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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Stakeholders respond to STEM building donor story

By Erasmus Baxter

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, The Western Front reported Western is planning on naming a new STEM building after business partners who were linked to a 2004 felony tax evasion case.

Administrators said they were aware of the case — which saw Fred Kaiser and Grace Borsari’s partner corporations plead guilty and pay $36 million to the government — but it was 15 years in the past and the two deserved recognition for their contributions to Western during and since, particularly the $10 million comprising half the new building’s funding.

Since then, we’ve contacted over 20 elected officials, students and professors seeking their perspectives on the news.

Reactions were mixed. Some echoed the university’s argument about the case’s age, others voiced discomfort about honoring the pair, most were simply unaware of or didn’t have strong feelings on the matter.

Student senator response

College of Science and Engineering student Sen. Kris Aguayo said he’s heard from around 20 constituents with “pretty homogenous” responses. Like him, they are glad limited space issues are being addressed, but are opposed to naming the new building after Kaiser and Borsari.

Aguayo cited concerns about the college growing without addressing dysfunctions that marginalize non-traditional science students.

“I often question if it’s better to fix the current issues and then grow, or to grow and fix issues later,” he wrote in an email. “Unfortunately this situation becomes worse as the only way to gain relevance and get more funding is to get donations like these.”

He said he can see the potential of the new building to help Western gain relevance and be able to support students of various backgrounds and identities — efforts which are hobbled by a lack of funding — but naming the building after Kaiser and Borsari furthers what he termed “the ‘Western-Way’ of being apologetic towards oppressors.”

Aguayo said he plans to advocate for the new building to instead be named after local indigenous culture or Western’s legacy as a teaching college.

Faculty response

Most professors in departments that would use the new building said they hadn’t heard anything about the article and the case, or didn’t know enough to have an opinion.

“I don’t think a lot of faculty check [the Front],” Filip Jagodzinski, associate computer science professor, said.

Acting electrical engineering director Andy Klein said he checks on the Front while he gets lunch, but hadn’t heard anything about the article or the tax evasion yet.

Computer science professor Michael Meehan said he hadn’t heard much about the case, but once it was described to him said it put a bit of a tarnish on the new building.

“I think the question is, is there any way Western wouldn’t take the money?” he said.

Though considering it was more than 15 years ago, “Maybe the smell dissipated,” he said.

Electrical engineering instructor Steve Sandelin echoed this.

“I think there are very few of us who don’t have mistakes in our past,” he said.

Jagodzinski said commenting was tricky.

“If the building comes here, thousands of students will benefit,” he said. “… And that’s not saying anything about who’s paying for it.”

Student response

Second-year electrical engineering majors Rose Solway and Emilia Mediavilla were studying in the Ross Engineering Technology Building. They said they hadn’t heard anything except that a new building might happen.

“It’s far enough out that it won’t affect our grade at all,” Solway said.

Third-year computer science majors Gabriel Huffman and Gemma Gendreau, sitting outside the department, said they didn’t care because a “name’s a name.” Though Gendreau said she wished Karen W. Morse Hall was renamed as the “Chemistry Building” to resolve confusing labeling.

Second-year electrical engineering student Jonah Duncan said he didn’t know about the case but tax evasion was terrible, adding an expletive, and was curious about learning more.

Standing a hallway over from the Alpha Technologies Electrical Engineering Laboratory, he said he recognized Kaiser’s Alpha Technologies because they’d come to lecture one of his classes during his first quarter at Western.

Second-year electrical engineering student Ethan Dolph noted that many companies involved in power sources are problematic due to the sketchy nature of supply chains for lithium used in many batteries.

Duncan said he didn’t understand why buildings were even named after people when their actions could tarnish their reputation in just one day, but Dolph said he thought taking the money meant Western should keep the name.

“If they take away the name, they’re being dishonest about where the money came from,” he said.

Legislative response

Local legislators and the chairs of the state house and senate higher education committees declined interviews through spokespeople, citing the current busyness of the legislative calendar and a lack of information.

A spokesperson for higher education committee chair Sen. Emily Randall shared a statement commending the Front’s investigative journalism and thanking “the students who are working hard to make their university the best it can be,” but said she wasn’t in a position to comment on the details of the situation.

A spokesperson for Sen. Liz Lovelett, who represents Western’s district, shared a similar statement and said she will be paying attention as the topic develops.

1 COMMENT

  1. Good watchdogging! It is not a “mistake” to engage in corrupt practices; it is knowingly immoral and unacceptible. This is the state of crony capitalism, that our public sector has to kneel and preen the wealthy 1% for pennies. I wonder, would they pay for a college of liberal arts, like philosophy and history, or civil engagement?

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