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Headshot of Alexander Cooley


On December 9, 2022, Alexander Cooley, Claire Tow professor of political science, co-authored new research in the Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education titled, “Foreign Donations in the Higher Education Sector of the United States and the United Kingdom: Pathways for Reputation Laundering.” The article analyzes how the influx of foreign donations in higher education has led to a “reputation laundering” system in which donors contribute to prestigious universities to improve their international public image.

Cooley and his colleagues outline four pathways for reputation laundering; donations for academic programs and schools, naming rights, honorary degrees and board seats, and the offer of favorable admissions decisions. Using data from a survey of U.K. development officers, the article presents evidence that standard university diligence procedures are often insufficient for filtering out most types of reputation laundering. The core problem is the absence of institutionalized transparency and accountability regarding the reporting of gifts and their sources. To address this issue, Cooley and his peers assert that the field of higher education must do more to balance the long-term financial health of their institutions with the need to safeguard the reputations of their universities. Universities should publicly disclose the origins of all major gifts, establish more discerning review processes, and involve alumni and students in the decision-making about whether to accept major gifts from individuals.