Giving to one’s alma mater is fraught with risk. Some schools misuse funds, as Princeton is accused of doing with a celebrated gift from Charles and Marie Robertson, now the subject of a major lawsuit. In 1995 Yale returned $20 million to alumnus Lee Bass after long delays in creating a program in Western civilization. And last fall, Hamilton College faculty members blocked a gift from an alumnus that would have funded a center for the study of Western civilization.
But success can be had. Gary Gerst, a graduate of Duke University, started a highly successful Duke program on the history of freedom. The program, which is popular with students and faculty alike, reflects his intended goals of exploring ideas that in the context of the current political correctness on campus might otherwise be neglected.
Like many alumni of Duke and other elite universities, Gerst became deeply disturbed in the 1980s and 1990s by what he saw as ideological intolerance on college campuses and the virtual exclusion in many places of conservative and free-market viewpoints. “I was unhappy with the extreme left attitude reigning at almost every academic institution of any quality in America,” says Gerst. “I don’t think Duke is any worse in this regard than any of the other first-rate colleges, but I see no reason why people who don’t agree with what is going on continue to shell out money to their universities.” In giving generously to Duke, Gerst was determined not to let his own money advance ideological intolerance.
Gerst was also concerned with the watering down of academic standards through such developments as grade inflation—as an engineering student at Duke he knew what rigorous standards were all about. And while he was not tied to the idea of a Great Books approach to liberal learning, he nevertheless believed that many traditionally acclaimed works, both fiction and nonfiction, were superior to the trendy writing popular on many college campuses.
“There was a period at Duke when [Stanley] Fish was head of the English department,” says Gerst, “where there was this attitude that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and that there was no such thing as good writing or bad writing. Students in English departments were beginning to read some pretty trashy stuff as opposed to what people for a very long time considered good writing.” Gerst was determined that any program he would fund would be marked by reading material selected on the basis of substance rather than popular fashion.
He was particularly interested in furthering an appreciation for the role that freedom and ordered liberty have played in the political, economic, and cultural development of America and the West, and in the lives of morally responsible individuals.
Gerst’s idea found energetic champions in Duke political philosopher Michael Gillespie—who would become the driving force transforming Gerst’s vision into the reality of an academic program—and in Michael Munger, the chairman of Duke’s political science department. One reason for the political science department’s receptivity to Gerst’s ideas may be because it reflects a greater variety of viewpoints than many other departments. For instance, a 2004 review by the Duke Conservative Union of Duke’s top academic deans and the faculty in eight liberal arts-oriented departments found 142 registered Democrats and only eight registered Republicans. Some very large departments, such as history, contained no registered Republicans at all (the final history tally: Democrats 32, Republicans 0). Of the eight Republicans uncovered by the Conservative Union survey, six were in Duke’s political science department (which also contained 26 Democrats). Munger himself is an outspoken “free-market liberal” in the tradition of Adam Smith, James Madison, and Friedrich Hayek, and makes no attempt to conceal his disdain for socialism and the totalitarian left, which has had a disastrous effect, he believes, on 20th-century politics, economics, and intellectual development (Munger was himself a radical socialist for a time in his student days).
What the collaborative efforts of these men have wrought is the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies, a multi-layered program that examines different meanings of freedom and liberty and the role those concepts have played in Western and American history. The program looks at the abolition of slavery, the overthrow of monarchies, the growth of democracy and national self-determination, the success of movements to guarantee political and economic rights to women and ethnic minorities, the expansion of free markets around the world, and the rise and later collapse of communism and its claim to represent a truer form of freedom and liberty.
Michael Gillespie’s scholarly background in political theory and 19th-century German philosophy has helped him to focus the program on the Big Questions that emerge from the Western philosophical tradition—especially those related to freedom and moral responsibility.
The Gerst program dovetails with another curricular innovation at Duke called the Focus program, which allows students in their freshman year to study a single theme throughout a semester. The students choose from an integrated “cluster” of courses (all classes have no more than 15 students), live in a dorm with other Focus students, and meet regularly with faculty outside class. The Gerst program sponsors a cluster called Visions of Freedom.
This theme cluster brings together professors from the political science, public policy, history, English and economics departments to explore with thirty freshmen each year “the various competing conceptions of freedom and their historical origin.” The cluster description asks: “Do we know what it means to speak of a free people, a free government, a free economy, or of personal or moral freedom?” Recent Visions of Freedom offerings have included a seminar on the classical defenders of liberty in English and American writing (e.g., Milton, Locke, Mill, Jefferson); on the contrasting views of order provided by a hierarchic model of governance versus the spontaneous order expressed through competitive markets and a freely floating price system; on the criticism of classical conceptions of liberty offered by Marxist-Leninists, fascists, poststructuralists, and certain varieties of feminism; and on the conflicting visions of the relation between public freedom and social responsibility in the works of major Western political philosophers from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
In addition, the Gerst program sponsors an ongoing colloquium and speaker series and an annual spring conference that brings together nationally known experts to discuss a pre-selected Gerst theme. It also funds a postdoctoral fellowship that permits a recently minted Ph.D. to teach two courses per year at Duke to upper-level undergraduates on subjects related to the major themes of the program. The program also provides money to graduate students for teaching fellowships and to experienced university professors to develop one interdisciplinary team-taught course per year for graduate students and advanced undergraduates.
Although the content of all the Gerst-sponsored courses is left up to the individual academics who develop them, all courses are expected to embody the highest standards of scholarship and make considerable demands upon students in terms of reading and writing requirements. All indications are that these expectations have been met.
The success of the Gerst program has attracted additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, another Duke alumnus, two internal Duke programs, and the Templeton Foundation’s now-defunct Freedom Project. Leonard Liggio, the former executive director of the Freedom Project and current executive vice president at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which continues the Freedom Project’s work, says they were “easily impressed by the highest academic quality of the Duke University faculty. Their scholarly interaction with the Duke students has led to continued support for the program.” The Gerst program shows that even on a campus as large as Duke’s, a relatively small program can make a big difference by expanding the range of ideas introduced to students. It underscores the fact that a few dedicated people, with the support of college administrators, can get such programs up and running.
Russell K. Nieli, a lecturer in Princeton University’s politics department, is author of The Decline and Revival of Liberal Learning at Duke: The Focus and Gerst Programs, published in March 2007 by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.