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Complexity and simplicity

Recently, Grinnell’s Scarlet and Black published two articles questioning whether or not the College should accept donations from local businessman Pete Brownell and his wife [1] because Pete currently serves as president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that I and most Grinnellians find highly troubling. Grinnell’s alternative paper, the B&S also printed an even more caustic followup to the first S&B article.

I’ve found myself very frustrated by the articles and not just because they attack someone I consider a friend [2]. In part, I wrestle with the question of how I can be friends with Pete while disagreeing with the extreme positions the NRA takes and finding many of them immoral. But I find also find myself concerned about the approach and perspective taken in the articles and by the alumni who are asking Grinnell to (a) stop taking money from Pete, (b) return any money we’ve received from him, and (c) add a morals clause to our philanthropy policy.

Pete doesn’t need me to defend him. But I need to think through things And when I’m trying to think through things, I find that writing (or planning to write) helps. As importantly, I think others need to know that things aren’t as simple as they are presented in the articles.

When I started to write this piece, my initial inclination was to say to myself

Things are complex. I’ll need to think through my positions on guns in America. I should reflect on Pete’s multiple roles - he’s a citizen of our town, a businessman, and a philanthropist in addition to being president of the NRA. And the choice of how an institution accepts gifts is complex.

But as I found myself putting things together, I realized that some things are simple.

Through not just their philanthropy, but also their time and efforts, Pete and Partner make an incredibly positive difference in our town.

The primary claims I see in the S&B articles are reductionist enough to be unworthy of a Grinnellian [3]. Let’s see … I think it comes down to the following. The NRA is bad. Hence the president must be bad. We might not accept money from bad organizations (big tobacco) so we should not accept money from this bad person [4].

But two simple claims should not suffice. Let’s consider some of the issues at play. America’s gun culture and the NRA are complex and difficult issues which I don’t feel able to cover here. So I’ll just note that America’s fascination with guns is a huge problem, not least in that easy access to guns leads to significantly more deaths. But I accept that guns will continue to exist, and, with appropriate restrictions, should be in the hands of individuals. But, the more that I think about it, other than agreeing that the NRA promotes policies I consider immoral, I’m not sure that it’s worth writing more about guns or the NRA.

So let’s turn to Pete and Partner as individuals and members of our community. In what I’ve seen in our community before becoming friends with them and even more in what I’ve found when talking to them in person, Pete and Partner are strongly invested in the town of Grinnell and in making it a better place. I’ll start with an easy and obvious example: In a time in which most wealthy people segregate their children from the masses by sending them to elite private schools, Pete and Partner have kept their kids in the Grinnell school system and worked to make it better. I contrast that approach with that of some individual who, when they find the public school insufficient, work to bring private schools in town to compete with the public schools, rather than to make the public schools better.

One of the ways you make our schools better is with money. And so the Brownells donate to education. Some of those donations go to the school district and some, like Project Ignite, go to the College. You might say to yourself Oh, they just do that for their own kids. But think about it. They can certainly afford individual enrichment activities of scope and quality far beyond these projects. At a time in which there’s a wide and growing gap in the enrichment opportunities available the wealthy and the rest, or between the urban and the rural, it is incredibly important to have opportunities like Project Ignite available to the broader community.

I’ve also sat on the School Improvement Advisory Committee with Partner and talked more broadly about education in the town of Grinnell. While she’s clearly concerned about her kids and other high-achieving students, most of the efforts I see emphasize the general state of our schools and the kids who need broader support.

The S&B article mentions that the Brownells donate a lot to the arts in Iowa. I don’t find that surprising. I know that they enjoy the arts; we’ve been to enough concerts together that I can easily attest to that. And, whether or not we like it [5], our country is currently in the state that the arts will not flourish without private support.

I don’t know everywhere else Pete and Partner donate their money [6,8]. There’s no need for me to. But I know that they were strong supporters of after-school programs in our community and beyond. I know that I regularly hear from non-profits in town that when they needed a little bit extra behind the scenes, they knew that they could turn to the Brownells. That’s really important to our town. And it’s not whitewashing; if it were, I think it would be a lot easier to know where they donate.

But the question isn’t so much philanthropy in town, it’s philanthropy and involvement at Grinnell. Once again, there are a variety of issues involved. From my reading of the materials [9], the primary concerns are that by donating to Grinnell, Pete helps whitewash the NRA and gains access to Grinnell faculty. The alumni write Our concern has nothing to do with the Second Amendment and everything to do with Pete Brownell, the new national president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), using strategic donations to normalize the NRA’s agenda [10]. From what I’ve seen, the things at the College that the Brownells support say nothing about the NRA; I’m not even sure I remember seeing the Brownell’s names on the Project Ignite advertisements.

What about access to faculty? Here’s the thing. Pete and Partner live in town. Their kids go to the public schools. Amazingly, they know a lot of faculty. Pete doesn’t need a relationship with the College to find a group of faculty to take shooting. With or without the donation, we could see articles that describe faculty as being giddy after shooting guns [11].

Even if Pete were not involved in the NRA in any way, he would likely be looking for ways to offset anti-gun sentiment at Grinnell. Why? I can think of at least two reasons, one practical and one philosophical. As a businessman whose business is clearly attacked by some students and alums [14], it is worthwhile to build up an understanding of what he sells and why he sells it. But Pete is also someone who thinks positively about guns. I can see him wanting to share his positive thoughts with others. I will add that as members of a community in which guns play a regular role, from hunting to sports [15], folks on campus should probably try to better understand pro-gun sentiments.

As the articles note, Pete does more than donate to campus. For example, he has served as a judge and advisor in various campus events related to innovation and entrepreneurship, such as Pioneer Weekend. Does he ask to judge, or treat it as a privilege earned by donating to Grinnell? I don’t think so. People at the College invite Pete to participate because he knows a lot about these issues. Our students are fortunate to have him as a resource.

One of the questions that our alums raise is whether you can separate Pete as an individual, from Brownells the corporation, from his role in the NRA and, more generally, whether you can separate individuals from their organizations. They certainly have trouble doing so, since they claim that He’s a major donor to the NRA, at the $500,000 plus level [16], even though it’s clear that Brownells, the corporation, rather than Pete, the individual, is responsible for the donation [17,18].

But can you separate an individual from their company or their activities? I think you can, or should be able to. I know Pete as an individual, and I know that he makes different decisions depending on whether he is in acting as his role as community member, businessman, and NRA president. There is complexity here; I’m a pragmatist enough to accept that we need to make compromises and that sometimes we make decisions that we do not completely agree with to achieve what we consider a more positive goal. I also accept that different people make different tradeoffs. I know from the occasional conversation we have on these issues that Pete is thoughtful about gun issues.

Do I wish that Pete was using his bully pulpit as president of the NRA to be making public statements about problems with gun violence, needs for limits on gun ownership, and the need for our president to grow some character? In some ways, yes. But I also know that were he to do any of that, he would undermine his abilities to make other changes. Such statements might also have a significantly negative effect on Brownells, the company. I do not envy him the balances he has to make in what he says and what he does.

And that brings us to the question of whether we should have a morals clause in our gift policy. As I read the materials, I’ll admit that I’m not sure I quite understand what is being requested. I had thought that the goal was not to accept donations from people who are engaged in inappropriate business [19]. But I see that the letter to Kington begins We are writing to express our concern that the Grinnell Gift Acceptance Policy fails to address the issue of gifts that do not align with the College’s stated values, especially those related to social justice. I struggle to understand how a gift toward Project Ignite fails to align with the College’s stated values.

I will admit that I am unsure of how we look at these kinds of alignment once we start looking at the broader business practices or implicit intent. I don’t see a bright line. For example, it’s pretty clear that some practices of the finance industry have heightened inequality in the US. Does that mean that we should not accept donations from alumni in those industries? Microsoft has been convicted of monopolistic practices. Should we not accept donations from alumni who are at Microsoft or the matching funds that Microsoft provides? It appears that Facebook’s business practices may have allowed others to undermine American democracy. What does that mean about donations from Facebook? Even choosing an example that our alums cite, that of concealed carry. Do I support unlimited concealed carry? Certainly not. Do I think that people who support concealed carry are immoral or even that concealed carry policies conflict with the College’s values? Not really. Making a bright line policy that all involved parties could agree upon both in wording and interpretation will be difficult. I also wonder at what level such a policy would trigger. It’s likely not worth the resources to consider the ethics associated with a $100 gift or a $1000 gift.

Is it, nonetheless, worthwhile to consider such a policy? Certainly. We don’t avoid things just because they are complex. However, Grinnell is currently searching for a new VP for Development [20] and, even though we have some awesome interim folks in place, it would be inappropriate to make that kind of policy change at this time. I would argue that it would be good to fully consider such a policy before the capital campaign gets into full swing. Nonetheless, we must first wait until the new VP can participate. To make matters more difficult, the other people who might consider such issues are probably also deeply involved in the question of divestment from big energy. I’m comfortable with that consideration being the current priority.

We’ve reached the end [21]. What have I figured out? Things simple and complex. Here’s a simple conclusion: Pete’s donations to Grinnell align with the College’s stated and unstated values. There should be no question about that. Here’s another simple conclusion: Reductionist approaches that over-simplify things fail to appropriately reflect the complexity of the world [22].

[1] Yes, his wife has her own identity. Yes, I know her name. However, given the ways in which I’ve seen some Grinnellians treat people with whom they disagree, I don’t think it’s responsible to include her name here. As is the case when I’m referring to my children in these essays, I’ll use an alternate name for her. In this case, I’ll use Partner.

[2] While I am friends with Pete and his family, he has never taken me shooting. And we are casual friends; we see each other in social settings perhaps once a month or so.

[3] I admit that some of my responses are equally reductionist.

[4] Upon rereading the materials, I see that the argument is a bit more subtle. It’s closer to The NRA is bad. The president of the NRA is inseparable from the organization. Just as we would not accept money from big tobacco, we should not accept money from the NRA. And accepting money from Pete Brownell is accepting money from the NRA. Nonetheless, I’m leaving my not-quite-correct characterization in.

[5] I don’t.

[6] Well, the article does suggest that they donate to the NRA. That also doesn’t surprise me. If your business is selling guns and related items, you want to be able to tell your customer base that you actively support an organization that is important to them. And, even though I think that most gun owners don’t have positions nearly as extreme as the NRA’s, it does seem that most gun owners support the NRA because they fear an extreme opposition that considers any private gun ownership inappropriate [7].

[7] I am not claiming that the opposition wants to eliminate gun ownership, even though I know that some advocate for that position. Rather, I am trying to explain why someone who might oppose some NRA positions still belongs. And, whether this opposition is real or mythical, people have these concerns.

[8] Someone who read this article reminded me that Brownells (the company and probably the individuals) made significant donations to the new Emergency Room.

[9] The materials are the two S&B articles and the letters to the editor printed in the most recent issue of the S&B.


[11] I’m pretty sure that giddy is journalistic license. The Grinnell Faculty are a serious bunch. But I also know that the few times I’ve shot guns at targets, I’ve found it an enjoyable experience [12]. I prefer bow and arrow, but the sense that you are working with a machine to propel something to a position you choose, and the sense that you can and do improve with practice, are powerful ones.

[12] I don’t think I’ve touched a gun since spending a week with my kids at summer camp about five years ago.

[14] I’ve seen posters. They are clearly only part of the expression of concern among our community.

[15] There are shooting teams in town for middle-school and high-school students. That should not be surprising. There are even shooting sports in the Olympics.


[17] When I look at the benefits associated with high-level corporate donation to the NRA, I’d say that it’s a no brainer for Brownells to be donating at that level, even just for the advertising and outreach opportunities to their client base.

[18] It’s probably not relevant here, but there are some who worry that manufacturer donations to the NRA, more than the individual gun owners who are members, shape NRA directions and policy. See, for example,

[19] E.g., big tobacco.

[20] I’m not sure what the actual title is. VP for Development is close enough.

[21] Or at least I’ve reached the end. I assume most of my readers have given up before now.

[22] Hmmm … Does that second conclusion undermine itself?

Version 1.0 of 2017-10-28.