6. Don't Feed the Dragon

Campuses are currently wracked by political correctness, harassment accusations, "implicit bias" goose chasing, and hate hunting. Avoid fueling the beast.

It’s not news, but in any discussion of hazards to be navigated in higher education today it bears repeating: Colleges are now completely disconnected from the views and priorities of mainstream Americans, and often enforce orthodoxies from the far edges of the political spectrum. As one wag put it recently, “Why are there some 5,300 universities and colleges in the U.S. but only one point of view?”

It isn’t just that campuses are philosophically unbalanced (something that has been demonstrated over and over, in everything from voting patterns to attitudes on sexuality to economic views). What’s more worrisome is that campuses are now illiberal. That is: they are very intolerant of speech and ideas that don’t fit with their prevailing ideological fashions, and prone to become cesspools of grievance, bias, political correctness, and witch hunting. 

There is often a kind of tail-wagging-the-dog aspect to this. Special-interest groups, by registering their objections with enough vehemence and moral dudgeon, now regularly cow entire campus populations into apologetic submission to fad thinking. The perspectives of less-ideological students and faculty—never mind the positions of alumni, donors, and citizens outside the ivory tower—are not represented at all. Tough and savvy donors can help slow this race to extremes.

First, let’s illustrate the problem, using two very recent events at Yale. In February, a group of law students invited to Yale the attorney who won a Supreme Court victory in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This was a landmark ruling in balancing the rights of religious individuals against the rights of gay-marriage campaigners, and was decided by an overwhelming 7-2 vote. Attorney Kristen Waggoner was an expert very much in the center of an important national debate, and willing to be questioned by students.

Then some student protestors labeled her and her public-interest law firm, the Alliance Defending Freedom, “homophobic, transphobic” haters. A group calling themselves the OutLaws wrote to the law-school dean demanding to know whether Yale would allow its students to work for “hate groups” like Waggoner’s ADF on university fellowships. Dean Heather Gerken wrote back to thank them for raising that issue. Then she announced that the university will henceforth deny its resources (millions of dollars annually in summer grants, fellowships, student-loan assistance) to students who intern, do post-grad work, or otherwise have contact with groups that “discriminate” on issues like “gender expression” or hold to religious creeds in other areas deemed offensive.

In April, a separate set of protests led Yale president Peter Salovey to declare his entire campus a hotbed of “discrimination and racism.” He unveiled a slew of initiatives to reshape students and staff: “implicit bias” training, instruction in running “inclusive classrooms,” a student retreat to plan equity programming. Then Yale hired a diversity enforcer to study their campus procedures. The reviewer found hardly any evidence of discrimination or harassment. Indeed, one recent disclosure showed that not a single “underrepresented minority candidate” had been withheld tenure in the latest five years of professor hirings. Nonetheless, the reviewer recommended redoubled “training” on “race and other aspects of identity and difference.”

In response, Yale declared that it will add a new deputy secretary for diversity, equity, and inclusion and hire a slew of new “diversity specialists” to reeducate students and faculty. In a subsequent Wall Street Journal essay, author Heather Mac Donald listed the Orwellian alphabet soup of “inclusion” bureaucrats who now hold court in every corner of the Yale campus: A president’s committee on diversity and inclusion. A diversity and inclusion working group. A student advisory group on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The intercultural council. A vice president for student-life diversity. A chief diversity officer. Deans for diversity and inclusion in the grad school, engineering school, law school, management school, med school, forestry school, and other departments. Scads of Title IX coordinators. Scores of equal-opportunity specialists in offices of all types. A fully staffed Afro-American cultural center. A staffed Asian-American cultural center. A staffed Latino cultural center. A staffed Native-American cultural center. One wonders: Is there an office at Yale to advocate for the needs of left-handers?

Ironically, this impressive openness and outreach in one direction is combined today with harsh censure and closed minds on other fronts. Hooting down unpopular speakers has been a varsity sport at many colleges over the last decade. Intolerance is less visible but even more pernicious in classrooms. A survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that a majority of all college students (54 percent) report they have recently had to stop sharing opinions in class to avoid personal attacks.

The long-accepted principle that “education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence”—as Robert Frost once put it—has now been completely thrown aside in higher education. Demands for “safe spaces” and speech-suppressing codes prevail on most campuses.

Some slow progress is being made on this front. The number of institutions that have ratified the University of Chicago Statement (which aims to preserve free speech on campus) rose to 65 by July of 2019. Current signees include places like UNC-Chapel Hill, Arizona State, the University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Colgate, Georgetown, Columbia, the Florida state university system, Purdue, Princeton, and George Mason University. Nonetheless: 65 protected enclaves still leaves hundreds of colleges on the wrong side of open inquiry. The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation and individual donor John W. Altman recently announced they will take adoption of the Chicago principles into account when making future grants to universities. Other donors may want to do likewise. FIRE is a helpful guide on this.

Professor Camille Paglia has noted the great irony that the last time campuses became radicalized, in the 1960s, students and faculty were demanding fewer social controls, less paternalism, less suppression of individualism. Today, in contrast, “swollen campus bureaucracy, empowered by intrusive federal regulation,” is usurping education’s traditional commitment to free flow of thought and expression. This is a violation of the rights of students as well as faculty, she warns. Paglia calls for wider exploration of ideas on campus, including unpopular ones, without squelching, and presses on college administrators: “Any disruptions of free speech must be met with academic sanctions.” Donors could second that motion. 

Another college mania whose ugly underbelly is now beginning to be exposed is the campus rape frenzy. In their book with that title, professor K. C. Johnson and legal journalist Stuart Taylor report that mob passions and ideologically skewed sexual-assault policies have destroyed rules of evidence and cross examination, presumptions of innocence, and other aspects of legal fair play at colleges and universities, ruining lives in the process. Their fact-based book reveals that hundreds of colleges are now being punished for these lapses. Since 2012, over 300 students have sued their schools in federal court after being denied due process amidst a harassment or sexual-assault charge, with 204 of those cases already ended by a verdict or settlement in the student’s favor. (Of course winning in court doesn’t necessarily repair a personal reputation that has been savaged by politicized accusers.)

Donors who keep themselves informed about these imbalances on campus will be better positioned to help moderate them. With careful guardrails around their gifts, some donors have found ways to support what is best about our higher-education establishment, without letting their funds fuel today’s poisonous culture wars on campus. One donor strategy, for instance, is channeling funds strictly to constructive, non-ideological fields.

Peter O’Donnell was a Texas philanthropist who concluded in the 1980s that the economy of his home state was too reliant on two industries: agriculture, and oil and gas. So he set out to build a third economic leg under the Texas economic stool—a high-tech sector. He made a series of gifts to the University of Texas that were tightly targeted on encouraging progress in science and math that could lead to economic growth.

Over a period of years, O’Donnell and his wife Edith gradually endowed a total of 156 separate projects and professors at U.T. in fields like microelectronics, engineering, materials science, computer theory, physics, and math. (They did all this anonymously so that the naming rights to the chairs could be used to attract matching funds—see “Privacy as a Philanthropic Pillar” in the Spring 2017 issue of Philanthropy for details.) In this way, Peter O’Donnell became the driving force behind the emergence of Texas as a powerhouse in computers, cellular technology, chip fabrication, and other fields. You could say without exaggeration that this donor put the tech in Texas. And he produced this enormous result without underwriting campus craziness—by carefully focusing his grants on economy-building hard sciences rather than making general-fund gifts that could end up subsidizing soft-headed nostrums.

Another donor who relied on close targeting to avoid tendentious college ideology is financier Paul Singer. After both of his sons went to Williams College he was solicited by their development office for a large gift to a capital campaign. He declined. He was willing to support the school, but wanted to be certain his donation would be used wisely in areas he cared about. So he called on experienced hands like fellow donor Bill Simon, Jr., Princeton professor Robby George, and former foundation director Jim Piereson for advice. Two practical recommendations emerged:

First, do not give endowment funds. Only offer a couple years of funding at a time, renewable if used to the donor’s satisfaction. Second, avoid going through the president or development office, who will direct the spending as they choose. Instead find a likeminded professor who can supervise the activities you want to support with your donation. Make sure all spending and program execution is shaped and approved by that campus ally.

Singer identified Williams political scientist James McAllister as the person to create, with his donation, a new program in American foreign policy. For about $150,000 a year, the result is a lecture series, a visiting professor, a postdoctoral scholar, a journal, summer seminars, campus events, and a core group of 15 to 20 students at a time who coalesce around the program’s hardheaded approaches to strengthening America’s position in the world. Singer notes that this amount of money would have disappeared into insignificance, or fed active nonsense, if he had poured it into a generalized capital campaign. But by defining his gift carefully, making it time-limited, repeatedly renewed, and run by a person he has confidence in, it has had real influence. He has re-upped his gift several times, and the program is entering its twelfth year. Some of the students participating in it go on to make a life’s work of the principles and information they absorb.

If you are determined to support higher education, are a savvy giver, and recoil from the idea of feeding the campus dragon, consider one of these more targeted approaches. You might be able to floss the dragon, and make it a little bit healthier. 

Karl Zinsmeister oversees publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable, and is author of The Almanac of American Philanthropy.

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