Before William F. Buckley Jr. called himself a conservative, he was a campus rebel. God and Man at Yale, his first book, issued an eloquent, bracing call for his fellow alumni to wake up to Yale’s betrayal of “Christian individualism” and do something about it. He wisely refrained from specifying what was to be done, but he proposed, for a start, that disaffected alumni consider withholding their financial support from Yale.
That was in 1951. Today, almost half a century later, alumni discontent has yet to halt or even slow Yale’s leftward drift. To be sure, the university has lost money as a result of its new orientation-most recently, a grant of $20 million from alumnus Lee Bass which was revoked when the University failed to establish a promised program on Western Civilization. But this was a price Yale was prepared to pay, and who knows if the loss was not more than compensated for by increased giving from liberal alumni? What Buckley feared has come to pass: “If the present generation of Yale graduates does not check the University’s ideological drive,” he predicted, “the next generation most probably will not want to.”
In this respect, Yale’s experience is typical of every major U.S. college and university. Faculty opinion and instruction have moved to the left, often to the far left; college administrators have acquiesced in or encouraged the shift; and alumni opinion has, in the main, either ignored it or cheered it on. These developments raise troubling questions for philanthropists who wish to advance conservative principles on campus, or even to sponsor traditional forms of scholarship in the liberal arts. Does it make sense to continue supporting American higher education, given its implacable bias? And if so, how should grants be tailored to do the most good?
What Buckley diagnosed brilliantly in 1951 is still true today: the structures of university governance do not work as advertised. In theory, the faculty is responsible to the trustees (or the corporation board), and the trustees are responsible, symbolically and often factually, to the alumni. In reality, alumni are (generally speaking) bamboozled by the college’s trustees and administrators, who in turn gladly defer, on almost all educational (but not financial) matters, to the faculty.
Most alumni, of course, are not interested in educational policy. They’re interested in football, new buildings, old friends, and perhaps nowadays, in the national newsmagazines’ rankings of their alma mater, since they like to bask in its reflected glory. To some extent, then, the alumni are self-bamboozled. But university administrators work diligently to make sure that the only news alumni hear is good news, which, since the administration controls the alumni magazine and college public relations, is rather easily done. Thus, so far as the alumni are supposed to know, every college in the country is educationally sound (no, excellent!) and financially needy.
The trustees have greater contact with the actual educational condition of the school, but little incentive to inquire about it. Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die-in fundraising, that is. But to be fair, they are in a difficult position. Most trustees are intelligent businessmen who would not be caught dead in a business whose product they did not feel competent to evaluate. Yet that is precisely how they feel about the educational product of their university: Who are they to contradict, for example, the English department’s judgment that it needs a deconstructionist professor? This intellectual modesty, laudable in so many respects, is usually fatal to the trustees’ ability to shape the college’s educational goals and character. No wonder that most trustees prefer to concentrate on admissions, student life, physical plant, athletics, and, of course, fundraising.
The common result of these breakdowns in the formal system of college governance is that the faculty tends to rule the campus, except on budgetary and a few other matters. I stress that this is a generalization, even a gross generalization; there are many schools, including my own, with strong presidents and vigorous trustees. Nor is an authoritative faculty necessarily bad. Ever since its medieval beginnings, the university has been at its heart a community of scholars, governed by master scholars who are qualified to be teachers of younger scholars. But an authoritarian faculty, fusing intellectual and political correctness, is another thing entirely. And it is this kind of faculty that dominates many academic departments and universities today, that has educated thousands of alumni who find the secularist and collectivist bias of today’s colleges perfectly congenial.
So should conservative and traditionalist foundations and other grantmakers shun the contemporary academy? Clearly, they cannot count on liberal and, in some cases, radical faculties to administer faithfully general endowment grants. Support must be carefully targeted to particular faculty members, programs, departments, and schools; temporary and conditional grants are, in general, preferable to irrevocable ones. Still, endowment grants can’t be abdicated altogether because that would simply invite the Left to fill the resulting vacuum, thus gratifying its academic pretensions. The prudent course might be to assign endowment funds primarily to university centers and programs that have interested and reliable boards of governors separate from the university’s main corporate board.
In the long run, however, conservatives and educational traditionalists have to be prepared to found, or help found, new institutions of higher education. After all, the rehabilitation of education has been an essential part of every serious reform movement, from the Protestant Reformation to American Progressivism. In the decades since Bill Buckley enrolled at Yale, for example, impressive new traditionalist colleges or institutes within colleges were established-e.g., Claremont McKenna College, the Institute for Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, St. John’s College (Santa Fe), Thomas Aquinas College-even as Yale and most old-guard universities continued down the beaten ideological path. Founded deliberately to resist some of the most pernicious trends in modern education, these new institutions attracted officers, trustees, and teachers who shared, by and large, the same sense of redeeming mission.
Experience suggests, therefore, that fundamental educational reform will take hold in new ventures more quickly and more lastingly than from attempts at marginal reform of the older institutions. True, the costs of creating new institutions-and helping to sustain them once created-are high. These costs may be mitigated, in some cases, by erecting the new ventures alongside existing colleges, which would allow the schools to share expensive services like libraries and laboratories; by eliminating some of the more exotic academic specialties; and by hiring young Ph.D.s whose traditional modes of scholarship are scorned by the regnant professoriate. There is room for new graduate as well as undergraduate institutions, of course, and perhaps even for small, elite, carefully focused, freestanding graduate schools of the New School or Rand variety.
I am not arguing that financial support for individual scholars of great ability at Yale, Chicago, and other universities ought to be curtailed, needless to say. Their work remains vital. But new ventures, conceived and executed in the spirit of these solitary researchers, might reach thousands of students more than they can reach, at least directly. The character of such schools would be reflected in their students, and eventually, perhaps, in our social and political life.
Charles R. Kesler, a Harvard man, is director of the Henry Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College.