New Efforts to Open Minds on Campus

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1981

Philanthropists bothered by the conformity of liberal orthodoxy on college campuses have long supported outposts where alternative views could be offered to a new generation of young students. The founding of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1953 was an early effort to reintroduce students to the deep Western values behind America’s founding. Many other such efforts followed.

In 1981, the John M. Olin Foundation awarded $50,000 to professor Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago to seed a new center for exploring political philosophy and democracy. In addition to funding a series of lectures, conferences, and fellowships, this support allowed Bloom to write a pathbreaking book warning of the perils of cultural relativism and declining intellectual standards on campus. The Closing of the American Mind became an unlikely bestseller in 1987, occupying the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list for four months with withering criticisms of modern universities for dismissing great books and timeless truths in favor of trendy ideology.

The bestseller Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza, which extended this argument and popularized the term “political correctness,” was also produced with support from Olin. Olin likewise funded a series of faculty fellowships that nurtured unconventional young scholars like John DiIulio, Frederick Kagan, and John Yoo. Other donors sponsored similar initiatives to open higher ed to points of view differing from the liberal conventions that dominate campuses. The group ACTA was founded in 1995 to mobilize trustee and alumni donors.

The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University was founded by professor Robert George in 2000 with startup funding from the Olin and Bradley foundations, then donations from Princeton alumni, followed by other campus-specific groups. With financial support from a range of donors, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Fund for American Studies, the Institute for Humane Studies, and similar organizations run summer programs, reading groups, websites, and special networks that aim to round out student educations with ideas, scholars, and philosophical perspectives not otherwise represented on most college campuses. The National Association of Scholars is a similar effort to support dissenting professors; funded by donors since 1987, it has 3,000 members, holds conferences, and publishes a quarterly journal. The Veritas Fund for Higher Education is a more recent creation that allows donors to fund professors who teach America’s founding principles and history.

Another venture to improve civics knowledge among American undergraduates is the Jack Miller Center. It has established 58 on-campus institutes dedicated to study of our classic national texts, with funding from the entrepreneur who helped create the Staples company. As of 2015, he and other donors had committed over $60 million to the undertaking.