Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Allard: The Ethics of Irving

Accepting tainted money poses ethical questions.

Some know Martin Shkreli as the “pharma bro” responsible for gouging the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim, relied on by vulnerable populations — pregnant women, cancer patients, people living with AIDS — by 5,000 percent. Some know him as the man who received a seven-year sentence for securities fraud this March. Some know him as the owner of the sole existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

Martin Shkreli is all of these things. But before I knew about any of them, I knew him as the man who donated $1 million to my high school, Hunter College High School in New York City.

In 2015, the Hunter College High School alumni association’s website featured the headline “Martin Shkreli, from the Class of 2001, donates $1,000,000 to HCHS!” The day after the donation was announced, the hallways of Hunter High were filled with chatter and enthusiasm — not only was it the largest donation my school had ever received, but it was  one of the largest gifts ever made to a public, non-charter high school in New York. 

Hunter College High School’s student body includes an unusual mixture of first-generation immigrants and people whose parents and siblings attended the school before them. In some ways, Shkreli fits into this picture well. He grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His parents were immigrants and janitors. At Hunter, he was exposed to opportunities that might not have been available to him otherwise. The school is known for its incredibly high standardized test scores — some of the highest in the nation — and the unusually high percentage of students it sends to the Ivy League each year. It affords its students one of the best free educations in the country. 

When news of Shkreli’s unethical price-gouging and securities fraud broke, Hunter was rattled. Hunter may have been as deserving as any institution of Shkreli’s $1 million donation, but could they accept tainted money?

To make matters more complicated, Shkreli’s donation to Hunter was not an isolated incident. He also donated $15,000 to Community Solutions, a charity that helps the homeless. Community Solutions chose to return the donation to Shkreli, with spokesman Jake Maguire stating, “We serve people who depend on AIDS meds every day, and as an organization I don’t think we can keep this money.”

The ethics of accepting Shkreli’s money are complicated. Perhaps Community Solutions worried that it could not keep a clear conscience while holding onto money from Shkreli. Perhaps the organization feared that in accepting the donation, they would absolve Shkreli of some of his guilt or improve his reputation — although his reputation seems pretty far beyond repair at this point.

I can think of no better way to spend Shkreli’s money than by helping to right some of the wrongs he committed. When Community Solutions returned Shkreli’s money, they may have cleared their conscience, but they robbed the community they intend to serve. In the name of taking the moral high ground, they made a practical error. What Martin Shkreli did is done — using his profits to create positive impact is the only way I can think of to repair some of his damage.

Hunter College High School’s students and alumni became concerned with what to do with the Shkreli donation. Some suggested that it be used to fund seminars on bioethics. How the money was eventually used — or if it has been used at all — is unknown. All of the excitement around the donation faded in my last two years of high school. But I was reminded of the controversy recently when I heard Dartmouth students groaning about the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, named after Arther L. Irving and funded in part by the Irving Family, Irving Oil and the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation. Dartmouth College announced plans for the Irving Institute in 2016.  

Irving is currently the 253rd richest man in the world, having inherited his father’s oil business in 1992. In the eyes of environmental advocates, he has wreaked irreversible havoc on the environment. As of 2016, $113 million had been donated in his name to create an Institute right here at Dartmouth, at the end of Tuck Drive, to research the future of energy.

The press release announcing the Institute quoted College President Phil Hanlon as saying, “Meeting the energy demands of the future is one of the most complex and urgent challenges facing humankind. We need to provide abundant affordable energy to allow for continued economic growth across the globe, particularly in developing nations, so that billions can be lifted out of poverty.” In the same release, Ross Virginia, professor of environmental studies, defined the Institute’s focus as “not energy alone, it’s energy and how it connects to people, to society, to broad issues like climate change and environmental justice.”

Anger about the Irving Institute’s namesake is misplaced. If the Institute really does produce cutting-edge research about climate change and environmental justice, then it could do exactly the kind of work that those who criticize oil companies like Irving Oil should be advocating for.

Some may take issue with the Irving Institute not because its funding comes from an oil magnate, but because the Institute will bear Irving’s name, thereby  paying homage to a person and an organization that do not align with the Institute’s purported values and that continue to harm the environment. But whether or not Dartmouth accepts the donation won’t change whether Irving continues to drill for oil. Naming the building after Irving is a small price to pay for a $113 million donation that has the potential to produce important research for the future of the environment. If Dartmouth did not accept this donation, it is hard to imagine that it would go to any equally important cause. Energy equality, environmental justice and sustainability are some of the most important issues of our time, and accepting this donation enables members of the Dartmouth community to play a role in promoting them. 

To reject donations from figures like Irving and Shkreli is to cry over spilled milk. The money was made how it was made — now it ought to be used to do some good. Tainted money is best used to create positive change, whether by helping the homeless, supporting a public school or funding a research institute.