The name “Diana Davis Spencer” is a prominent one on campus—the cafe in the science center bears her name, as does the recently opened “Diana Davis Discovery Center Dedicated to Free Speech and Innovation.” This (wordy) name is to honor Ms. Spencer, who is an alumna from the class of 1960, Diana Davis Spencer graduated Wheaton with a degree in English. She is a lifetime member on Wheaton’s board of trustees, and donated $10 million dollars to fund renovations to the science center. The Wheaton Wire reached out via email to Ms. Spencer regarding her philanthropic work, and to discuss the Foundation’s values of free speech and innovation.
We asked Ms. Spencer about her time at Wheaton and how it helped shape her career and philanthropic work.
She told us; “In many ways… true education and thoughtful philanthropy share a common goal: problem-solving… Particularly when I was a student, Wheaton embraced the idea of a liberal arts education, in the classical sense. When done right, liberal arts colleges expose students to ideas and give them the tools to develop creative solutions. That’s what thoughtful philanthropy can do also. Beyond problem-solving, some lessons I learned at Wheaton that are still relevant today include confidence, the power of relationships, and respect for our past. Education is about taking risks, failing, and growing from your mistakes.”
Since graduating Mrs. Spencer has worked as “an activist, journalist, and leader in the philanthropic community.” She is now the President and Chairman of the Foundation which evolved out of Foundations established in the names of each of her parents. The goals of the Foundation are drawn from a speech given by her father entitled Our Sacred Honor, and include “promoting national security, entrepreneurship, self-reliance, free enterprise, and to enhance quality of life by supporting the arts, education, global understanding, health advancements, and preservation of the environment.”
However, while the Foundation advocates for freedom and global understanding, it has come under fire from progressive watchdog Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). The Foundation’s 2020 tax filings, obtained by CMD, show the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s net assets at $1.5 billion, and reported that the Foundation had donated $3.7 million dollars to thirteen different Foundations which CMD classifies as voter suppression organizations. The recipient of the largest portion of these funds was the Lawyers Democracy Fund, whose main issues are “voter identification, election integrity, mandatory voting and automatic registration.” In other words, they support stricter voter identification laws and oppose mail in ballots, policies which make voting less accessible to many. The Eagle Forum Educational and Legal Defense Fund also received a significant grant from the Foundation for an “election integrity project,” but has received criticism for filing an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to prevent Pennsylvania from certifying their 2020 election results.
These grants distributed by the Foundation seem hypocritical to their stated missions supporting free speech, and when we spoke to her over email, we asked Mrs. Spencer about the importance of free speech and the dedication to it of her building. Mrs. Spencer said “We chose to dedicate this building to free speech and innovation because they are the bedrock of our democracy and defining characteristics of the American ideal.”
However many feel her work does not support this, with her continued funding of controversial Foundations coming into question.
The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation was recently mentioned in an article in The Guardian for their role in funding an organization which doxxed pro-Palestine Harvard students.
Amid the protests surrounding the war in Gaza, a group of Harvard students wrote a letter stating they held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” In retaliation the Accuracy in Media Foundation (AIM) paid for a truck billboard to drive through the campus with the names and faces of students who had signed the statement, which quickly led to the personal information of these students being posted to at least four different websites, according to the Harvard Crimson. The article published by The Guardian on October 16th criticized Mrs. Spencer in connection to this event, citing Informing America Foundation (IAF) as the largest donor to AIM, and in turn citing the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation as the single largest donor to IAF, and Mrs. Spencer as a longstanding board member for IAF.
This removal from Mrs. Spencer’s original Foundation and personal philanthropic work creates questions over whether Mrs. Spencer and the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation support the message being sent with these billboards, but does not necessarily protect them from criticism. We asked Mrs. Spencer about challenges of philanthropy and deciding which organizations to fund, to which she said; “the greatest challenge is assuring we have partners who understand our mission, honor our donor intent and who will preserve our legacy.” She went on to say; “The solution is having a strong team dedicated to researching our potential partners and selecting the right candidates for our support. That includes looking at our partners’ financial stewardship and accountability, mission and shared values, and entrepreneurial drive. It also means understanding people.”
Diana Davis Spencer has long spearheaded the Foundation, but in recent years her daughter, Abbey Moffat has stepped up into an executive role as the Foundation’s CEO. Speaking to the legacy and the future of the Foundation, Mrs. Spencer told us “Well, to me, it means being a good steward of the Foundation’s money. We have never seen this money as ours. Instead, we have been privileged with the charge of caring for it and using it constructively to better society. My name is on the Foundation’s door but this mission started with my father and mother and I have every hope it will continue for generations to come. That means making strong, durable and mutually beneficial partnerships; and advancing the causes that matter most to us.”
The full interview is recorded below:
Can you talk about your time at Wheaton and how it shaped your career and philanthropic work?
In many ways, education and philanthropy, at least true education and thoughtful philanthropy, share a common goal: problem-solving.
The skills that define success are not always found in textbooks. College is a time to acquire interpersonal skills, a solutions-driven mindset, and the importance of the free exchange of ideas.
Particularly when I was a student, Wheaton embraced the idea of a liberal arts education, in the classical sense. These classical ideas of exploration — Socrates challenged students to question their own ideas and come up with something better — are the bedrock of personal responsibility and growth. When done right, liberal arts colleges expose students to ideas and give them the tools to develop creative solutions. That’s what thoughtful philanthropy can do also.
Beyond problem-solving, some lessons I learned at Wheaton that are still relevant today include confidence, the power of relationships, and respect for our past.
Education is about taking risks, failing, and growing from your mistakes. As a sophomore, I took a risk and entered Professor Curtis Dahl’s Henry James essay contest. And I won! Winning the prize gave me a sense of purpose and more reliance on my own abilities; it made me a stronger student in all my classes.
I can’t overstate the value of friendship. We learned as much or more from each other as from the classes. Exposure to people sparked ideas. And, I see that same innovation through collective thought at the board table today. Our best philanthropic partners ignite new ways of thinking and develop long-term friendships with us in the process.
The study of American history impacted me more than I can describe. Every year, I see how much more relevant it is to modern society. The very creation of this country depended not only on risk takers — entrepreneurs, inventors, and scholars — but also on the free exchange of ideas and growth through debate. Understanding our history — preserving it and learning from it — is critical to our society’s success and a key pillar of our foundation’s philanthropic mission.
Your foundation is based on the principles of your father’s speech, “Our Sacred Honor,” in which he discusses the idea that empires only last 200 years, and that America is 200 years old, potentially reaching the end of its time as an empire. can you speak on what you think is happening in America that is leading to the “end of our empire?”
Yes, in many ways the essence of my father’s speech is a warning, but it’s also a message of hope. It’s a reminder that the future of “the great experiment” — the founding and unprecedented success of the American democracy — depends on us. My father warned of deterioration of values and the common fabric of the American way of life, but foremost, he reminded his audience that we have the power as individuals to change the course of history. Most empires only last two hundred years, but if one studies our founding and our history, it’s very clear: we are not most empires.
That gives me hope. I am excited that young people want to make a difference and care about the future of our country. We need that. That’s one of the reasons we funded initiatives at Wheaton to promote social entrepreneurship. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t heed my father’s warning and remember his charge.
That’s why we devote a lot of our philanthropic work to the advancement of America’s founding values, the preservation of the ideals contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the enhancement of the American dream and the promise our founders saw when we were still many years away from being the nation we have become.
People reading my father’s speech today — or indeed pondering the future of “the empire” — should take this message: we control the fate of America’s original promise. Individually and collectively.
On the building you donated to Wheaton it says “Diana Davis Spencer Center for Free Speech and Innovation.” What makes those two values so important for you?
We chose to dedicate this building to free speech and innovation because they are the foundations of free society and essential aspects of a true liberal arts education.
Education and freedom are intrinsically linked. You cannot have one without the other and earnest pursuit of either will create both. We chose to dedicate this building to free speech and innovation because they are the bedrock of our democracy and defining characteristics of the American ideal.
Throughout history, great minds like Galileo, Martin Luther, and Charles Darwin have had to free themselves of conventional wisdom in pursuit of truth. Their impacts would not be felt today had they not also had the bravery to speak out and be heard, often against a rising tide of criticism.
Our nation’s founders — inventors, intellectuals, and orators — embodied that same sense of entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking, a value we hope Wheaton instills in its graduates.
Our forefathers understood the value freedom has to education and the role education plays in building a nation. For one example, Frederick Douglas fought for and found freedom, largely in part because of his education. He went on to be a successful entrepreneur, author, and educator who valued the liberal arts and understood the power of hard work.
If innovation is the byproduct of exploration, exploration is where freedom and education meet. Practical problem-solving, free inquiry, and trial and error are essential components of invention and essential aspects of a classical liberal arts education.
What are some other organizations you work with that are important to you in terms of your philanthropic work?
We have a lot of great partners in the work we do. I would say, first and foremost, our priority is to make a difference. What does that mean?
It’s about choosing partners that share our values. Our focus areas are:
· Founding Values;
· Public Policy; and
· National Security.
In many ways, the first of those — Founding Values — encompasses the rest. We prioritize supporting those projects and programs that support the nation’s founders’ view of what this country is and can be: free speech, independent inquiry, innovation, traditional values, secure borders and the rule of law.
More recently, we have also prioritized funding in the areas of homelessness, mental illness, or addiction. We often emphasize the importance of individual responsibility, and our commitment to helping those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and homelessness reflects our core belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every person and to finding creative solutions to society’s most critical issues.
Can you speak on the future and legacy of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation?
Well, to me, it means being a good steward of the Foundation’s money. We have never seen this money as ours. Instead, we have been privileged with the charge of caring for it and using it constructively to better society.
My name is on the Foundation’s door but this mission started with my father and mother and I have every hope it will continue for generations to come. That means making strong, durable and mutually beneficial partnerships; and advancing the causes that matter most to us.
Can you speak on the challenges of philanthropy and deciding which organizations to fund?
The greatest challenge is assuring we have partners who understand our mission, honor our donor intent and who will preserve our legacy. As you can imagine, we have hundreds of requests for gifts each year and to be good stewards of our funds, even if every nonprofit who approaches us is worthy of support, we can only fulfill some requests. That’s the challenge.
The solution is having a strong team dedicated to researching our potential partners and selecting the right candidates for our support. That includes looking at our partners’ financial stewardship and accountability, mission and shared values, and entrepreneurial drive. It also means understanding people. Our best partnerships are with those organizations who communicate with us, make us true partners in the process and treat our relationship as collaborative.