In academe, as elsewhere, personnel is policy. That means any serious revival of traditional liberal education, including the teaching of Western civilization and America’s political traditions, depends upon repopulating universities with scholars so interested—scholars now in short and diminishing supply. This revival of intellectual diversity can’t occur so long as academic training and hiring remain controlled by faculty dogmatists, as is now too frequently the case in the social sciences and the humanities. Accordingly, the best way to restore intellectual diversity is to create new academic programs that are committed to pluralism and have the potential to hire and train.
Once launched, such new programs will not be easily ignored. Their appeal to students, and their intrinsic intellectual strength, is likely to catalyze change throughout their host institutions. Senior university leadership, approached in the right manner, will often welcome these initiatives, in part because new programs have the potential to re-ignite enthusiasm among alumni donors who long ago wrote off alma mater as hopelessly politically correct.
Program creation in the form of centers, institutes, new undergraduate minors and majors, even entire new departments, has long been a standard feature of academic life, sometimes playing a major role in the development of whole new disciplines or spheres of interdisciplinary collaboration. New programs can improve or diminish the quality of the academic environment, the better filling conspicuous intellectual gaps, the worse diverting resources to the narrow, the faddish and, often, the overtly partisan. Programs driven by identity politics such as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and the various permutations of gender and “queer” studies, are frequently the most egregious examples of these latter ills. A fresh wave of program building, exemplifying high intellectual purpose, rigorous standards, and an interest in enlarging the scope of academic discourse, could do much to set things aright.
The National Association of Scholars, where I serve as president, has long fostered this process. In 1993, we began to talk up the idea in our newsletter as well as privately. (A number of successful “contrarian” programs already existed, most notably the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College and the John M. Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and these served as models.)
Much of our work centered on Great Books and Western Civilization programs, about ten of which were established. The most notable were at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Clemson, and Wright Community College in Chicago—the last becoming a Great Books propagation point for two-year institutions. A three-day National Association of Scholars workshop on Great Books programs, sponsored by the E.L. Wiegand Foundation, was held at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in 1997. In 2000, a follow-up meeting in Wisconsin concentrated on deepening trustee and government support.
This campaign gradually widened to include the creation of programs on the American Founding and the nature of free institutions. Several meetings, principally one held at Mount Vernon in 1999, drew in other groups, including our sister organization the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which was then planning a major study to document the decline of civic literacy. In 2000, Losing America’s Memory appeared and almost immediately prompted the passage of federal legislation authorizing “Teaching American History Grants,” which now provide a funding source for programs keyed to the study of the Founding and traditional American history.
A new and powerful stimulus was added in 2001 with fresh leadership arrived at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Under the direction of chairman Bruce Cole, formerly a distinguished art historian at Indiana University, grants began flowing in increasing numbers to research and teaching focused on the traditional humanities. In 2002, this general emphasis was complemented by a specific NEH initiative, “We the People,” that places a distinct priority on projects reviving the study of the American Founding, American history, and basic American ideals. Soon after the NEH Challenge Grants program, capable of bestowing substantial endowments, was brought under the “We the People” aegis.
The National Association of Scholars was certainly not alone in fostering this movement. As a natural reaction to mental suffocation on campus, its origins lie equally in the imagination and energy of faculty members reacting as individuals to their own campus situations. Working with, and encouraging them, we have learned a great deal about what is occurring around the country and how various strategies for creating new programs are likely to fare. Here is a glimpse of the highlights.
The most spectacular achievement has undoubtedly occurred at Princeton University, where the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions began operating in 2000. Established within the department of politics through the leadership of Cyrus McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George, the program now has an operating budget of between $1.25 million and $1.5 million per year, funded entirely by donations from enthusiastic individuals—mainly though not entirely Princeton alumni—and foundations. (The Madison Program has chosen not to accumulate an endowment and receives no funds from Princeton’s general operating budget.)
Its activities are diverse and far-reaching. Every year it brings to campus six visiting fellows, each of whom has a perspective that enriches Princeton’s intellectual diversity. The fellows engage in research, offer lectures, sometimes teach regular undergraduate courses, and supervise independent student research. The program also sponsors talks by visiting scholars and public figures whose outlooks are unlikely to receive a welcome from other Princeton programs. During the academic year such events occur almost every week. In addition, the Madison Program annually organizes several full-fledged conferences. Recently, conferences have been held on topics like “Faith and the Challenge of Secularism,” “Courts and Culture” featuring Justice Antonin Scalia, and “National Sovereignty and International Institutions.” The Madison Program also sponsors a Junior Fellows Forum that provides Princeton undergraduates with regular opportunities to interact with Madison fellows and speakers. Last year it began to work with local school districts by hosting Teaching American History summer institutes for their teachers. In addition to all this on-campus activity, the program also runs “executive precepts” in cities around the country. Originally launched by a donor in Philadelphia, these meetings are self-supporting, strengthen the links between past graduates, the program, and the university as a whole, and exemplify the program’s role as a center for civic education. These meetings continue the program’s mission of civic education; they were launched by a donor in Philadelphia, are self-supporting, and strengthen the links between past graduates, the program, and the university as a whole.
Scholars associated with the Madison Program are active in recruiting new faculty to tenure-track positions in Princeton’s politics department. One of its first fellows now occupies such a position. For younger faculty, just spending a year as a Madison Fellow improves future chances for climbing the academic ladder at other institutions.
When the program was first conceived, Princeton’s then-president and provost immediately recognized its potential for expanding the range of viewpoints represented at the university and for building upon the school’s distinguished tradition in the field of constitutional studies. The Madison Program has since worked very cooperatively with Princeton’s development office, which appreciates its ability to extend donor outreach.
The creation of the Madison program has been a landmark event, and its successes at a world-class institution have been a huge spur to emulation. In early 2003, the National Association of Scholars joined with the Madison Program to sponsor a three-day workshop for prospective program architects drawing over 40 participants. The meeting examined the Madison Program and several others as models and discussed ways to win program authorization. A similar meeting will occur this summer co-sponsored by the Madison Program and the Jack Miller Center of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. This ambitious two-week long workshop will review topics pertaining to program creation, course design, grantsmanship, the fostering of liberal education at the graduate level, and American history and political theory course content. Alumni of other schools are already noticing what the Madison Program has achieved, and asking why there isn’t something comparable at their own alma maters—and sometimes doing more than just asking.
Launched in 1999 through a special gift from alumnus Gary Gerst, Duke’s Gerst Program promotes “an understanding of the central importance of freedom for democratic government,” examining both political and economic institutions. It sponsors a four-course undergraduate teaching program combining political economy, philosophy, history, and literature, in addition to special upper-level graduate courses. Like its Princeton counterpart, the Gerst Program sponsors colloquia and lectures. It also includes such career-advancement activities as teaching fellowships for graduate students and a postdoctoral fellowship.
The program’s director, political scientist Michael Gillespie, has been delighted with the support given by Duke’s administration, which told Gillespie the program offered a splendid opportunity to engage Duke alumni interested in supporting a rigorous program that looked at America in terms of its Western heritage. Indeed, Duke has applied to the NEH for a $600,000 challenge grant, which would require matching by the university on a three-to-one basis. Since the original Gerst gift is of limited duration, an endowment will guarantee the program’s continuation. It will also allow the program to hire a new faculty member to teach American political thought.
At Brown University, the Political Theory Project is now in its second year. The project involves lecture courses in traditional political theory, coordinated by a young, tenured political science professor, John Tomasi. Funded by the William F. Donner Foundation (one of whose board members, Curt Winsor, is a Brown graduate long active in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni), and the Alice M. and Thomas J. Tisch Foundation, the project now offers ten classes taught by five post-doctoral lecturers whom Tomasi hires. Among this year’s offerings are a freshman seminar on the work of free-market economist F.A. Hayek, a lecture course on ethics and politics, and a senior seminar on the “moral foundations of American empire”—each eliciting great interest among Brown undergraduates. The project boasts the enviable distinction of having its first semester courses rated by undergraduates as not only among the most difficult ones in the department, but also the most intellectually gratifying.
Ruth Simmons, Brown’s president, met with Tomasi and Winsor last spring to discuss the program’s future and indicated sympathy for its value in increasing intellectual diversity. There is the real possibility of major gifts as Brown gears up for a capital campaign.
Colgate’s Center for Freedom and Western Civilization was created in 2003 by political scientist Robert Kraynak and several colleagues. It sponsors a lecture series, including its annual “Leaders of the Free World Lecture,” brown bag luncheon discussions for students, and civic freedom awards. Next year, it will organize a summer session for alumni on the topic of judicial review and underwrite a post-doctoral teaching fellow. The Center has already succeeded in raising $80,000 from friendly alumni and is working with the university’s development office to bring in more. Colgate president Rebecca Chopp has personally committed to helping with fundraising as a means of broadening the institution’s intellectual diversity. She has also encouraged the center to describe itself on the university’s website as promoting a “conservative viewpoint” at Colgate.
University of Colorado at Boulder
Of particularly great promise is the new Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Championed by classics professor E. Christian Kopff, the initiative was several years in gestation, gathering momentum as the Colorado university system was roiled by repeated scandals and demands for more intellectual diversity, most particularly through the state legislature’s debate of David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights. That debate culminated in a public agreement between legislators and the presidents of four major public campuses, pledging the latter to greater intellectual openness. The proposal for the center has also greatly benefited from the strong support of Tom Lucero, a member of the elected C.U. Board of Regents, as well as the backing of distinguished members of the faculty—like Patricia Limerick, the well-known historian of the American West—whose views cannot be stereotyped by detractors.
The Center, which offers a minor, was approved last December. Almost immediately thereafter the Ward Churchill affair erupted, painfully reinforcing the impression of a steep decline in standards and quality of intellectual discourse, thanks to professor Churchill’s claim that the “victims” of September 11 were akin to Nazi war criminals. With the need for the center further underscored, its prospects for continued growth are excellent.
(The positive fallout of the Ward Churchill affair is a textbook case in how institutional embarrassment can open the way for intellectual diversity’s proponents. The birth of Princeton’s Madison Program similarly occurred during a controversy over the arrival of philosopher Peter Singer, a champion of animal rights and human euthanasia. Given the yawning gulf between what American faculties consider respectable opinion and the views of the general public, such episodes are certain to be repeated.)
City University of New York
Another significant straw in the wind has been the establishment of an interdisciplinary “Free Institutions Program” at, of all places, the City University of New York. Crafted by a team of scholars led by Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson, the program will be headquartered at Bernard Baruch College and open to students throughout the CUNY system. The program is particularly interesting because of its role in a larger effort to raise CUNY’s intellectual caliber, which was spearheaded by a determined board of trustees, outstanding senior system administrators, and far-seeing donors. (See the interview with CUNY chairman Benno Schmidt in the November/December 2004 Philanthropy.)
Professor Johnson initially encountered terrific resistance from the leadership of his home campus, Brooklyn College, a bastion of political correctness. His lateral move of the program to Baruch shows how the institutionally fragmented nature of higher education presents opportunities to tactically adroit scholar-entrepreneurs. In its first year, the CUNY program has concentrated on course development, helped immensely by a grant from the Achelis and Bodman Foundations. Undergraduate courses will be offered next year, together with targeted research support for faculty members and graduate students. Many CUNY graduates recall the stellar reputation the system once had as a ladder of socio-economic mobility. The new program’s great opportunity lies in exciting these alumni.
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Moving into the “heartland,” we find the Program for Comparative American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, founded three years ago by then-adjunct faculty member and historian Steve Bullock. It aims to place the development of the United States within a global context and to inspire interest in key individuals, documents, events, and topics related to American history and the Founding. The program is developing an innovative set of undergraduate and graduate courses; it also sponsors speakers, works on curriculum design for K-12 teachers, runs professional development workshops for educators, and conducts a graduate “American Legacy” certificate program.
Dr. Bullock, now in a full-time position, has also been successfully raising money. Several local benefactors have made significant gifts, helping the program amass a modest endowment of roughly $100,000. The program is also participating in two federally funded “Teaching American History Grants” totaling nearly $2 million, and has two NEH Challenge Grants in the works, either one of which would help it reach an endowment goal of $1.2 million. The school’s administration has been highly supportive, and the long-term outlook for the program is bright.
University of Alaska
Several new initiatives have been launched at the University of Alaska, where a triumvirate of faculty members composed of historian Steve Haycox, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld, and political scientist Jim Muller have defined a theme appropriate to the quasi-frontier qualities of life up north. At the Fairbanks campus, Professor Kleinfeld has helped develop a “Leadership and Citizenship Program,” which awards a minor including an introductory course that covers concepts like freedom and equality and includes readings chosen from a variety of perspectives. A special emphasis is placed on civility in disagreement.
At the Anchorage campus, Professors Haycox and Muller have launched the “Forty-Ninth State Scholars Program” designed to let a select group of honors students study the roots of liberty in Western Civilization and the American Founding. The program also examines the special challenges of local self-government in thinly populated Alaska. An interesting aspect of this program’s history was its ability to secure a $200,000 congressional earmark through the efforts of Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alas.).
All these are accounts of success, but even taken together they fall short of a full-bore national campaign for change. Getting there will depend on the quiet perseverance of a multitude of scholars grappling with challenges peculiar to their local circumstances. Consider the following examples of the challenges involved (names withheld to protect the innocent).
Case #1: At a public university, a group of program architects find themselves confronted with an approval process organized as a multiple-veto system, in which faculty members from any department can slow, or even stop, a proposal’s progress just by registering their opposition. Such systems are not rare. Where they exist, the success of a heterodox program proposal will depend on the willingness of senior administration officials to ease it around obstacles or, failing that, on outside stakeholders who insist this be done.
Most program architects are wise to observe meticulously all the procedural niceties when seeking sanction for their proposals. They cannot expect to receive the fast-tract privileges given to orthodox ventures. Although such fastidiousness may slow things, it also puts sponsors in a much better position to complain publicly about unfair treatment. (A public furor over unfairness, stoked by the local press, was critical in getting the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Western Civilization program established.) What will happen at this public university, where both administrative sympathy and stakeholder interest seem to exist, will soon be known.
To some extent, of course, program architects have a choice of the approval route they wish to navigate. For instance, if the program plan initially restricts itself to the sponsorship of research, public lectures, and conferences, it might well avoid having to gain approval from faculty bodies and deal only with administrators instead—generally an easier task. After a program is up and running, and has demonstrated support from students and donors, it will be in a far stronger position to push for mission expansion, including the offering of courses and programs of study.
Case #2: At a private university, a faculty member who could not secure an institutional development commitment for his program proposal instead created an independent public charity to act as an autonomous fundraising mechanism. This personal development effort, which is likely to involve both private and public sources, is intended to convince the university’s leadership of the project’s widespread appeal, but it simultaneously takes the calculated risk of offending them. Here’s an experiment also worth watching.
An “offshore” entity for donations also has the advantage of deterring efforts to corrupt a new program’s integrity. Money not deposited in the university’s coffers is money that may never reach them. For the same reason, some programs avoid seeking endowments. Yet endowments are sometimes the best way for accumulating capital rapidly; if program architects are optimistic about their ability to make a contribution that their institution will appreciate, they need not forgo seeking them.
Case #3: At another private university, a faculty group is carrying on parallel negotiations about the inauguration of a program with several major donors on the one side, and members of the upper administration on the other. Because the faculty are working with these donors outside of channels, they can’t reveal the donors’ interest to the administrators without risk. The question before them, complicated by deadlines defined by the university’s own cycles of development activity, is when, how, and to what extent they should show their cards to the administration, as well as how best to ratchet up pressure without creating a backlash. In program creation, such fine calculations in situations of uncertainty are likely to be commonplace. What happens at this institution will be very instructive.
There is always some danger when a program proposal becomes known too early and in too ambitious a manner. For example, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, senior administrators conceived the idea of a new Western Civilization Program and approached a wealthy and well-known conservative alumnus for support. When the administration let word leak out prematurely, faculty radicals launched a petition drive claiming UNC was being “bought” and academic freedom imperiled. The proposal’s fate is very much in doubt.
By contrast, once a program gains formal recognition, opposition to gifts becomes almost impossible. The motto for program architects might thus be, “Build it and they will come.” Although there is no one-size-fits-all formula for creating programs, this quiet, bottom-up approach is compiling a decent track record of success.
Outside supporters of intellectual diversity need not, however, simply sit back and wait for something to happen. If alums, they can make clear to university presidents and development officers that good faculty proposals should be welcomed, and that ideological vested interests must not be given a veto. If they are members of governing boards, they can do even more. First, they can recognize that their fiduciary responsibilities do not end with balancing budgets. Universities carry balances of an intellectual nature as well, and trustees should be capable, at least in the domains of humane learning, of detecting when they are grossly in the red.
To be sure, the citadels of academic orthodoxy have thrown up imposing walls. But the garrisons within are flabby and complacent. Once confronted by real intellectual challenge, sheer numbers will count for less than might seem. Nothing better could happen to our universities than for this challenge to be made—better not only for “conservatives,” but for everyone, right, left, and center, who needs the reality check that only vigorous debate provides. To be sure, not many new programs will achieve a thoroughgoing sea change in their host institutions anytime soon, but they will irreversibly become a major part of their inner lives—and that alone will prove a watershed event in the history of American higher education.
Stephen Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars.