When Donors Pick The Courses

An interesting news item caught my eye last week. The BB&T Charitable Foundation has made a million-dollar donation to Marshall University’s Lewis College of Business. The donation comes with a string attached: Marshall must teach Ayn Rand’s classic tribute to capitalism, Atlas Shrugged, as part of the curriculum. The BB&T Foundation has made numerous grants to other institutions dealing with capitalism and economics. John Allison, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, expressed the logic behind these grants when he announced a $2 million grant to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University last summer. “We believe there needs to be a deeper understanding of the morality of capitalism and its causal relationship to economic well-being,” he declared. “This contribution will encourage a thorough discussion of the moral foundations of capitalism with an organization that meets the highest academic standards and encourages students to hear all points of view.”

BB&T’s actions regarding Marshall and George Mason are part and parcel of a broader movement taking place across American higher education: redesigned efforts by major moderate and right-leaning foundations and sponsors to fund programs, journals, and chairs on campus that provide viewpoints that challenge the left-liberal orthodoxies that prevail in so many institutions. Among other examples, the University of Illinois recently established a major chair in free market economics, funded by a conservative donor. And the University of Colorado is looking for donors for a new chair in conservative studies. Meanwhile, several groups, including the Olin Foundation and other conservative entities, have decided to target limited term grants at specific individuals or groups whom they trust to carry out programs consistent with the foundations’ missions.

One motive for such grants could be to influence academic thinking in the direction the foundations favor. Another motive is simply pedagogical: to counter the lack of intellectual diversity on campus, which several studies have shown tilts decidedly to the left at many institutions, especially in the social science and humanities. The pedagogical problem is not that conservative ideas are not being accepted or followed; the problem is the virtual absence of such ideas, which deprives students of a true liberal education that would expose them to all serious arguments and perspectives about social and political life. The right kind of education prepares students to seek the answer to the most fundamental of questions: How should I live?

As Yale law professor Anthony Kronman reveals in his recent penetrating book, The End of Education, higher education no longer offers this type of education for a variety of reasons, including the ascendance of an undue emphasis upon research divorced from meaningful questions, political correctness, and cultural “constructivism” (relativism). I could not begin to tell you how many students over the years – most of whom are from the left – have shared with me their lament at the lack of meaningful intellectual diversity at my school, the University of Wisconsin. Upon graduation, they look back with a genuine sense of intellectual and moral deprivation.

But offerings like the BB&T grant can also pose problems. In particular, they can threaten the scholarly neutrality and autonomy of universities, at least if pushed too far. Sufficient institutional autonomy has long been a proper aspect of academic freedom, which is partly based on the assumption that the community of professional scholars is better situated than outsiders (activists, politicians, and other concerned citizens) to make major decisions concerning the curriculum and research. The politicization of the university discussed above weakens this claim to autonomy, but does not necessarily undermine it, except in the more extreme situations. The wrong kind of outside influence can engender a different type of politicization in its own right.

Regardless of one’s position on these points, it behooves universities to establish some ground rules that protect their intellectual integrity and autonomy, regardless of how beneficial a grant might be. Sponsoring or funding neglected fields of study (e.g., conservative studies, free market principles, limited government, and the like) should be welcomed, especially in today’s environment. But stipulating that such subjects be taught only by individuals with the requisite beliefs (e.g., “a true conservative” or “free marketer”), or that particular works be required reading threaten institutional autonomy and judgment. Besides, affirmative action for conservatives is not a particularly appealing proposition. Due respect for the subject matter is certainly a necessary attribute of instructors; but due respect is not the same thing as agreement or ideological conformity.

Of course, higher education has already allowed itself to be politicized through the passing of speech codes and related policies, and by accepting outside money if the cause attached to the funding is congenial to the internal politics of the institution. Middle Eastern studies programs funded by large grants from Saudi Arabia at some institutions could be one example, as are the numerous programs that take a liberal-left slant on poverty, education, gender, race, and environmental studies. (Meanwhile, not long ago Yale University turned down a $20 million grant from the conservative Bass family to fund a liberal arts program in Western civilization because of concerns about the faculty’s right to make autonomous academic judgments.) To the extent that so many funded programs already tilt to the left, similar actions pushed from the right can help to balance the scales.

Such ‘balancing of the scales’ is a necessary, but not a sufficient remedy to the problem of higher education. In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel provides a theory of community that illuminates the problem at hand. Hegel maintained that the clash of rights and freedom in civil society is productive only when it takes place in the context of an underlying ethical community that gives substance and form to the battle of wills. Given the clash of ideologies on campus today, the only viable ethical community that can exist is one that transcends politics and is dedicated to the training of inquiring minds and core intellectual freedoms. Pluralism and intellectual diversity would thrive, but members of the community would be united by a common commitment to liberal education and freedom. Hence, the “university:” unity embracing diversity.

But today’s university is at war over the very meaning and legitimacy of freedom itself. We do not agree on first principles. So we are left with the fight of groups striving to ensure that their viewpoints get included in the struggle for academic recognition. This is an academic version of what political scientist Theodore Lowi called “interest group liberalism” in his influential book, The End of Liberalism (1979). Interest group liberalism fills the vacuum left by a dying sense of community and public authority. Certain interests prevail over others, as we witness in the University of our time. But such dominance is inherently threatened, for it is not based on a broader appeal or consensus about the meaning of liberal education, but rather upon politically contingent, and therefore ethereal, claims.

Signs of interest group liberalism abound beyond struggles over free speech and recognition. One example is the watering down of the undergraduate curriculum, reflected in the predominance of the so-called “smorgasbord” approach to course selection – a reality the lamenting of which is surpassed only by the extent of its practice.
The rise of targeted outside funding in higher education is a positive development so long as basic ground rules are followed. But it is also an imperfect remedy to an underlying disease. Were universities truly dedicated to an ethical form of liberal education beyond politics, intellectual diversity would take care of itself from within, and we would not be having this conversation. The perfect should not be the enemy of the possible. But perhaps we should not fear to aspire.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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2 thoughts on “When Donors Pick The Courses

  1. I’m reading that hospitals are being fined for continuing to place people of both sexes in the same wards. Surely they’re only doing this in the first place because they can’t afford to split the wards into one for each sex, so how is fining them going to fix matters? It just doesn’t seem right…

  2. As appealing as it may seem to some conservatives to use the donor approach to balance perceived tilts in university ideology, let me raise a much more troubling scenario.
    Many of our finest universities, including Stanford, MIT, UT Austin, and UC Berkeley, are engaged with Saudi Arabian efforts to build the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The funds returning to the universities are substantial, to put it mildly, and are advertised as having “no strings attached.”
    What are we prepared to do, however, in the event that the Saudis or others with values so categorically different from our own wish to use their funds to “tilt” our curricula, hiring practices, and admissions to be more in line with their thinking? Return the money? I doubt it.
    American universities are putting themselves up for sale as we speak, and those of us watching from the inside are deeply concerned.

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