“It is not enough to lament public ignorance of our nation’s constitutional ideals and institutions. What is needed is a revival of civic education. This is why the James Madison Program at Princeton University is such an important and exciting initiative.”
—Steve Forbes, Princeton class of 1970
The attacks of September 11 pulled back the curtains on our universities. While the American people clearly condemned the attacks as terrorism, many in the intellectual elite reacted to the attacks with silence or pleas for “understanding” the enemy. More than a few professors—such as Richard Berthold of the University of New Mexico, who infamously said, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote”—attracted national ire for their anti-American comments. Meanwhile, universities rushed to add courses on Islam, Arab cultures, and related subjects (UCLA alone created 50 courses) without any compensating interest in exploring the principles that make America great. At a moment in our nation’s history when what it means to be an American has taken on paramount importance, our universities have been unable to articulate a coherent national ideal, or even to express an interest in the subject. Civic education—the study and defense of America’s founding principles—is on life support.
Yet in the last two years, a few brave philanthropists and professors have launched an innovative attempt to restore philosophical diversity to one prominent school. They have created at Princeton University a program to study America’s founding principles with unblushing seriousness. Their experiment may prove revolutionary for the fate of open debate at American colleges—and for the way philanthropists give to universities.
“It is not enough to curse the darkness. You need to light a candle.” That’s how Princeton Professor Robert P. George puts the need for philanthropists and academics to restore civic education in American universities. George is well positioned to ignite the needed debate. He is a bright star in the academic community and holds the same endowed chair in jurisprudence first occupied by Woodrow Wilson. In the past George has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; he now serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Along the way, he has gained a reputation for being a defender of traditional Judeo-Christian morality and a fierce critic of judges who usurp all powers of democratic decision making.
George is a practitioner of the Socratic method, and though he is said to be waging a one-man war against grade inflation, each year he attracts hundreds of students to his classroom. No doubt George’s popularity rests in part on his willingness to sweep out young minds silted with stale P.C. orthodoxies. Yet he refuses to indoctrinate his students in conservative ideas. “Students love vigorous debate,” says George. “They don’t like to be told just one side of the story. They like to make up their own minds.”
In July 2000, 229 years after James Madison became Princeton’s first graduate student, George created the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution, and George is guiding the program to investigate the American experiment Madison helped create. George wants not only to rekindle the debate about the Judeo-Christian origins of the founding principles, but also to explore their relevance to contemporary issues.
The Madison Program works like many other university programs. It sponsors fellows on campus who conduct research, teach courses, and advise students on senior theses. Outside speakers are brought in for public lectures and major conferences. But the key difference is that the Madison Program casts a critical eye on cherished campus orthodoxies. By focusing on what the university has forgotten, it is changing the school’s culture.
Just three days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Madison Program, led by associate director Seana Sugrue, presented a symposium on “What It Means To Be American.” The six fellows in residence gave a rousing defense of American ideals to a standing-room-only audience. Their voices balanced out the anti-Americanism on campus—a counterweight missing from many other universities.
Before a month had passed, the Madison Program returned to the war against terrorism. While at some universities the debate about the merits of war rose only to the level of sloganeering, noted University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain lectured for the Madison Program on the moral imperative of government to defend its citizens against terrorist atrocities. Faculty and townspeople as well as students came to hear her speak. After one year in existence, the Madison Program’s reputation had spread far. Also attending the lecture were a group of West Point cadets in full dress uniform who traveled hundreds of miles to be there. The audience saluted them with a standing ovation.
A few months later, Second Lady Lynne Cheney came to campus as a guest of the Madison Program. As President Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mrs. Cheney’s opposition to political correctness made her persona non grata on many university campuses. Not so in the Madison Program. Her talk was warmly received, with two standing ovations. Even liberal students showed a hunger to hear Cheney’s conservative ideas. They were impressed, even if some were not persuaded.
True to his commitment to fair debate, George has refused to turn the Madison Program into a megaphone for conservative voices alone. He has given a platform to many people whose views he disagrees with, including the liberal political scientist Sotirios Barber from Notre Dame, progressive Princeton historian Stanley Katz, and former Clinton administration domestic policy advisor William Galston.
The parade of speakers has not slowed, and nearly every month the Madison Program sponsors a lecture bringing prominent voices to campus that would not normally be heard. Student interest in the program’s speakers became so intense in 2001 that undergraduates formed their own Madison Program club. Members attend lectures together and meet afterwards to discuss the speaker’s ideas.
The club is not the Madison Program’s only fruit. Its supporters quickly realized that interest in civic education extends well beyond students to alumni and friends. So after only a year, a group of professionals began meeting in Philadelphia for monthly “executive precepts” in civic education under the auspices of the program. The group gathered together a diverse assortment of businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and even a minister to discuss works ranging from Sophocles’ Antigone to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The idea for the executive precepts came from an enthusiastic donor who asked for the Madison Program’s blessing and then put in “sweat equity” to get the meetings running. Organized by volunteers and financed by a small fee from participants, the precepts didn’t drain any resources from the Madison Program. Both donors and non-donors to the program attended the meetings, and though George says it wasn’t his intention to make donors of the participants, many participants liked what they saw and began to support the Madison Program.
According to professor Lawrence Mead, the achievement of the Madison Program is not simply that it has brought conservative speakers to a hostile campus, or that it has expanded civic education into the non-academic world. Mead, a professor of politics at New York University and last year a visiting scholar at the Madison Program, sees the program’s greatest value not in the ideas it presents, but in the questions it forces the university to address. There are two problems with modern universities, according to Mead. First, they are monolithically left-wing in faculty and ideas. Worse, Mead notes, in the past decade there has been a rising scholasticism among academics, a turning inward of themselves and their disciplines. Scholars have become overly specialized, focused on method, and self-referential; these trends have left the university balkanized. As a result, Mead says, universities fail to address the important questions modern society faces. Academics are good at publishing books and articles, he tells Philanthropy, but their work often has little to say about the real world.
The Madison Program overcomes the isolation of the university. Mead notes that two scholars George selected to be Madison fellows were not university faculty members. One was an editor of a journal on religion and politics, and the other was a principal at a financial consulting group who had remained active in politics and the world of ideas. According to Mead, “their real-world experience paid dividends.” The program “has shifted the intellectual agenda to principles and values, which are a set of issues that get neglected.”
Philanthropists in Gowns
The Madison Program fills a need Princeton didn’t know existed. But philanthropists outside academia recognized the collapse of civic education. The Madison Program has never received a penny from the university; the largest chunks of money to start the program came from the Olin and Bradley foundations, both of which have long sought to correct the absence of civic education at the university level. James Piereson, executive director of the Olin Foundation and a former Ivy League professor, notes that, other than a few good professors scattered throughout higher education, “most universities don’t teach civic education.” The few universities that do teach the Founding teach it ideologically or from a detached social scientific perspective. Both approaches deny the essence of civic education: that the principles of the Founding are not just of quaint antiquarian interest but are universally true and should order a good society.
Michael Uhlmann, who was senior vice president at the Bradley Foundation until a few months ago when he returned to academic life as a professor at Claremont McKenna College, reaches a similar conclusion. He concurs that colleges today teach “anything but a robust civic Americanism,” and he cites two reasons. First is a factual deficit: most universities do not require students to take a single course in American history to graduate. As a result, students can’t answer the who, what, where, when, or why of the nation’s history. The second thing Uhlmann argues is missing from higher education is students’ ability to reason about the character of the American regime. In few universities can a student engage in a “rigorous, broadly based, serious study of the principles of the American Founding, not merely as historical artifacts, but as if they might be true. One learns and one teaches something very differently depending on your attitude toward truth. You learn a lot about yourself, the nature of justice, and of law, if you approach America’s founding principles as if they might be true.”
Foundation money launched the Madison Program, but within two years gifts from individual donors overtook contributions from foundations. Stephen Whelan, an alumnus of Princeton and a partner at the law firm Thacher Proffitt & Wood, gave a five-figure donation to the Madison Program for a number of reasons. The program’s scholars and speakers’ program, which expose undergraduates to ideas they would not hear elsewhere, impressed him. Whelan also saw that the program taught students not to compartmentalize the ideas they encountered in the lecture hall or stop debating issues whenever the day’s classes ended. The program raised questions worthy of debate not only in the lecture hall, but also in the dining hall. “Professor George is a magnet for undergraduates—and not-so-recent graduates—who want their thinking and their grade-point averages challenged,” Whelan says.
Peter Flanigan, another Princeton alumnus, is a strong supporter of the Madison Program. A trustee at both the Manhattan Institute and the Olin Foundation and an advisor at the investment bank UBS Warburg, Flanigan has had extensive experience with the worlds of philanthropy and higher education. Ideas matter in a free society, Flanigan insists, and to support his argument he cites the Philanthropy magazine cover story “Eight Books That Changed America.“ Without the help of enterprising foundations, the work and research that produced those books would have stagnated or never happened. Those books have been crucial in changing Americans’ opinions on everything from welfare reform to political correctness on college campuses. “Fine museums and hospitals are important,” says Flanigan, “but only in a society with sound fundamental principles.” Flanigan reports that friends of his from other Ivy League universities have made donations to the Madison Program. Their only complaint is that they do not have a program like it at their alma maters.
In Professor George, foundations and private philanthropists have found a dynamic and unapologetic defender of American principles who wants to revitalize civic education and constitutional studies at the university level. Uhlmann says of George that he has “imagination, and is very engaging inside the classroom and out. When you’re around him, you know that he’s terrifically smart and bristling with ideas.”
In two years George has raised between $7 million and $8 million in gifts and pledges to the Madison Program. Still, compared to other university enterprises, it remains woefully underfunded. One need only look at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, home to the infamous Professor Peter Singer, who defends bestiality and infanticide. The University Center began with a highly publicized gift of $21 million from Laurance Rockefeller III. He made a subsequent gift to the program of $5 million. While the Madison Program struggles daily to find new financial resources, programs such as the University Center attract large donors who can set the center in motion for years by writing a check or two.
Remarkably, the Madison Program has been well accepted at Princeton. Though philanthropists and university administrators often harbor mutual suspicions, the relationship between the Madison Program and the university remains a good one. Donald Drakeman, a philanthropist, part-time lecturer at Princeton, and co-chair of the advisory council to the Madison Program, credits Jeffery Herbst, the chairman of the politics department, for his openness to allowing traditional views a fair hearing at Princeton.
Still, the Madison Program ran enormous risks. “The story is a mile long about how donors give to a university to advance certain values, and in five or ten years [the university is] using the money for other purposes,” Uhlmann notes. Universities, large and bureaucratic, tend to “convert all things into conventional liberal opinion.”
Structuring a Program for Success
The Madison Program is structured to remain a forum for free discussion. Because the program receives no money from the university and has forgone any part of Princeton’s $8 billion endowment, it has avoided entanglement in any ideological strings the university might attach. This has left George free to recruit donors who agreed with his vision of the program as a forum for robust debate. He quickly found many, both inside Princeton’s alumni network and outside it. Donations go directly to the program and are not “taxed” by the university.
The program has a second safeguard in George’s unbending commitment to donor intent. Many universities have scared away donors by misusing gifts. George holds donor intent to be nearly sacred: “You should reject the money if you can’t follow a donor’s intent. You have a moral obligation to follow the donor’s intent.” George also refuses to accept donations that would compromise either academic freedom or the Madison Program.
A third safeguard is that the Madison Program is not trying to force traditional views onto campus that Princeton hasn’t already allowed. A decade ago Yale University shocked the academic world by returning a $20 million gift the Bass family had given to fund a series of courses on Western civilization. The Bass grant scandal taught philanthropists they cannot force a university to accept views into campus debate that the university refuses to tolerate.
The fact that George is at Princeton in the first place shows that the school has a certain openness to dissent from left-wing orthodoxy. In contrast, many other universities refuse to hire scholars with traditional views. The university has long allowed George to speak his views, even if he is often alone in professing them. Further, it has given him tenure and one of its most prestigious chairs. In short, George established a secure beachhead for traditional views at Princeton, and waited to push inland. The foundations and philanthropists gave him the opportunity. The Olin and Bradley foundations look for already-present points of view and try to sustain them, instead of trying to create them where they are lacking. Since the professors with whom the foundations work have tenure and cannot be fired, they have the latitude necessary to pursue projects that untenured professors cannot.
The fourth safeguard to the integrity of the Madison Program is its lack of an endowment. Piereson notes that multibillion-dollar endowments have given universities enormous leeway to do what they want and in the process caused the problem of “keeping these institutions in contact with the civilization around them.” Around the turn of the century, Piereson observes, many law schools were given endowments to study natural law philosophy, and similarly in the 1950s philanthropists gave money to study communism, neither of which the schools currently do. “Perpetuity is a long time,” he warns anyone considering a gift to an endowment.
For this reason the Olin Foundation doesn’t fund endowments. It makes a grant for three years at a time and then looks over things to see if it’s worth renewing. Piereson warned George against acquiring an endowment, and so far George has not sought one. “We deliberately have not set out to raise endowment money,” George explains. “A donor did endow a senior thesis prize in the program, but most of our donors do not want to endow things. They have fears about what will be done with the money down the line. They would rather give us more money now to do good with while people they trust are doing the spending.”
Without an endowment, there is nothing for the university to seize if it were to take over the Madison Program. At the slightest threat to the program’s integrity, the foundations and philanthropists supporting it can pull their money. This situation contrasts sharply with that of the Robertson Foundation, which was established in 1961 with an endowment dedicated to supporting Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. According to their son William, the donors Charles and Marie Robertson intended the money to help the school “address the current state of world affairs, which included the Cold War and the threat from the Soviet Union,” but that “trust. . .has been betrayed,” and Princeton has used the money for programs that are not the ones his parents intended to support. Robertson and other surviving family members have now filed suit to stop what they see as a university plot to absorb the foundation’s $550 million endowment—which supplies the Wilson School with 75 percent of its annual operating budget—into the university’s general endowment fund.
A Goldmine of Opportunity
Although the James Madison Program has accomplished a great deal in two years, significant hurdles remain. For example, the program does not have decent office space. George hopes in time to find a permanent on-campus home. And a downside of not having an endowment is the lack of stability provided by a guaranteed yearly income.
There is good reason for tempered optimism about the prospects of initiatives like the Madison Program, which is succeeding because it has managed to match talent with money. On the one hand, it is a model experiment for those who seek to advance civic education at their alma maters.
At the same time, it remains something of a lonely experiment in the hostile territory of academic orthodoxies. Its success will ultimately depend on support from those outside the university, particularly entrepreneurial philanthropists and foundations, who appreciate the need it fills in higher education.
So far, the hopes of those who have banked on the program have been realized: vigorous debate about fundamental moral and political issues is taking place, and space is being made for perspectives that have, since the 1970s, been excised from college campuses.
Though the experiment is far from over, the time is right for philanthropists to branch out and clone the Madison Program at other universities. “I suspect that over time Princeton will see this as a real plus that they will sell to alumni and other foundations,” Piereson says. As that happens, other universities may see the benefits of having such institutions on their campuses. The challenge for philanthropists is to find the pockets of dissent from campus orthodoxies that already exist and expand them. There are literally hundreds of campuses in need of similar programs, not only in civic education but in all the humanities. For bold philanthropists, it’s a challenge-and a goldmine of opportunity.
Timothy Webster earned his A.B. at Princeton; he is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a doctorate in political science.