$200 Million Gift Triggers Backlash at NYU

28 March 2006 (All day)

When New York University (NYU) officials announced last week the creation of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, it was widely seen as a major coup. The new Ph.D.-granting research institute, devoted to the art, archaeology, history, literature, and geography of ancient societies, was made possible by a private gift of $200 million in cash and real estate, one of the largest donations the university has ever landed. Yet some NYU faculty, along with outside archaeologists, are aghast that the school accepted the money. One leading NYU archaeologist has already resigned from the university's existing ancient studies center to protest the decision.

The fracas stems from the source of the new institute's funds: The Leon Levy Foundation, named after the late Wall Street investor and philanthropist. Levy and his widow Shelby White, the foundation's trustee, have for years been at the center of controversies surrounding their antiquities collection, which some archaeologists believe includes objects that had been looted and illicitly traded. Indeed, several institutions, including Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, have adopted explicit policies against accepting funds from the foundation. "I wouldn't touch a gift from Shelby White with a barge pole," says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

But other scholars argue that the Levy Foundation has been a positive force, spending millions for archaeological digs (Science, 2 July 1999, p. 36). The foundation also funds a program based at Harvard University that supports the publication of archaeological findings. "The foundation has done a power of good," says Baruch Halpern, an expert in ancient history at Pennsylvania State University in State College. And Christopher Ratté, a classical archaeologist at NYU, whose publications have received Levy-White support, says that "it is very difficult to argue with this kind of generosity."

White herself takes strong issue with the criticisms leveled by some archaeologists. "We have always collected in good faith, and we have always exhibited our collection publicly," she told Science, referring to herself and her late husband. White adds that the items in the collection were not purchased in "obscure places" but at public auctions and from leading dealers. "If it turns out that there are objects that I should not have bought, then I will deal with them."

Some NYU faculty began questioning the wisdom of accepting the donation in January, when the advisory committee of NYU's existing Center for Ancient Studies was asked to review the proposed Levy donation. "We wanted to be sure that NYU administrators were aware of concerns in the archaeological community about the problem of safeguarding cultural property," says Laura Slatkin, an NYU classicist and advisory committee member. Still, center director Matthew Santirocco says there was a "majority consensus" in favor of accepting the donation among committee members. The funds are a "truly transformative gift," he says, that will "lead to a more holistic understanding of the ancient world."

Those benefits weren't enough to sway archaeologist Randall White. In a letter delivered to Santirocco last Friday, White resigned his membership in the school's ancient studies center, arguing that accepting money from the Levy Foundation could have negative consequences for NYU scholars. "The gift will promote suspicion that objects would be ripped from their archaeological context by looters," he says.

Most opponents of the donation assume, however, that the institute will go ahead. Says NYU archaeologist and center member Rita Wright: "It remains to be seen whether this donation, and the institute it will create, will be in the best interests of research into ancient cultures."

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