should stay put — as Wynn cares deeply about vision research, having suffered from a rare inherited eye disease.

“I’ve been involved with blind people for over 35 years, and those are the people who would get penalized,” Dezii said. “Not Steve Wynn or the college. Those are the people I’m thinking of. And that would not be the right thing to do.”

“I don’t know how anyone could sit in judgment and say, ‘Have them give the money back and let these people go blind,’” he said. “I just can’t think that way.”

But Dezii did raise questions about whether the remaining $5 million of the $25 commitment to the UI would come.

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“He was going to give the other five and then this happened,” he said. “This is what I don’t know — if the school said, ‘Well, we can’t accept that money.’”

“Previously, it would take a long time for news to get out, and people had more time to make a decision about what they were going to do...Now, news breaks so quickly, things move so swiftly that people feel compelled to come to a decision about what to do much faster.”

- Maria DiMento, The Chronicle of Philanthropy

 

 

Through his fundraising efforts, Dezii said, he’s working to fill the gap in hopes of moving UI’s vision research to the next level, involving human trials.

“It really makes the taking of the name down trivial compared to the research milestones we’re going to hit at Iowa,” he said. “To me that’s the greater good.”

Although UI officials indicated much of Wynn’s donation has been committed in support of faculty and equipment, emails indicate a majority remains unspent.

In a message to Vice President of Medical Affairs with UI Health Care Brooks Jackson, Sheila Baldwin, vice president with the UI Center for Advancement — the university’s fundraising arm — said just over $7.5 million of Wynn’s gift has been transferred to the UI for expenditure.

She reported $12.4 million remains in endowed and quasi-endowed funds. Quasi-endowment means the giver made the donation in cash, according to Baldwin’s email.

“The (Institute for Vision Research) is choosing to hold the funds in investment until needed for expenditure,” she wrote.

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Jackson asked whether the money has been contractually committed to new recruits or existing faculty — even if it has not been transferred.

“We do not have record of any earmarks that have been made with the unspent funds,” she wrote.

One associate professor in the UI Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexual Studies suggested the university use some of the remaining money to support its Rape Victim Advocacy Program.

The university, however, cannot defy the donor’s intent.

“Stephen Wynn’s $25 million gift was made to advance the institute’s mission to prevent and cure blinding eye diseases,” according Beck. “The University of Iowa will honor the intent of his gift and continue this important work to benefit patients and families.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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