The left-leaning culture that prevails at most institutions of higher learning today is deeply entrenched. University faculty have erected a series of governing presumptions that make it quite difficult for anyone outside the academy—even a major donor—to influence curriculum or the selection of faculty. The canons of academic freedom are the only sacred documents on the modern campus; they decree that decisions on appointments, tenure, and curriculum are the sole province of the faculty. Any outsider who seeks to influence those decisions will be accused of violating the faculty’s academic freedom, even though the faculty often makes such decisions in the most political of ways.
Since the 1960s, left-wing academics have added several new ideological layers to the architecture of the university. “Diversity,” for example, is a doctrine developed out of whole cloth in recent years, with little in the way of philosophy or evidence to support it, but it is now used to justify recruiting more radicals to the faculty to teach ever more radically charged courses. Diversity, in practice, has been little more than a patronage scheme for various special interest groups: feminists, radical blacks and homosexuals, environmentalists, and representatives of other groups that have been recognized by the liberal establishment. Because these new faculty were recruited on ideological grounds, they logically concluded that teaching, research, and personnel decisions were to be carried out on an explicitly political basis.
This, then, is the challenge for philanthropists who wish to alter the closed and often destructive culture of the modern American university. Given the magnitude of the challenge, it may be useful to think in more modest terms. Instead of changing the culture in the near term, perhaps we should think instead about challenging it by adding new voices, different ideas, and fundamental criticisms of the reigning orthodoxy. This may well be the best means of changing the college culture, for a few powerful voices of criticism may at some point bring the entire ideological house of cards crashing down upon itself.
Here, then, are a few lessons drawn from the experience of a foundation that has tried to exert such influence over the past quarter-century. The John M. Olin Foundation, where I have served as executive director for the past 20 years, has spent large sums on academic programs in various fields, especially in law, government and public policy, economics, business, and history. Over the past two decades, Olin has spent about $350 million in total, and roughly $200 million of this has been allocated to academic programs, generally in the form of support for fellowships, publications, lectures, and research centers.
Frankly, we rarely thought of our work in terms of winning a dominant place for non-left-wing thought on campus, but only of establishing “beachheads” at leading colleges. With enough funders joining in such work, the time may soon arrive when donors, alumni, students, and discerning faculty may wish to challenge head on the ideological bias of the contemporary university and seek to have their ideas represented on an even plane with those of the current orthodoxy.
Lessons from Experience
There are several practices a wise donor should avoid: First, and most important, do not endow university programs or faculty chairs, no matter how compelling the program or the professorship may seem. University presidents will always try to talk you into making an endowment gift, but it is an inefficient way to spend money, and it encourages an illusion of permanency that is bound to disappoint the donor or his heirs. In reality, a donor can hope only to influence his own time—a period that extends into the future by 15 or 20 years at most. Moreover, once the endowment check is written, the donor loses all control over the program he has funded. Any effort to exert influence after that point will generate charges of “meddling.”
Second, it is difficult and generally unwise to try to impose a faculty appointment, especially a tenured appointment, on a university as a condition of a donation. That will generate fierce controversy; faculty members regard their control over appointments as their most precious prerogative. Any suggestion that a donor wishes to dictate an appointment will sink the candidate in question. Such controversies also make it extremely difficult to accomplish anything in the future at that institution; any program later funded by the donor will be deemed illegitimate by faculty.
Third, do not set up programs that point to pre-ordained conclusions or that imply an ideological orientation, such as chairs in “free enterprise” or centers purporting to demonstrate the falsity of Marxism. Such titles will generate controversy and raise questions about academic integrity. True, leftists sponsor ideological programs all the time, but since they run the university, they can get away with it.
These three don’ts point to a few reciprocal strategies: First, do fund programs for short, specified periods of time, perhaps from three to five years, with a promise to consider future support only after a successful evaluation of the trial period. This applies to all academic programs: professorships, fellowships, and research programs. Universities will accept these terms from foundations and individual donors just as they accept them from the government. Our rule has been to fund academic programs for three years at a time, and then generally to renew funding if they proceed according to plan, but to eliminate funding if they do not.
Second, do find established, tenured professors to guide and administer a school’s programs. There must be a person in place already who is willing and able to mount a program, simply because of the difficulty of bringing in a scholar from outside the institution. It is always dangerous to allow the university administration to choose this person, for he or she has probably been promised some administrative favor wholly irrelevant to your purposes. If there is a promising faculty member in place, seek to establish a relationship with him, perhaps by awarding a modest grant for research, coursework, or lectures. Allow that faculty member to draft a proposal and gain approval for it from his department or the college. If either tries to stop it, the faculty member can raise his own cries about “academic freedom.” But an established faculty member on the inside—or better yet, a critical mass of three or four such members—is essential for the program’s success. Once a program is launched with one or two sympathetic faculty members, they may be able to parlay this support to recruit additional faculty.
If, however, a donor cannot identify a sympathetic faculty member at a particular college, he should move on to another institution or give up altogether. A donor has to take his opportunities where he finds them and avoid an emotional attachment to a particular institution, which can lead to the funding of ineffective programs. As a friend at another foundation once said, “We fund the chefs, not the restaurants.”
Third, do define programs in terms of fields of study, such as (in our case) “The John M. Olin Fellowships in Military History” or the various “Olin Programs in Law and Economics.” It’s essential for the integrity and reputation of the programs that they be defined not by ideological points of view but by legitimate fields of study. Often a program can be given a philosophical or principled identity by giving it the name of an important historical figure, such as the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University or the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Influential Schools Provide the Greatest Leverage
In addition to following these rules, we have focused on the most influential schools in order to gain the greatest leverage, for these colleges train the young professors and generate the ideas that shape the various disciplines. Our trustees often directed the programs be named after Mr. Olin to give them a clear identity and to recognize our late donor. Let me describe a few of these programs.
James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. This is one of the most successful of all such academic centers, due largely to the energy and wisdom of its founder, professor Robert George of the Politics Department. Much has already been written about this fine enterprise [see “Build It and They Will Come” in this issue, p. 23, and “A New Birth of Civic Education on Campus,” November/December 2002], but suffice it to say that it sponsors several programs each year, in the form of lectures, courses, and conferences, designed to encourage a deeper understanding of the U.S. Constitution. It has earned a powerful influence on campus due to the high level of its activities and also because there is nothing else remotely similar to it at Princeton. It allows rising professors at other schools to strengthen their credentials with one-year postings at the Ivy League school, and helps graduate students gain sympathetic mentors for their doctoral work.
John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. This was launched in 1988 after a period of five or so years during which we funded a program of fellowships and research. The Olin Foundation has provided approximately $500,000 per year for the core operations. This money funded fellowships, faculty research, publications, conferences, and administrative costs. The Institute aims to influence the field of international studies and to establish an intellectual center at which U.S. security is a central concern. The Institute was formed and is still led by a pre-eminent scholar, Samuel Huntington, a prolific author, highly respected member of the government department, and former president of the American Political Science Association. It is organized around a very strong idea, and its presence at Harvard guarantees substantial visibility. Very able graduate students have been attracted to the program because of its Harvard pedigree along with the availability of fellowship support. Many of these students have gone on to influential careers, such as Fareed Zakaria, former editor of Foreign Affairs and now international editor of Newsweek, and Eliot Cohen, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of Strategic Command, a widely acclaimed volume on foreign policy.
John M. Olin Centers in Law and Economics at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Chicago, and George Mason University. Our staff and trustees recognized that major law schools are key institutions in American society, exerting disproportionate leverage on government and the world of ideas. How to gain access to these schools? It turned out that John Olin himself had developed an interest in the field of law and economics through his association with Henry Manne, a professor at the University of Rochester at the time and one of the field’s pioneers. The foundation, under Mr. Olin’s guidance, entered the field cautiously with some modest grants to support Manne’s programs at Rochester, then at the University of Miami, and later at Emory University (and still later at George Mason University).
Following Mr. Olin’s death in 1982, the Foundation began to make significant grants to support ambitious programs in law and economics at several major law schools, including the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Virginia, to name a few of the more prominent ones. These grants ranged from approximately $200,000 per year to as much as $1 million per year. The funds supported courses, lectures, fellowships, faculty research, and new appointments. By the time we close our doors for good, we will have spent around $60 million on these programs, which have had significant influence on the law schools—producing new faculty members, strengthening the appreciation of markets and limited government, and providing centers of affiliation for conservative law students.
In addition, due largely to Manne’s influence, we have long supported a series of conferences for federal judges sponsored by the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University. This Center offers seminars each year on a range of important subjects, such as “science and the law,” “the economics of tort law,” and “the religious origins of Western culture.” These programs are led by distinguished academics and have been attended by roughly 40 percent of all currently sitting federal judges, including two U.S. Supreme Court justices. The seminars have succeeded by focusing on substantive issues of law, history, and philosophy, and are attractive to jurists precisely because of their seriousness. The program is unique because it is academic in character, and sponsored by an academic institution, but its prime audience (and a highly influential one) is outside the academy.
John M. Olin Fellows in Military History at Yale University. The military history program at Yale has been directed by Donald Kagan, John Gaddis, and Paul Kennedy, with assistance from Charles Hill—all distinguished historians and inspirational teachers. We have funded graduate fellowships in this program for 15 or so years, at a cost of approximately $200,000 per year. Our main purpose is to support young historians in a field that most historians neglect because of the ideological prejudices that overtook the profession in the 1960s. This is almost certainly the leading program in the country in this area, and thus it has had significant leverage, leading many students to rediscover the importance of military affairs in history. Many graduates now teach at leading institutions around the nation.
John M. Olin Faculty Fellows. From 1985 to 2003, we sponsored a fellowship program for junior faculty members that provided them funds to take a year off from teaching to complete research that would allow them to compete for tenured appointments. During this time, more than 100 young faculty members were awarded fellowships in fields ranging from history to government to economics to law. A large fraction of these did win tenured appointments, and many continue to build distinguished records of teaching and research.
We were able to support many other fine programs over the years, such as the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green University in Ohio, and the late Allan Bloom’s Center for the Study of Foreign Policy and Democracy at the University of Chicago. It is never easy to anticipate the surprising accomplishments that arise from such programs. For example, several years after we began to fund professor Bloom’s program, he published a book on academic life, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which became a blockbuster best-seller and turned the learned professor into a national celebrity, giving his views wide exposure. Other examples of this kind might be cited. Supporting talented scholars can generate important work no donor could ever anticipate in advance.
An additional word of caution: It may take a long time to influence the academic world, or even a single college. It can take years of sustained support to establish a strong academic center. Important books can take several years to write and then to publish. Many years are required to train students to the point where they can take up academic posts, and several years more before they begin to have an influence on their fields. This kind of work requires patience, and also requires that donors think like institutions—that is, for the long run. This can be a challenge for individual donors who are not prepared to wait a decade or more before their funds begin to have an effect.
Donors will also find it easier to create centers in larger institutions than in smaller ones. A large university, with thousands of students and many departments, provides numerous niches for programs that most faculty members may disdain or reject, but cannot prevent. At a small liberal arts college, on the other hand, it is difficult to find niches for controversial programs, and faculty more easily mobilize to kill any program they do not like.
One final consideration: Our broad purpose should be to strengthen these institutions of higher learning from an academic point of view, rather than to create a conservative mirror image of the intolerant left-wing campus we see today. The secular revolution of the twentieth century created something of a moral vacuum in the academic world. Bereft of moral or religious ideals, academics slowly embraced the most negative doctrines. Now academics find it difficult to be for things; they prefer to be against them.
But such an attitude is a disservice to the more than 16 million students currently attending colleges and universities. While few students actually embrace the negative doctrines they are subjected to for four years, they are nonetheless deprived of the constructive educational experience to which they are entitled. It is for those students, rather than for ourselves, that we should challenge and seek to alter the prevailing culture of the academy.
A Sampling of Academic Centers Supported by the Olin Foundation
James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
The John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies
JAMES PIERESON is executive director and trustee of the John M. Olin Foundation. The Olin Foundation, in accord with its founder’s wishes, has spent itself down and will soon be closing its doors.