Military disasters such as Pearl Harbor often warrant official investigations. But another one is sure to come. Decades from now, an official inquiry will look into how American universities collapsed into madness during the early twenty-first century. Unfortunately, when that day finally arrives, very few of us who survived that insanity will be around to testify, so it behooves us to offer our first-hand accounts before all is forgotten. I invite others to contribute, but in the meantime, I’ll offer my analysis.
I will argue that the unwillingness of academics to spend their own funds in defense of academic freedom permitted the PC victory. Our misguided reliance on big donors to pay our bills compounded the disaster.
I think it is safe to say that professors seldom, if ever, personally spend their own money to advance careers. Money is important—salaries reflect campus recognition and facilitate the good life, and funding drives research—but even blatant campus opportunists do not spend money out of pocket to climb the ladder. Ours is not the celebrity culture where lavish parties can move you from the “B” to the “A” list. The only academic currency is professional achievement, and not even a billionaire can acquire scholarly standing even if he endows the labs that conduct the research that brings this prestige.
This relationship is far less true outside the academy.
This reality hit me when I retired and moved to New York City and, needing some intellectual stimulation, joined various policy-oriented and advocacy organizations. I soon discovered that “money talks, erudition walks.” These organizations wholly depend on donations, and if you don’t send the check, you don’t get invited. As with a railroad ticket, the more you pay, the further you go. Send $100 and receive a monthly newsletter; $500 gets a lecture invite; for $1,000 it’s an occasional lunch; donate $10,000 to get fancy dinners and, most of all, to be treated seriously. For big money, your voice counts, and this is true even if benefactors have little to say—the very opposite of university life, where smart people are listened to regardless of the checks they write.
I experienced firsthand this reality at a fancy grand ballroom banquet. The sponsoring organization focused on Middle East politics, and what entitled me to attend the dinner was a $1,500 non-tax-deductible donation. $1,500 is a sizable sum for a professor, as readers surely understand. About 2,000 people showed up, and seating strictly followed the money. For my donation, I was seated at the rear along with suburban housewives who, I suspect, were more interested in their grandchildren than hearing speakers yak about foreign policy. No doubt, for an extra ten grand I would be placed closer to the dais with rich businessman who similarly knew little of that about which the speakers were talking.
The bottom line: if you want a place at the thinktank/policy organization table, you have to pay—this is perfectly reasonable. Only donors can fund the well-paid administrators, their assistants, senior fellows, secretaries, brochure writers, and publicists, and unlike universities with their endowments, tuition-paying students, and research overhead rake-offs, funding must be raised annually. It is no accident that countless staffers specialize in “development,” and rest assured, they are adept at sniffing out who can give and how much. I found this out personally—the more I gave, the funnier my jokes were—and I now accept the reality of writing lots of checks to join the fray.
Darwinian survival dictates organization focus. Want to raise lots of money? Focus on issues that have financial consequences for potential donors: health care, energy regulation, taxation, defense policy, communication regulation, real estate development, banking, climate change, and monetary regulation, among others. Thinktanks are not interested in the transformation of the English language to advance a totalitarian agenda. What hedge-fund operative would even understand that topic, let alone pay money to hear about it?
Now for the bad news. Where only money talks, nobody will listen to super-smart academics unless they open their check books, and generously so. School teachers may lack high IQ’s, but their unions put us to shame in terms of owning a soapbox and a big megaphone. Sending $100 to advance academic freedom will bring a “thank you” and an occasional newsletter. Not even $10,000 may move the needle much, given that this is a pittance even for a modest-sized advocacy group or thinktank. Compare these amounts to what the domestic oil and gas industry might donate to an organization that sponsors favorable research on fracking and has experts to testify before Congress? Or what a “woke” philanthropic giant like the Ford Foundation might bestow on a group advancing a radical racialist agenda?
To appreciate the consequences of academic cheapness, imagine using a time machine to return three ideologically divergent professors to 1990 (sort of like killing little Hitler). They would assemble 1,000 professors and, after a convincing demonstration that they really traveled from the future, describe the state of the university in 2020—identity politics run wild, Orwellian language on steroids, cancel culture, trigger warnings, demands for committees to censor research and teaching to exorcise invisible “racism,” teachers terrified of offending students by criticizing their grammar or unknowingly committing a microaggression. Or how about efforts to address systemic racism in particle physics? This would require at least an hour to be fully documented.
Now for the depressing part. The time travelers would say that, to strangle the beast in the cradle, we would have to organize; this would take at least $500,000, so open your check books and write. How many would cut the check, even if they were young enough to anticipate a career in 2020? My guess is that, in lieu of a personal contribution, nearly all would suggest multiple other sources of funding—maybe Heritage or Olin? A few might volunteer to solicit a grant from a conservative foundation to write a treatise on tenure. But personally finance the campaign to stop a future menace? No way. Better wait until the Great Evil is just about to triumph and hope for the best.
Let’s further imagine that these thousand professors believe the time travelers and rush off to thinktanks to spread the word—the crazies are coming, the crazies are coming, fire them now while there’s still time! What would be the reaction? Nothing, for the simple reason that there is no cash behind these Cassandras, and everybody knows that professors are out of touch with reality anyhow. Who would ever believe that, one day, a professor might be fired for insisting that sex is biologically determined or that using the wrong pronoun is an actionable offense?
Now imagine that a crafty professor had asked the time traveler who won the Superbowl in 1991, bet a fortune on the NY Giants, made millions, and offered to fund a thinktank center to protect the campus from wackos, promising $10,000,000 with more to follow? Now we’re talking! This is not a crazy professor.
Academic cheapness is ubiquitous—the default option is always, “Who else might pay?” When a foundation stopped supporting Minding the Campus, the quest (I am told) was to find a new foundation to replace the old one. It never seemed to occur to them, at least from what I know, that Minding might become self-funded like countless other websites. That is, charge viewers a monthly access fee, generate revenue via Google ads, or otherwise mobilize reader generosity. To be blunt, academics have been socialized into dependency and thus resemble welfare recipients trained for a life on the dole.
There is, however, an entirely contrary perspective on this cheapness—it is perfectly rational given the nature of university life. That is, there is no rational reason for professors to worry over the fate of colleagues, even if under attack by the PC idiots. Why should a professor of physics be alarmed if the English department is struck by the race, class, and gender plague? Or a university squandering money on futile social engineering? Self-interest hardly dictates that a professor of English worry about woke colleagues—just avoid departmental life entirely or fake it. Given easy escape, why donate a $1,000 to a cause that brings minimal personal benefit? The financial contribution only makes sense for a professor anxious about intellectual life generally, not their personal situations. This is the classic free-rider problem, and while there are anti-PC academic organizations, overcoming these obstacles with incentives has proven vexing.
A larger issue exists here that can only be hinted at—the consequences of surrendering financial independence by relying on outside donors. No matter how you slice and dice it, dependency on donors undermines intellectual freedom, and while some academics tolerate this trade-off, in the long run it weakens the academic freedom that is, supposedly, the reason for initially seeking out donors. When you take the King’s shilling, the King, no matter how seemingly agreeable to your cause, will always have something to say, so you better listen.
This influence resembles the invisible electronic fence that keeps dogs in the yard without a physical barrier, and from personal experience I can attest that constraint is real. Foundations are necessarily sensitive to the IRS (especially in today’s politicized environment) and fear being embarrassed by “controversial” sponsorship. Even distinguished scholars such as Charles Murray are all too easily kept in Siberia, and barely anybody notices the non-events. Particularly timid donor-dependent organizations may not invite noisy troublemakers to participate in organizational activities or “forget” to list their publications when it reports on member activity. After all, everybody knows that donors are inundated by outreached palms, and the choice of beneficiaries is beyond challenge, so why invite trouble?
This is a pessimistic analysis, for it is hard to imagine academics abandoning the handout culture and thus restoring independence. And forget about the academy returning to an earlier era when scholars were disproportionately gentlemen of independent means and thus could refuse calls for mandatory diversity training. Tenure is not the solution—it may well exacerbate dependency insofar as tenure deepens habits of seeking money elsewhere. Can academics really expect a free ride in combating today’s PC idiocy? Probably not.