Better Apart: SLU Should Sever Its Ties to Rex Sinquefield


As a professor at SLU, I was deeply disturbed by revelations involving Rex Sinquefield in the recent Sentencing Memorandum issued by U.S. Attorney Reginald Harris and Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith for former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Sinquefield is a member of the SLU Board of Trustees and serves as co-chair of the school’s bicentennial capital campaign.

   The revelations concern the Better Together (BT) campaign, which sought to consolidate St. Louis City and County and was primarily funded by Sinquefield. As the sentencing memo reports, “Sinquefield was a major donor to Stenger’s 2018 re-election campaign, contributing approximately $700,000 through various of his own organizations and political action committees to Stenger’s political efforts.”

   What do the BT campaign, Stenger’s re-election, and Sinquefield’s money behind both have to do with one another?

   Under the BT plan, the re-elected Stenger would have become “Metro Mayor” through 2025 and been granted unprecedented authority to formulate a reorganization plan for the new government. According to Tony Messenger of the Post-Dispatch, “[N]early everybody in the political world in and around St. Louis knew that the then-county executive [Stenger] was under federal investigation for various ‘pay to play’ schemes. Better Together’s family … knew exactly who Stenger was. They pushed to elect him precisely because of who he was.’’

   The BT-Stenger-Sinquefield money connections do not end there. The sentencing memo also reports that in October 2018, Stenger directed St. Louis County to hire the husband of Sinquefield’s chief of staff and pay him an annual salary of $130,000. In a November 2018 meeting with his executive staff, Stenger explained why he made the hire (the person is referred to as “John Doe” in the sentencing memo):

   “John Doe is here for one reason and one reason only. John Doe is an insurance policy. His wife is working for Rex, it’s a good faith effort on my part, I’m saying, hey look at, I’m willing to hire John Doe at 130 Grand. She’s Rex’s assistant. Kind of sends a message to all of them [at BT] that I trust them. And they’ve done a lot to demonstrate that they trust me and they should. They’ve given me a lot of money, they’re almost up to like 700 Grand.”

   It strains credulity to think that Sinquefield was unaware that the spouse of his chief of staff was hired as part of a quid pro quo arrangement between Stenger and the Sinquefield-financed BT campaign. As a member of SLU’s board, Sinquefield’s links to Stenger’s criminal activities call into question the ethical standards of the board—the group responsible for protecting the university’s integrity and reputation.

   Sinquefield’s ethical breaches are not limited to his involvement in the Stenger affair. As previously revealed by Messenger, Sinquefield has a conflict of interest regarding his role as the major financial supporter of the effort to privatize the St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

   SLU’s relationship with Sinquefield is harming the university in other ways. Sinquefield recently pledged to donate $50 million to SLU (in ten annual installments). Unfortunately, the “gift” is rife with flagrant violations of well-established academic norms, such as the hiring by SLU of Sinquefield’s hand-picked ally Mike Podgursky—a member of the Board of Directors of Sinquefield’s Show-Me Institute—to direct a research center at the university. SLU also granted Sinquefield final approval for the disbursement of all funds from the donation, including the funding of individual research projects and faculty hiring. By failing to uphold academic norms, the SLU administration and board have allowed Sinquefield to purchase influence over research, thereby compromising the independence and integrity of academic research at SLU. Indeed, it is naïve to think that Sinquefield will not use SLU to masquerade research driven by his well-known political agenda as independent academic research.

   In light of Sinquefield’s well-known ethical breaches in local government and the violations of well-established academic norms in the Sinquefield “gift,” SLU stakeholders need to contemplate the following questions, which go the heart of the university’s identity:

With Sinquefield as a board member, how can SLU credibly encourage its students to act ethically?

Why should the St. Louis community not conclude that SLU is willing to compromise its ethical standards and the independence of its academic research in exchange for Sinquefield’s money?

As society is realizing the pernicious influence of financial elites with political agendas (e.g., Charles Koch) on our institutions of higher education, why is SLU courting negative publicity by accepting a tainted donation from Sinquefield?

   We have reached a point where Sinquefield’s roles as a board member and donor are doing serious harm to SLU’s institutional integrity. In our current second Gilded Age, instead of mimicking the worst aspects of society by playing ball with a billionaire who has a demonstrated lack of ethics in the community, SLU should take a principled stand and sever its ties to Rex Sinquefield. By removing Sinquefield from the board and not accepting his tainted donation, SLU can act in accord with its mission and send a powerful message that its ethical and academic integrity are no longer for sale.