Escaping the Desert of Higher Education Philanthropy

As college students throughout the country return to campus this fall, the Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR), a project of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), is offering a new publication for higher education donors. Titled “Oases of Excellence,” this guide “identifies 80-plus programs at U.S. colleges and universities that maintain high academic standards and protect viewpoint diversity.” 

Philanthropy Roundtable warned in our guidebook “Protecting Your Legacy” that giving to higher education can be fraught with risks to donor intent, and alumni are particularly vulnerable when they donate to their own alma maters. “Unless you are careful,” we note, “college and university administrations may ignore, creatively interpret, disregard or directly violate your donor intent.” The fond memories and emotions that alumni donors bring when they consider gifts to their alma maters may blind them to these dangers. 

Yet it is critically important that philanthropists committed to maintaining free speech, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity on our campuses not abandon institutions of higher education, but rather give wisely and strategically to achieve their goals. “Oases of Excellence” is a resource donors will greatly appreciate in that effort. 

The guide also serves as a reminder of what values-based philanthropy can accomplish, particularly  teaching America’s founding principles. The Amherst College James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding is named for one of the few men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Founded by Professor Hadley Arkes, his former students and other Amherst alumni, the institute fosters the study and understanding of natural rights. At the Roundtable, we believe the best way to safeguard the future of our democracy is by promoting and defending the American ideals that strengthen our free society. 

Similarly, at the University of Notre Dame, the Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government educates students about Catholic social thought and the ideas and institutions of constitutional government. Its work is supported by individual and institutional donors including the Napa Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation.

An interest in teaching America’s founding principles coupled with concerns about the lack of viewpoint diversity in academia led The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to provide the seed money to establish the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Charles Koch Foundation and individual donors also support the center in its study of liberal democracy and how the institutions of a constitutional republic might promote free and responsible citizenship.

On a personal note, I consulted FAR prior to this guide’s publication for advice on giving to my undergraduate alma mater to celebrate my 50th reunion. They suggested Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum for Political Understanding, which provides programs “directed toward gaining a better knowledge of the underlying political, cultural and social foundations of both the American Republican and other traditions.” It was an excellent recommendation. 

Interested donors can access “Oases of Excellence” online here. Our Roundtable Programs Team stands ready to help you learn more about the listed programs and the institutions that house them.

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