UC Irvine to Return Gifts to Endow Chairs in Hindu, India Studies

The University of California, Irvine is returning two gifts to establish endowed chairs after faculty and students raised concerns about the donor's ideology and attempts to influence the search process, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The gifts of $1.5 million each from the Dharma Civilization Foundation — to be matched with $500,000 from the Presidential Match for Endowed Chairs fund of the Regents of the University of California — were intended to endow chairs in Indic and Vedic Civilization Studies and Modern India Studies in UCI's School of Humanities. The Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Indic and Vedic Civilization Studies received final approval in 2015, while the Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies has been approved by UCI but not the University of California system. However, student organizations have voiced opposition to "the influence of outside donors and social, religious, and political agendas in the process of selecting endowed chairs," while an open letter signed by India scholars around the world described DCF as "part of a right-wing Hindu group of organizations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism."

A report released this month by an ad hoc faculty committee tasked with reviewing the gifts raised serious concerns about DCF's publicly stated views and intents, which the report's authors found to be "unusually explicit and prescriptive [with respect to] appropriate disciplinary formations, what constitutes good or acceptable scholarship, and, indeed, what constitutes good or acceptable scholars." The committee also noted that the gift agreements include language which can be construed as a requirement to promote specific beliefs. Concluding that the association with  DCF is "inconsistent with UCI's core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration, and respect," the committee called for rejecting the gifts — a recommendation endorsed by the university's Humanities Executive Committee.

The report also recommended that two other $1.5 million gifts to fund endowed chairs in Jainism and Sikhism — from donors who declare themselves independent of DCF but which according to some accounts were catalyzed by the foundation — be returned to the dean of the School of Humanities for further consideration and review.

In a December 2015 blog post, DCF executive director Kalyan Viswanathan rejected accusations of any "political motivations" underlying the foundation's activities. "DCF seeks to widen and diversify the study of these traditions and culture of Indic origin," wrote Viswanathan, "from being predominantly focused on applying Western models on foreign phenomena, to being more culturally sensitive, in such a manner as to take seriously the self-understanding of these non-Western Indic cultures and religions as lived traditions of fellow Americans, and include dimensions such as philosophy and ethics from an insider's (emic) perspective which barely exist today."

Elizabeth Redden. "Return to Sender." Inside Higher Ed 02/22/2016.