Experts Disagree on Why Taxpayer-Funded Truman Scholarships Skew Liberal

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by College Fix on July 2, 2024. It is crossposted here with permission.

Only about 6 percent of Truman Scholarship winners are conservative or aligned with center-right causes, according to 10 years of data from The College Fix.

But why this might be remains a source of disagreement.

The advisor for the Truman Scholarship at the University of Dallas said his experience “has been a very good one.”

“In the part of the process with which I am engaged, I detect no bias in the students selected,” Professor Charles Sullivan told The Fix via email.

Sullivan said the reason the scholarship may appear biased is due to the interests and inclinations of conservative students.

“To have any chance at a Truman, the projects must have a community- or public service dimension,” the advisor at the Catholic university told The Fix.

“For a conservative university like ours, this presents a problem. Because our more active students prefer partisan political activity (and the Truman is non-partisan),” Sullivan said. “I believe that the Truman Fellowship is amenable to students who would understand themselves as conservative. So where conservative students engage in community service, the Truman very much can support them.”

He told The Fix the University of Dallas has had one awardee and one finalist, a roughly 25 percent success rate, according to him. Sullivan said he averages about one nominee per year, though in 2024 the university had none.

He said he found that success rate “quite impressive” considering the rigor of the application and the quality of the student applicants. He also noted that the Truman gives feedback on applications and that he usually agreed with the Fellowship’s reasons for not selecting an applicant.

Sullivan told The Fix that in his experience as an advisor, he has noted that some conservative students have difficulty in seeking out aid.

“Our students tend also to come from very modest and very pious backgrounds and are also reluctant to ask for letters of recommendation from prominent individuals,” he said. “Perhaps my most difficult task as an advisor is to convince potentially deserving students that they should seek endorsements for worthwhile work, especially if such endorsements allow them to continue their work.”

Sullivan gave other reasons for the lack of conservative applicants.

“The application is rigorous and, in my experience, not all students who start, finish. But far, far, far better to have a rigorous process that is the same for everyone,” he wrote in his email.

He also noted that biases among conservative faculty and the interest of the university itself can impact the number of conservative nominees.

“The University administration is not, in my opinion, particularly interested at present, in promoting prestigious scholarships and fellowships. It is probably more interested in just keeping enrollments at a level that makes the University financially viable,” he said. “[T]o be sure, much depends on the attitude of the faculty advisor. If a faculty advisor just assumes the Truman is somehow biased and makes little effort, there will be little interest and little success.”

“My own sense is that conservative faculty members can make such summary judgements,” he said. “I did not.”

Former Department of Education official says there is ‘systemic’ bias in the Truman Fellowship

A former deputy assistant secretary for higher education said there are “major, systemic leftwing biases to root out” of the Truman Fellowship.

“The Truman Foundation officially seeks ‘change agents,’ which is a major bias towards liberal and progressive applicants,” Adam Kissel wrote in his email to The Fix. He now works on higher education issues for the Heritage Foundation.

“The program privileges those who plan to turn to ‘advocacy.’ Applicants should want to go into public service, which is biased to the left,” he said.

“Successful applicants also seem more likely to come from elite colleges, which are extremely left-biased,” he said.

“One of the program’s sample responses is about ‘income inequality.’ For these many reasons, I am not surprised that the Truman Fellowships are so unbalanced.”

Kissel said that the Truman Scholarship is also biased in the degrees it favors.

“The program privileges applicants who will pursue MPA/MPP, JD, MEd, MIA, MSW, or MPH degrees, which are deeply biased to the left,” he said. “Seeking an MBA is a disqualification. The federal government should not be supporting the Truman program. Congress should stop privileging so-called public service jobs over other workers who benefit society.”

“The Foundation does not give priority to candidates seeking MBAs or MDs unless they can demonstrate a strong public policy or public health interest,” a Notes for Advisors page reads.

Fellowship responds to concerns about bias, small college troubles

One small college said the process required too much work.

“Nine or so years ago we nominated a candidate who was not selected. It is a lot of work for an unlikely outcome,” Jeffrey Thornhill, the Truman advisor at Patrick Henry College, wrote in an email to The Fix.

In contrast, some conservative universities are not even aware of the $30,000 scholarship. A spokesperson from Franciscan University of Steubenville told The Fix that to his knowledge, the school had not participated. He said the university was unaware of the program.

The Fix reached out to other conservative colleges to ask about their experience with the program. Brigham Young University expressed interest in responding but has yet to provide comments. Grove City College, Benedictine College, Ave Maria University, Wheaton College (IL), Liberty University, Belmont Abbey College, and the University of Notre Dame did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Fix reached out via email to the executive secretary of the Truman Fellowship for comment on the struggles of small colleges and on the disparity in the award recipients.

“We have long been sensitive to small and resource-constrained schools’ challenges in supporting candidates for the Truman Scholarship,” Terry Babcock-Lumish wrote in an email to The Fix. “We work extensively with organizations such as the National Association of Fellowships Advisors to facilitate information sharing and to reduce barriers to entry.”

She previously worked in the Clinton White House and assisted Al Gore in writing two books. Her consulting clients included the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

“We provide a great deal of information online, which is available to all. We also participate in a mentoring program that allows schools with less experience with our annual competition to be paired with more senior advisors for technical assistance,” Babcock-Lumish said. “Truman Scholars themselves are also active in assisting applicants.”

“There is always more work to do, but my staff and I remain very open to assisting new schools in the process. We believe this yields concrete results: nearly every year, a Truman Scholar is discovered at a school for the first time. In 2024, there were three new institutions, and in 2023, there were six.”

Babcock-Lumish said that the selection process is solely based on an applicant’s commitment to “public-service” and “leadership potential.”

“The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation’s rigorous selection process is based solely on applicants’ demonstrated commitment to public service, leadership potential, and academic excellence,” she wrote. “[T]he Truman Foundation has encouraged anyone committed to purposeful, patriotic leadership to participate.”

She did not respond to a follow up email from The Fix asking if the foundation intended to investigate the disparities.

Two Republican members of the Truman Board of Trustees did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls asking if they planned to investigate the disparities. Senator Jerry Moran and Congresswoman Kay Granger’s offices both ignored multiple requests for comment.

However, other Republican representatives have pressed for answers.

Republicans ‘alarmed’ by ‘stark partisan tilt’

“We are alarmed that an allegedly non-partisan award displays such a stark partisan tilt,” Representatives Virginia Foxx, Robert Aderholt, and Burgess Owens wrote in a letter to the Truman Fellowship.

“As you are aware, the Truman Foundation was established by Congress and is funded by taxpayers for the purpose of awarding ‘scholarships to persons who demonstrate outstanding potential for and who plan to pursue a career in public service,’” they wrote in the letter. “We refuse to believe that only liberal students demonstrate ‘outstanding potential’ in public service.”

They noted in the letter that “[n]ot a single winner professed interest in causes such as protecting the rights of the unborn or defending the Second Amendment,” for the years 2021-23. “By contrast, the Foundation selected at least 74 winners professing interest in a progressive cause.”

The letter ends with a series of questions to “assess the efficacy of the Truman program,” such as “How do you ensure that Truman Finalist Selection Committee members and Regional Review Committee members do not discriminate against conservative students” and “What steps are you taking to recruit a more ideologically diverse pool of nominees?”

Babcock-Lumish disputed the findings cited in the Congressional letter and criticized the research methods used.

“During the application and interview process, we have no knowledge of applicants’ ideological orientations, unless they explicitly share them,” she wrote.

“If we witnessed discrimination, we would put an immediate stop to it, regardless of whether it was viewpoint based or otherwise.”

A spokesperson for the Committee on Education and the Workforce told The Fix in an email that Babcock-Lumish’s letter “downplayed legitimate concerns.”

“Dr. Babcock-Lumish’s letter downplayed legitimate concerns about partisan bias in the Truman program and did little to allay the Committee’s fears. It’s certainly an issue that the Committee will continue to keep an eye on.”

Photo of Harry S. Truman — Wikimedia Commons

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