WHEN MY WIFE ETHEL AND I BEGAN discussing a major gift to an academic institution, we wanted to do something new and off the beaten track of bricks-and-mortar, scholarships, and endowed chairs. We also talked at length about the problems of higher education and how we might help to solve them. Our grandsons, Harrison and James, were just finishing college and from them we had a pretty clear idea of the dismal state of today’s campus landscape. Both reported that the news about political correctness and multiculturalism is largely true. While it is surely an exaggeration to say that the traditional liberal arts curriculum is gone, it is true that an entire generation of graduate and undergraduate students is being trained to a drumbeat critical of the Western tradition as racist, sexist, homophobic, hegemonic, Euro-centric, and rationalistic (a vice, it now seems!). The path to academic success is definitely smoother for those who adhere to this fashionable view. The graduate students are, of course, the professoriate of the future and the teachers of the coming generation of leaders in politics and business. What happens in the seminar room, no matter how bizarre or arcane, eventually makes its way to the boardroom.
Now, Ethel and I have the deepest respect for the great books and ideas of the Western tradition. If that tradition is so bad, how is it that we have from it-and only from it-democracy, capitalism, the ideals of freedom, equality of opportunity, and the dignity of the individual? To us it would be nothing short of a catastrophe for this great tradition to disappear as the focal point of a liberal education. Yet the traditional curriculum definitely is on the defensive these days: we hear of English departments where Shakespeare is no longer required and history departments that teach nothing about America. The faculty at Yale could not bring itself to live up to the terms of a generous gift intended for new courses on the Western tradition, and had to return the money-with interest. So it seemed appropriate that we use a LeFrak Foundation gift to help assure the survival and vitality of traditional liberal education.
Ethel and I had been to Michigan State University a few years earlier, when I had been awarded an honorary degree. While there, we met a group of scholars of political philosophy in the political science department. These professors are very accomplished: they have fine graduate degrees, are good and popular teachers, and have impressive records of research and publication. But they are also steeped in and respectful of the Western tradition and, unlike many professors in the social sciences and humanities, respectful of entrepreneurial capitalism and free-market solutions to social problems. After prolonged discussions involving these professors, Ethel and me, and my grandson, Harrison, we decided to endow a program: the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State University. Endowing a program — rather than a building or a chair — met the criterion of establishing a new and vital entity. The aims and activities of the Forum met the criterion of doing something to help traditional scholars hold their own against the current academic tides.
The LeFrak Forum’s theme is political philosophy and public policy. The word “philosophy” often signifies airy abstraction unconnected with the real world. But at the LeFrak Forum, the idea is that much of what people think about practical affairs is determined ultimately by deeply embedded and barely conscious beliefs about what is good and bad, just and unjust. The LeFrak Forum will approach pressing and concrete issues by exposing the underlying and philosophical foundations of conflict. The Forum will always remind us that these foundations are not just derived out of nowhere, even though most people-and increasingly more scholars and students-don’t know where they come from. We get them-and hence the very terms of our debates and differences-from the historical tradition of Western thought. The Forum will not insist on agreement. Rather, it will strive to expose the real grounds upon which we disagree about such practical matters as how big government should be, whether a person is first an individual or a member of a group, and whether America should mind its own business or police the world.
The Forum pursues its mission by sponsoring an array of activities: lecture series and international conferences, research and publication, post-doctoral research fellowships, and enriched graduate and undergraduate education. The aim is to enliven, deepen, and diversify debate on campus and to provide fresh views on public policy to those who lead in politics and society and to those who form or influence public opinion. But most important, the LeFrak Forum ensures that at Michigan State the Western tradition will always be studied and that free-market points of view toward the solutions to social problems will always get a fair hearing. But what about this “always”? It is one thing to help scholars or a curriculum one knows. In fact, it’s important to know the people involved so the gift gets used for the purpose you intend. But it’s quite another thing to have confidence that the program one endows will continue long after the people one knows are gone. This has to be a serious concern for any donor who gives a permanent endowment to a program or particular curriculum. Buildings and endowed chairs are pretty stable. But programs can easily change over time and even become the opposite of what they were at the outset. Solving this problem was very important to us. The solution was unique and, we hope, a model for what others can and should do. The terms of the endowment agreement were tailored to ensure that the purposes and spirit of the LeFrak Forum would always be maintained. There were two crucial issues.
First, it was important to spell out the meaning of the LeFrak Forum’s goals in concrete detail. To this end the agreement stipulates that free-market points of view must always get a fair hearing in LeFrak Forum activities. The agreement says that the Forum must always provide a venue for arguments in favor of “liberty and free enterprise capitalism and the study of the Western philosophic and intellectual tradition, especially as it establishes the moral and conceptual basis for constitutional democracy, limited government, the American Founding, individualism, freedom of expression and economic enterprise, and entrepreneurial and market based approaches to national and global political and social problems.” And lest there be any uncertainty about what the “Western tradition” really is, the agreement actually lists the specific authors on whose works LeFrak Forum teaching and research must focus. They are: “such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Adam Smith, Burke, the American Founders (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Adams), de Tocqueville, Hegel, Mill, Nietzsche, Weber, Heidegger, and Strauss.” This list is of course not exhaustive; but no one could mistake who must always matter the most at the LeFrak Forum.
Second, it was essential to assure full academic freedom and autonomy as those values are understood by the relevant university officials. Donors to programs must understand this concern. It does no good to exert positive influence on the university curriculum by threatening academic freedom. Such attempts will not and should not succeed. Furthermore, it does no good to one’s own cause to set up programs in which the converted speak only to their respective choirs. That’s the very problem on campus these days: not enough real intellectual diversity, not enough respect for all points of view, too much lemming-like adherence to fads. The agreement therefore specifies explicitly that “all points of view can and will be presented at the LeFrak Forum.” Critics of the Western tradition and capitalism will have their say. They just won’t go unchallenged. And finally, it should be noted that while the agreement provides for our advice, it makes absolutely clear that appointment and review of LeFrak Forum personnel is determined by appropriate academic officers of the University. Donors must never try to appoint professors to their programs. That would violate institutional autonomy. Ethel and I are proud of the Forum, which is now in business and off to a wonderful start. We’re sure that it will prosper and grow, make a real contribution to education at Michigan State, and be a significant voice in national and international policy debates. We hope that other philanthropists will follow our lead and the model of the LeFrak Forum. We hope they will endow programs that support education in our precious Western tradition.
Samuel J. LeFrak is chairman of the Lefrak Organization. Founded in 1905, the company is among the largest private building firms in the world, and is engaged in oil and gas exploration throughout the United States. Mr. LeFrak is an advisory director of the Metropolitan Opera and a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum, the Queens College Foundation, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School.