A controversy over $1.5 million donation by the Dharma Civilization Foundation to University of California at Irvine’s School of Humanities started last week with more than 350, including varsity students, signing an online petition questioning the non-profit’s motive behind the gift.
The petitioners questioned the donations by the foundation, saying they are worried that it might be an attempt to exert too much influence over hiring and may be pressuring professors.
The university announced the setting up of three new endowed chairs in October last year with the help of donations including from DCF. It said that the chairs will be named the Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies, Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies, and Swami Vivekananda-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies.
The setting up of the chairs is aimed at expanding UCI’s scholarship in South Asian religions and culture. An Orange County Register report said quoting the vice president of the foundation that the current controversy is a “tempest in a teapot.”
“This petition has regrettably cast aspersions and doubt on the motivations and intentions of the Dharma Civilization Foundation” Kalyan Viswanathan, executive vice president of DCF, was quoted as saying.
It also said that the organization “rejects the accusations put forth both by the petition and the people who have endorsed it as false and having little basis in fact.”
The foundation’s objective is to simply “find safe academic environments for the accurate and respectful study of the Dharma traditions of India” in the U.S., including Hinduism, Indian Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism,” DCF was quoted as saying.
One of the criticisms against the foundation was that it brought prospective candidates to campus – which struck some as over-the-line. “DCF acknowledges that for members of the University faculty to engage with potential candidates for these proposed chairs through informal contact, at an early stage when the chairs have not yet been approved, and the faculty search committees have not yet been constituted could have given the appearance of an intent to exercise undue influence in the selection process,” Viswanathan was quoted as saying in a letter. “DCF had no such intentions, and regrets that some of its actions may have been cause for such misunderstanding.”
Some faculty members like Catherine Liu, a media studies professor in UCI’s School of Humanities, were, however, not convinced by DCF’s line of argument, saying that UCI is a secular, public university and does not teach faith-based scholarship.
“I don’t know what this scholar/practitioner line is – but DCF is implying that only a Hindu can teach Hinduism. We are not a seminary. I don’t think they understand that and I don’t think the Dean has communicated to them the nature of the academic enterprise,” Liu was quoted as saying.
UCI is still reviewing the gifts, and no decisions have been made yet, said university spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon.