Growing attention to the questionable acquisitions practices of the Hobby Lobby and the Green family for the creation of the Museum of the Bible highlights both the scale of the problem and the degree to which current polices fail to prevent such activities. In spite of advice from Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law, in 2010 the Hobby Lobby purchased over five thousand ancient Iraqi artefacts of suspect provenance and shipped them under false or misleading labels to obscure their country of origin and content. Questions about the Hobby Lobby and the Green Scholars Initiative have been raised by papyrologists for some time now (see the work of Roberta Mazza among others), following the announcement of the publication of a new Sappho fragment in 2014. Whilst dubious private collections are by no means a novel feature of the academic landscape, questions about the ethics of engaging with such collections are becoming more prominent. The role of academics and institutions in the implicit laundering of artefacts through authentification and publication is increasingly coming under greater scrutiny. Such a rapidly shifting ethical landscape runs the risk of stranding people on the wrong side of the divide, especially those whose disadvantaged position in the academy (the great itinerant insecure workforce shimmering under the sandstone establishment) incentivises publication and funding at any risk.
In Australia with increased cuts to the government funding of higher education, many universities are encouraging researchers to seek a greater proportion of their funding from private donors, industry and philanthropic organisations. The proven ability of researchers (and / or departments) to attract external funding has become the central performance indicator for jobs, promotions and further funding support. But what does this do to the ethical landscape of our universities?
The influence of industry over the shape and endurance of research programs in the sciences has been obvious enough. Less attention however has been devoted to the impact of private money on humanities research. Politically motivated research is not new, but its current manifestation in the research landscape may be less obvious than classic examples of imperially sponsored history. Private funding without oversight can influence everything from the areas studied, the research funded, the courses offered and the questions asked. The destruction of mummy masks by scholars and students within the orbit of the Green’s enterprise in order to recover the improbable Christian papyri they sought (as Mazza and others have noted, no Christian papyri have been found in such a context) represents one case in which ideology determined which aspect of the past was worthy of survival.
Now, any archaeological or interpretative consideration of antiquity involves a choice of focus. The latter engagement is less likely to involve a choice with catastrophic consequences for any focus which isn’t selected. Archaeology too, when done responsibly, *should* aim to preserve as much as possible and ground any unavoidable destruction in exhaustive and rigorous reasoning. *Should*. The destruction of the Coptic monastic remains in 1902 at the site of Deir el-Bahri by Naville on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund in order to recover Hatshepsut’s temple (as a major tourist attraction) is a key example of what can happen.
The manipulation of the past is much more apparent when it comes in material form. However, we should be just as concerned, if not more so, with the largely invisible manipulations caused by the subordination of institutions to private interests. For researchers this means asking difficult questions about where the available funding we are applying for comes from and whether it comes with strings attached. It involves asking whether we are endorsing particular organisations and activities by accepting such funding. It pushes us to think about how complicit we are in legitimising particular groups. It means, above all, thinking about the best way to create transparent relationships with external partners which protect our research integrity.
This means thinking a little bit more about what research and teaching integrity looks like for a particular department and a particular researcher. What does it mean to develop a teaching and research program organically and in response to the needs of the field and to the needs of the broader community (rather than the needs of the budget and cashed-up specialist interest groups within that community)?
Increasingly universities are being asked to demonstrate their relevance and significance to the broader community and universities are using their record of external funding to answer that question. However, private and industry funders do not a broad Australian public make.
Private funding should not and will never be eliminated from universities. The peculiarity of popular politics in the last few decades would seem to point to the value of having sources of funding available outside those determined by the government of the day. Many donors, industry partners, and philanthropic organisations engage with universities for the best possible reasons and in pursuit of exactly the sorts of goals researchers would applaud. Things go wrong, however, when the purpose and value of the university as an independent institution gets forgotten or co-opted in the politics of laundering someone else’s agenda. Academics have a responsibility in all this; in formulating, understanding, and protecting what is unique about the institution in its most ideal form.