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On February 28th, President Schill sent a campus-wide email, sharing that he had “exciting news to share about the future of the University of Oregon.” Many speculated what it could be about, though most rightly assumed it was hinting at a large donation. The next day, as promised, it was revealed that Steve and Connie Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft and UO trustee respectively, gave around half a billion dollars to start the Ballmer Institute. The Institute will be located on the campus of former Concordia University, outside of Portland. It will be focused on child behavioral science, with the goal to provide new behavioral and mental health care for children in the state of Oregon through its research. While this project has been lauded as an amazing development, it’s important to consider the history of the Ballmers’ donations and interests, along with the dubious nature of such philanthropic efforts overall. The Oregon public school system has some of the lowest per-student spending and teacher wages in the entire country, but instead of enacting meaningful change to make the overall system better, the Institute will serve as a reminder of half-measures and performative actions that don’t enact any meaningful change. A society marred by wealth inequality will not be remedied by the rich deciding to dole out portions of their money, no matter how large or “significant” the gifts may seem.
One place where the Ballmers have continuously funneled their money is the organization Stand For Children (STF). While on the outside it appears to advocate for diversity and equity in public education, it is merely a vehicle to support increasing the power of charter schools and to undermine teacher unions. A former parent volunteer, writing for the Washington Post, explained how she witnessed the organization operating in a top-down manner, with volunteers expected to parrot questionable talking points to parents and teachers, while leadership worked to support and fund legislation that “…tied the release of much-needed school funding to the expansion of private schools, online learning, and other so-called ‘reforms’.”1 STF has also supported political campaigns, such as a 2016 Washington state election for Supreme Court Justice, where they spent $116,000 on Greg Zempel, running against Justice Barbara Madsen, who authored a decision that ruled charter schools unconstitutional.2
With this background in mind, it’s hard not to see what ulterior motives are present in the formation of the Institute, far beyond the mission of simply helping children and furthering research. The University of Oregon itself, though a public institution, has also been under a process of privatization over the last decade. A clear agenda then shapes itself: the mixing of private money and public resources to create a Frankenstein monster of billionaire ideals forced upon a populace who have little power and resources to fight for a system that will actually support the children of Oregon.
Strauss, Valerie. “Volunteer: Why I Stopped Helping Stand for Children (Update).” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 July 2011. ↩︎
Santos, Melissa. “Charter-School Backers Spending Big to Try to Unseat State Supreme Court Justice.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 28 July 2016, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/charter-school-pac-funds-opponent-of-justice-who-declared-schools-unscontitutional/. ↩︎