The Philanthropy behind James Q. Wilson

One of the most effective philanthropic strategies for supporting higher education is to provide funding to outstanding scholars, their students, and their research initiatives.

Consider the legacy of the late James Q. Wilson, who died this March at the age of 80. Author of one of the bestselling textbooks on American government, Wilson was a leading authority on city politics, and his book Bureaucracy was a seminal analysis of the incentive structure and decision-making culture of government agencies. His book The Moral Sense is one of the finest treatments ever written of the role of moral judgment in human nature. His work on imprisonment and policing inspired a generation of criminal justice reformers and strongly influenced one of the greatest domestic policy achievements in recent decades: the sharp reduction in crime in New York and many other American cities.

Jim Wilson’s achievements were made possible by philanthropy. Foundations and donors paid for his professor’s salary, gave fellowships to his graduate students, financed research for his most influential books, supported the magazines and journals that published his articles, drew on his judgment in making grants for scholarly work, and helped him to translate his ideas into public policy victories.

To begin with, Wilson’s salary was funded by endowment gifts. From 1972 to 1987, he was the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard, a chair endowed by a prominent Bostonian and Republican state legislator with a special interest in city politics. The Shattuck chair is a glorious exception to the rule that endowed professorships can be a risky investment for funders concerned with protecting their intent. The chair has been occupied by three distinguished experts on urban government, all of them University of Chicago Ph.D.s with a healthy skepticism of conventional faculty pieties: Edward Banfield, Jim Wilson, and now Paul Peterson, a leading authority on education policy and school choice.

From 1985 to 1997, Wilson went on to be the James Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at UCLA. The chair was funded by a restaurant pioneer who built the Sizzler steakhouse chain and was president of the UCLA Board of Trustees. As Clay LaForce, former dean of UCLA management school, recalls, “I wanted to recruit superstars to our faculty. The Collins chair, along with supplemental funds from foundations [including Olin, Smith Richardson, and Sarah Scaife], enabled us to recruit the biggest superstar of all.”

In recent years, Wilson served as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, co-teaching courses, mentoring younger faculty, and helping to design the public policy school’s curriculum. His chair was funded by the late Flora Thornton, a long-time Pepperdine regent and the widow of the founder of Litton Industries.

For two decades, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided substantial research support for three of Wilson’s major books. For instance, Sloan funding enabled three teams of graduate students to spend a semester writing case studies of different government agencies for Bureaucracy. This fit the Sloan Foundation’s objective at the time to make major investments in public administration as a new academic field. Arthur L. Singer Jr., a Sloan vice president, met Wilson through their joint service on the editorial board of Irving Kristol’s Public Interest. Sloan president Ralph Gomory was so impressed with Wilson after a lunch with him that he told Singer to “give that scholar anything he asks for.” The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation gave UCLA a $150,000 grant to support research for The Moral Sense.

Many of Wilson’s graduate students went on to be leading scholars and teachers in their own right, among them John DiIulio, James Ceaser, Steven Kelman, Pietro Nivola, and Peter Skerry. Philanthropic support from the Danforth, Earhart, and other foundations helped make their training with Wilson possible. For instance, from 1986 to 1996, Wilson was a participating professor in the Bradley Fellowship program for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Under this program, which still continues today, the Bradley Foundation gives $1.5 million a year to universities to support fellows nominated by professors invited by the foundation to serve as faculty coordinators.

Wilson also formally advised a number of foundations in their grantmaking. When pharmaceutical entrepreneur Dan Searle made an $18 million contribution to the American Enterprise Institute to fund public policy research by university-based scholars, he asked Wilson, who chaired AEI’s council of academic advisors, to serve on the advisory committee approving research projects. For many years, he served on an academic council that evaluated scholarly grant proposals for the Bradley Foundation. As a long-time board member for the Smith Richardson Foundation and then of its spinoff, the Randolph Foundation, Wilson “was a tremendous resource,” according to Randolph president Heather Richardson Higgins. “Jim was a human encyclopedia of academic knowledge. Every time we considered a grant in the social sciences, he would know the best people doing the best work to ask for advice.”

After Wilson and George Kelling wrote a 1982 Atlantic article on community policing, “Broken Windows,” the Bradley Foundation made grants to the Police Foundation to spread the authors’ concepts in law enforcement circles. Board members of the Manhattan Institute provided funds to hire Kelling as a long-time fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he and Wilson had a deep influence on the successful crime-slashing strategies of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and William Bratton, the police chief in New York and then Los Angeles.

Shortly before his death, the RAND Corporation and the Pardee RAND Graduate School established a million-dollar endowment in Wilson’s name to support dissertation fellowships and the creation of a permanent collection within RAND’s library comprised of his books, articles, essays, and major works. Wilson had been a long-time board member both at RAND and PRGS, where he co-taught a class and served as a reader of students’ dissertation work. Kip Hagopian, a venture capitalist on the PRGS board, and Donald Rice, a former president of RAND, led the funding effort. “Jim Wilson was a national treasure,” Hagopian says. “I thought we should do something to recognize Jim’s contributions to RAND while he still was involved.”

James Q. Wilson deeply appreciated the central role of philanthropy in supporting independent ideas and scholarship, including his own. In his acceptance speech for the Bradley Prize in 2007, he expressed his gratitude: “Philanthropy has profoundly shaped my life.”

Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.