Big donors on campus

Today’s topic: Donors and universities. Make that, “Donors versus universities.” The inspiration comes from the recent boxing match between George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and John Wilson of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who went a few rounds over the New Yorker’s recent hit piece on Art Pope’s philanthropy. (Disclosures: The Pope Center is largely funded by Art Pope; it invited me to write on this  topic for its website.)

Leef and Wilson dealt with Pope’s higher ed. giving, a subject I didn’t have room to cover in my critique of Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. (See their posts: Wilson 1, Leef 1, Wilson 2, Leef 2, Wilson 3.) Before we take up the questions Leef and Wilson raise for donors and universities, we need to dispatch some preliminary issues. But first let’s be clear: Neither Wilson nor AAUP are all bad. They sometimes say and do admirable things – partly because higher education is so disordered it would be hard for anyone not to attack some of its evils.

Wilson does have some blind spots, however, including his blasé attitude toward the lack of intellectual diversity in America’s colleges, especially academe’s powerful tilt to the left. Amusingly, AAUP recently provided a vivid example of this ideological tilt in its gushing endorsement of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

[We] stand in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement … it is time to stand up for what is right. We applaud the action the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken to highlight the inequity and unfairness of the society in which we live. We strongly support the movement and wish it every success. We are in this together.

Who knew that mobs of misfits soiling public parks and making incoherent demands were essentially the same as learned professors?

More evidence of the academy’s lack of intellectual diversity comes from data the Pope Center helpfully provides on faculty voting registration. Let’s glance at the numbers for two North Carolina schools that Art Pope has menaced by offering them funds. First, North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where Pope recently offered to support a new center for the study of state constitutional law. The Pope Center found that the school’s faculty are registered as Democrats over Republicans by more than five to one; ditto for the school’s trustees.

Then there’s UNC Chapel Hill, where Pope in 2005 offered support for the study of Western civilization. Its board is actually balanced, with less than a 1.5-to-one ratio either way, but – surprise – its faculty members register Democrat over Republican by greater than five to one. Although party registration isn’t identical to political ideology, just imagine what adjectives Wilson would need to denounce Art Pope, if that donor ever said he hoped his donations to a college would produce such a skewing in the GOP direction.

Another problem with Wilson’s analysis is shallowness. For example, his endorsement of Mayer’s crudely tendentious New Yorker article, whose flaws I’ve described at length. Wilson and Mayer both claim that Pope and his allies “threaten” the “academic quality of universities by lobbying for budget cuts.”

Serious people can have long arguments about exactly how to improve the return on the billions of dollars invested in America’s colleges, but the unthinking assumption that one penny less of spending will automatically harm quality, and one penny more will automatically improve quality is laughably shallow. For evidence higher ed. dollars aren’t always well spent, listen to recent college graduates in Occupy Wall Street try to form a sentence, or see how seniors at Duke know less high school civics than Duke freshmen.

Shallowness is no minor issue for higher education. While the thought-police excesses of college ideologues can seriously impinge on the liberties of students and professors, ideology inflicts its worst harm on campus when it erodes the very standards that higher education exists to serve. Admittedly, sometimes those who want to restrict free speech for ideological reasons mask their aims by claiming to uphold “high standards” of discourse. But that only means higher education must have thoughtful, not shallow, discussions of what high standards truly are.

By contrast, consider Wilson’s recent criticism of Yale for banning “Sex Week” on campus. The biennial “Week” consists of trashy talks and shows that aren’t just arguably pornographic; they actually feature members of the porn industry showing off their wares, on film and in the flesh. Whatever one’s views of censorship, sexual morality, or pornography, these crudities aren’t worthy of a university’s auspices, yet Wilson screams that such “censorship” is “repulsive” and warns, “If porn stars can be banned from campus, why not Ann Coulter?”

Interestingly, he also says it wouldn’t matter if organizers of Sex Week proved to be

taking kickbacks from porn companies…. After all, taking vast sums of money from wealthy donors with dubious ethics is a Yale tradition going back centuries.

Nice to know some donors’ intentions to alter campus life present no problems.

Wilson’s extreme libertarianism on this topic leads to his final blind spot. Listening to Wilson, one would imagine that American campuses aren’t far from being idyllic paradises as imagined by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, where professors scrupulously respect everyone’s right to pursue the truth as clashes occur between all ideas, high and low, until the blazing light of eternal Truth shines forth and enlightens every member of the community.

Wilson seems not to notice that the typical leftist professor has utter contempt for such “modern” nonsense and follows, not Mill, but Marx, Nietzsche, and other apostles of non-freedom and anti-truth. The post-modern professor doesn’t see his task as one of aiding students in the disinterested pursuit of truth, but of turning students into agents of “social change.”

This isn’t some crazy idea of mine; it’s what a typical college employee brags about to parents. For example, Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U, describes this scene from a recent college visit with his high school son:

The admissions dean introduced a professor of religious studies and the author of a book bearing the subtitle “Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity.” (The captivity, the dean reminded us, had begun under the administration of George W. Bush.) The professor boasted of his history course, which had transformed merely curious students into “social activists.” Under his guidance the young scholars read books by Sally Belfrage, author of the Cold War memoir “UnAmerican Activities,” and the socialist historian Howard Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” and they emerged “ready to change the world.” ... The professor’s speech was just a hint of what was to come: Later my son told me that he had three choices for a mandatory writing class: “History of the 1960s,” “TV’s Mad Men,” and “Intro to Queer Theory.”

This mélange of politicization, indoctrination, and intellectual crudity just might, if Ferguson’s son resists with fierceness, help the young man learn how to defend his own ideas under fire. But the tens of thousands of dollars his family will spend, alongside hefty taxpayer subsidies, aren’t likely to purchase much of a college education worthy of the name – even if the school starts its own Sex Week with the Stars.

Now let’s take up Wilson’s errors where donors are concerned. First, like Mayer, he overstates what donors to colleges can hope to accomplish, as Leef points out in their exchange, and also overstates Pope’s intentions. On the intention side, Wilson is close to hysterical, claiming the schools that talked to Pope had contemplated “allowing control over parts of the university to be sold off to the highest bidder in order to impose their own political ideology.” Cue Darth Vader theme music and a picture of Art Pope towering over sniveling college officials as they leer at his wallet the way heroin junkies leer at a fresh bag of stash.

In reality, neither the NCCU nor the UNC Chapel Hill project was even Pope’s idea. Scholars and administrators connected to the schools first thought the projects up and then realized that Pope might be interested in supporting them. As for Pope’s ability to change the schools, I’d happily have bet Wilson any sum that, if the projects went through, the schools’ party affiliation stats wouldn’t have budged.

Leef argues that a donor doesn’t threaten academic freedom if he offers to fund “a scholar who will teach the ideas he favors,” especially when that scholar will be in a distinct minority among his colleagues. But Wilson objects that if a single job “has been restricted by an ideological demand for agreement with a particular viewpoint as a condition for employment,” then the glory of academic freedom is extinguished forever.

That view implies that the intentions of donors to colleges must automatically be ignored. Yet is it true that if an art department, say, has abundant faculty teaching medieval and Baroque art, but few who teach Renaissance art, it would be wrong in principle for the school to accept funding from a donor who wanted to endow a chair for scholars of the Renaissance?

What if a company has a French subsidiary and notices that the local college, from which it draws many employees, has a French department that stresses French literature but not conversational fluency. If the company approaches the school and offers to fund additional faculty who would stress fluency over literature, would that threaten academic freedom?

Or let’s imagine that a wealthy alumnus is concerned about the quality of applicants for federal jobs that deal with international relations, and so he approaches his Ivy League alma mater with the offer of millions to support a grad school that would train students for such work. Should the university just grab the millions and then ignore the donor’s intention? Would that be a triumph for academic freedom?

If so, Princeton deserves a prize. Because Charles Robertson did just what I describe in 1961, and while the school paid lip service to his intention for a time, it grew increasingly contemptuous of the Robertson family until, after numerous insults and betrayals, the family took Princeton to court in the biggest battle over collegiate abuse of donors ever seen. (Martin Morse Wooster describes the story’s background here.) After long and expensive stonewalling, Princeton finally gave in and settled out of court. You can gauge how strong the school judged its case by the fact that it gave the Robertsons around $100 million, the largest award ever in a donor-intent lawsuit. (The Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal held an intellectually diverse symposium on the case after it ended.)

In all these examples, donors have intentions that touch on professors’ “viewpoints” yet deserve respect by the schools that willingly take their money. Of course the schools should also care about their standards of higher education, which could sometimes conflict with a donor’s proposal. But adding to the viewpoints represented at a school is hardly illegitimate in principle, whether those viewpoints entail economic and political outlooks, opinions on art, etc.

Consider a case involving law schools, which in recent decades have seen faculty and academic centers added in the area of law and economics. A handful of savvy center-right donors seeded this work around the country, including at Stanford law school. That school’s dean at the time was Paul Brest, a prominent left-of-center academic who – I have it on the best authority – worked fairly and honorably with the donors. He and the donors knew they had ideological differences, but everyone involved wanted the school and its additions to operate at the highest levels.

Don’t take my word for it. Brest is now president of the Hewlett Foundation, and in his capacity as a leading philanthropic thinker, he has lauded the wise ways that donors to the law and economics movement engaged America’s legal culture in and out of academe (see Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, pp. 234-37). Over the years, Brest observes, these donors fostered serious arguments among right-of-center legal thinkers as well as between them and more leftward jurists, and many on all sides evolved in their views. Though Brest witnessed it firsthand, he raises no fears that these donors with viewpoints harmed anyone’s academic freedom, and he urges other donors to learn from them.

A final issue: Leef asks whether “the AAUP turns a blind eye to efforts by leftist groups to influence campus programs and personnel,” and Wilson indignantly denies it. Yet to take the most obvious example, AAUP has been thoroughly enmeshed in a project by the Ford Foundation called the “Difficult Dialogues Initiative,” which encourages discussions of controversial topics like racial and sexual diversity at colleges around the country.

Put this in context. Ford is the most powerful donor that exists on the left side of the spectrum; its president is “the left-wing pope,” as one wag puts it. It has well-defined viewpoints on affirmative action and other topics the Initiative deals with. In fact, for decades it has funded and in some cases created the most prominent left-wing groups that defend affirmative action, which is one of the hottest issues on campus and one that profoundly affects student admissions and faculty hiring. Above all, Ford played a central role in the landmark Supreme Court decision that largely upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies; the foundation poured monies into the university’s legal defense, its nonprofit allies, etc. (see this Capital Research report).

Whether you think these efforts good or bad, the influence they have had on “campus programs and personnel” are beyond the wildest dreams of Art Pope. If Wilson wants to claim that AAUP doesn’t turn “a blind eye to efforts by leftist groups to influence campus programs and personnel,” he’ll need to explain how, after Ford dreamt up the Difficult Dialogues Initiative, AAUP not only devoted an entire issue of its magazine to laudatory articles on the initiative, guest-edited by the academic who administered the initiative, but now has hired the same man to be its general counsel?

Again, I’m not outraged that Ford has found colleges willing to take its money for the program. But please don’t ask me to imagine that Ford has no interest in influencing campuses, or that every grantee is carefully chosen for pristine viewpoint neutrality. For instance, a Barnard alum read an article in her alumnae magazine that was “tied to” Barnard’s Difficult Dialogues project:

The subject of this particular article was abortion, an issue apparently so difficult that the discussion reported on consisted of one side dialoguing with itself about how Barnard students can most effectively pass along their pro-abortion views to others. Planned Parenthood was on hand to facilitate the discussion, sponsored by Students for Choice.
     The Barnard president, Judith Shapiro, responded to a letter that I wrote to her about the article’s bias, and she agreed that the piece could have been more objective. She also assured me that Barnard’s professors are not interested in promoting a liberal agenda.

Take a more recent example. AAUP’s magazine just published an article by homosexual activists who explain how they received Ford funding under the Difficult Dialogues project after AAUP staff alerted them to the possibility. Their 2005 grant funded a conference, “Network Virginia: Building LGBT Coalitions for Change on Campus,” which AAUP publicized in its magazine. Network Virginia’s mission statement laid out four goals, including

 (3) to facilitate difficult dialogues among LGBT academics and their allies in Virginia about potential strategies and priorities in the ongoing fight for legal equality; and (4) to use and disseminate pedagogical tools that help form progressive coalitions in the commonwealth.

Ford has every right to fund such projects, and AAUP has every right to applaud them, but building “coalitions for change on campus” and disseminating “pedagogical tools that help form progressive coalitions” sure sound like efforts to influence campus programs and personnel.

Wilson and AAUP must assume Virginia colleges can survive the Ford Foundation’s ministrations. Perhaps North Carolina schools will survive Art Pope’s generosity, too.

FOOTNOTE: It’s worth noting that various AAUP projects have been funded by left-wing donors like the Ford Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and the Carnegie Corporation. Also worthy of note: The Pope Center recently published a study of colleges’ violations of donor intent. The ink hadn’t dried before Johns Hopkins was in the news for an alleged outrage involving millions of square feet of land a donor kindly gave it.

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