Do Corporate Donors Threaten Academic Freedom?

Inside Higher Ed has published another article, “Banking on the Curriculum,” denouncing the influence of corporate money in academia. The article raises the specter that America’s universities are accepting corporate gifts with ideological strings attached, thereby corrupting their intellectual integrity and selling the soul of academic freedom.

The article examines the recent gifts of BB&T (a financial services company) and Koch Industries. Over the course of the last decade or so, BB&T’s charitable foundation has funded 63 university and college programs that examine the moral foundations of capitalism and the Charles M. Koch Foundation has funded scores of academic programs that conduct research analyzing the relationship between free societies and human flourishing.

Big Donors on the Left

This recurrent focus on corporate, libertarian and conservative donations to universities is a bit ironic. After all, consider the dominance of the left over the campuses and the enormous amount of money poured into academic coffers by the ideological left without attracting the sort of protests provoked by donations from the corporate world and the right.

Remember the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington? That highly ideological effort was funded by labor unions and donors of the left. And how about the millions of dollars donated to universities by the Ford Foundation “diversity” programs, Joan Kroc’s gift of $200 million to fund “peace” and “social justice” programs at two universities and Jane Fonda’s $12.5 million to found a Harvard center on gender education, the purpose of which was to train (politically indoctrinate) future teachers on issues of “gender, race and class.”

Expanding the Marketplace of Ideas

It is no secret that the modern American college has great trouble allowing conservative and libertarian voices to be heard on campus. Objections to programs on the moral foundations of free enterprise and capitalism are efforts to marginalize programs and faculty who want to expand the marketplace of ideas on America’s college campuses.

Those opposing these programs hope to cow administrators from accepting similar donations in the future; to rally liberal faculty to actively oppose these programs; and most of all, to perpetuate the ideological monopoly currently held by the Left on America’s college campuses. In other words, it’s all about power and ideology.

According to the critics of this kind of funding, the great sin of BB&T and the Koch Foundation is to have “bought” their way into a small minority of American universities and to have violated academic freedom and faculty governance. These charges are entirely specious, and those who make them do not understand what academic freedom is. This story is about academic freedom but not in the way that it’s being presented.

The standard dictionary definition of academic freedom is the “freedom to teach or learn without interference.”The principle applies to individual faculty members and their right to teach ideas that might be unpopular. The BB&T and Koch academic programs have done nothing to interfere with the freedom of anyone to teach or learn what they want. At every university that has accepted BB&T or Koch money, not a single faculty member’s academic freedom has been denied or compromised in any way. I publicly challenge the critics of these donations to name one faculty member anywhere in America whose academic freedom has been threatened by these grants.

The Anti-Capitalist Bias on Campus

The truth is that the various BB&T- or Koch-funded university programs have actually increased rather than diminished the sphere of academic freedom. Their explicit goal is to expand the marketplace of ideas on college campuses so that students can be exposed to a broader range of ideas. Anyone who has ever attended an American university knows there is a rabid anti-capitalist bias on our campuses. Until recently, students were rarely exposed to the ideas of the great philosophic proponents of capitalism, including Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand. Thanks to the BB&T and Koch programs, all that has changed.

Ask any student if they think a greater diversity of ideas on campus is a good thing or not. The question answers itself. Truth be told, there is much greater intellectual diversity in these programs than in most university courses. It’s clear from student feedback that young people appreciate the exposure to ideas that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to study. Students are the clear winners: they now have more courses and a wider range of perspectives from which to choose.

Why the Fuss?

As a bonus, the BB&T and Koch grants have also encouraged faculty to generate new and exciting research that is expanding the boundaries of knowledge. And there’s more: in every instance, BB&T and Koch have insisted that the academic programs they fund meet the highest academic standards, that they promote a diversity of viewpoints, and that students make their own informed judgments. The BB&T- and Koch-sponsored programs have added real academic value to American higher education, and they should be multiplied, expanded, and applauded rather than condemned.

Why, then, all the fuss over the BB&T and Koch grants?

There is an important story here, but it’s not the one presented by Inside Higher Ed and the mainstream media. The real untold story is that some college professors want to limit intellectual diversity, deny competition in the realm of ideas, and prohibit students from learning certain ideas. They do this through the bogus claim of their alleged right to “faculty governance” over academic standards. But faculty governance does not and should not mean the right of campus Thought Police to determine what is or is not taught in someone else’s class. Faculty governance is used as a cover to reinforce a monolithic and homogenous ideology on our college campuses.

The only true victims of this academic witch-hunt are those institutions and associated faculty that have accepted BB&T and Koch funding. Will new professors hired with a Koch grant now feel at full liberty to express their views in faculty meetings now that they have been “outed” as the recipient of “tainted” funding? Will they not sit in fear for the next five years worried that their tenure application will be denied because of the ideological bias that has been unleashed against the Koch Foundation and those it supports? Will those academic units that have received BB&T funding come under irregular scrutiny and unequal treatment as they seek to raise funds to increase educational opportunities for their students?

‘Outside’ Money Isn’t New

The simple truth is this: America’s universities have always accepted “outside” money, both private and public. Without it, our universities would die of intellectual starvation. “Outside” money—including corporate funding—keeps America’s campuses alive with fresh, new ideas.In my experience, students crave more than the one-sided perspective they receive in many of their college courses. We should all be thankful to BB&T and the Koch Foundation for helping America’s colleges expand their curricula, for encouraging intellectual diversity, and for promoting a marketplace of ideas.

We at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism are proud of our association with BB&T and the Koch Foundation, and, more importantly, we will not be intimidated or silenced.

2 thoughts on “Do Corporate Donors Threaten Academic Freedom?”

  1. Do Corporate Donors Threaten Academic Freedom?

    Yes, because academic freedom is to freedom as social justice is to justice. (That is an analogy, children, something your elders banned from the SAT because it was too hard).

    Social justice means racism and violence (“I need some muscle”).

    Academic freedom means duckspeaking goodthink, shutting up crimethink.

    (Only Newspeak is appropriate for these definitions: wikipedia.org List of Newspeak words)

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