To Reform Higher Education, Consider Funding Academic Centers 

Throughout commencement season, colleges and universities around the country continue to grapple with how to handle a new wave of protests, encampments and even violence as pro-Palestinian activists disrupt campus life and engage in antisemitic behavior. As a result, the responses from higher ed administrators are under intense scrutiny as they make decisions on how to deal with protester demands, campus safety and the rights and freedoms of students and faculty.  

On May 23, university presidents from UCLA, Rutgers and Northwestern appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce to answer questions about campus antisemitism, their response to pro-Palestinian encampments and negotiations with protesters. This was the third time the committee has brought university leaders to Capitol Hill to testify on these topics since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing campus protests related to the Israel-Gaza war. 

Many generous higher ed donors are fed up with the failure of leadership to respond quickly and decisively to the explosion of antisemitism on campuses and protect Jewish students. Unfortunately, not only are these problems not new, they only scratch the surface of the crisis we’re facing in higher education. For decades, America’s universities have drifted from the ideals of academic excellence, intellectual pluralism, open debate and merit – and from conferring degrees that promise better economic opportunity.  

If there is any good news to be found here, it’s that donors and philanthropists have the power to change this situation, provided they go about their giving strategically. As Joanne Florino, Philanthropy Roundtable’s Adam Meyerson Distinguished Fellow in Philanthropic Excellence, noted in a recent guide, higher education can be a minefield for the unwary donor. Few grantees have shown a more whimsical disregard for donor intent than colleges and universities. Here, just as with other forms of giving, success may depend on a donor choosing the right vehicle for an investment. 

For some, that vehicle may be an academic center that aligns with their values. Such centers, whether subject to the authority of a host institution or free and independent, provide a space where students and faculty can debate ideas and consider points of view that may not be tolerated, let alone welcomed, anywhere else on campus.  

Philanthropy Roundtable encourages donors to continue supporting higher education to help advance the reform it desperately needs. In this piece, we discuss one such strategy: by supporting an existing academic center or founding a new one, donors can engage in effective and high-impact grantmaking to improve the intellectual environment at universities.  

The Trendsetters 

The degree of independence that centers enjoy from their host institution varies widely. An example of a center completely independent – financially and administratively – from its parent university is The Witherspoon Institute. Informally associated with Princeton University’s James Madison Program, Witherspoon’s physical proximity to campus allows it to draw on Princeton’s faculty and offer occasional events in collaboration with the university’s departments. To fund its education and research activities, however, Witherspoon relies entirely on its own resources.  

Witherspoon is one of the earliest examples of a university center dedicated to advancing American values. Founded in 2003 by Princeton University Professor Robert P. George, it takes its name from John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and former president of Princeton. 

The Witherspoon model, which focuses on cultural issues, has been so successful many university centers look to it for inspiration. The Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education, a grantmaking organization supporting programs and institutes at elite universities including Princeton, has helped fund similar centers at Johns Hopkins, Yale and Duke universities to name a few. 

But while Witherspoon exists separate from Princeton, an academic program may find success by being closely embedded within a university. In the case of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at Arizona State University, that’s the whole point. It isn’t just a center – it’s a school with two centers within it, along with degree programs and its own curriculum and faculty.  

Founded in 2017 with appropriated funding from the Arizona Legislature, SCETL launched a national reform movement at public universities that has spread to eight states with new departments and programs being built at colleges and universities in Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Mississippi and Texas. 

University centers can also be housed within a university while maintaining their own budgets and fundraising as an independent nonprofit. That’s the case with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University (GMU), one of the earliest and best-known academic research centers that focuses on how markets solve problems.  

Founded in 1980, Mercatus has served as a model for university centers specializing in economic issues and how research centers can bridge the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems. Led by a faculty director appointed by the provost of the university, GMU Professor of Economics Tyler Cowen, the Mercatus Center is the largest supporter of GMU graduate students and offers fellowships at all levels of study for students from colleges and universities around the world. 

These three very different institutions have served as models for university centers that have emerged in recent years at private and public universities. What all of them have in common is a commitment to advancing American values. 

The Next Generation: Five New Centers Advancing American Values 

The following is a sample of university centers and academic programs to emerge thanks to a renewed interest in funding American values on college campuses in recent years. 

The Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization “promotes study of the intellectual, artistic and political traditions that characterize Western civilization.” Housed within the University of Colorado Boulder, the center is committed to the highest academic standards and intellectual rigor. Through its many programs, the center provides a forum for free and open discourse and aims to serve as a model to other institutions by promoting balanced conversation, academic freedom and intellectual diversity on campus in a time of increasing political polarization and homogeneity. The center’s “The Free Mind” podcast welcomes professors and public intellectuals who present a diversity of viewpoints to engage in candid conversations where reasonable expression of ideas is valued. 

The Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida equips students with the knowledge, habits of thought, analytical skills and character to be excellent leaders and citizens in a free society. This is accomplished through a multidisciplinary undergraduate curriculum centered around Western tradition and the American founding, public programming to highlight the value of debate and disagreement and aiding the Florida Department of Education in implementing civics curriculum in K-12 schools. 

The School of Civic Life and Leadership housed within the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC), is an interdisciplinary home for the study of public discourse, civic life and civic leadership. A degree-granting program within UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, the school provides students with a range of courses and the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to foster meaningful conversations on contentious topics. The Civic Life and Leadership minor, for example, is structured to benefit all students by teaching how to engage productively and thoughtfully with one another, especially when they disagree. It supports “a culture of robust public argument through curricular and extra-curricular engagement, equipping students with the rhetorical and deliberative capacities to serve North Carolina and beyond as citizens, leaders and stewards of democracy.” 

The University of Texas at Austin’s newly launched School of Civic Leadership and its associated Civitas Institute will be home to a community of students and scholars on a mission to discover what it takes to preserve liberty and foster thoughtful citizenship. The School of Civic Leadership will offer students a major in civics, a minor in civics and a minor in philosophy, politics and economics. The associated Civitas Institute will be a community of scholars committed to independent thought, civil discourse, free speech, reasoned deliberation and intellectual curiosity.  

The Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society is a forthcoming center at The Ohio State University (OSU). The Chase Center will be an independent academic center physically housed in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. In 2023, the Ohio legislature chose OSU and four other universities to house academic centers focused on American values. Trevor Brown, dean of the Glenn College, stated, “Ohio State is committed to free speech, civil discourse, critical thinking and intellectual diversity on our campuses. The Chase Center will be a focal point for advancing these values and our land-grant educational mission.” A seven-member academic council is conducting the search for an executive director. 

Tips for Higher Ed Donors 

When it comes to investing in higher education, Florino offers the following advice in the form of “Top Ten Tips for Higher Education Funders” considering supporting an academic center:  

  • Ally yourself with a faculty member (preferably tenured) who shares your commitment to the proposed center’s mission and who has the academic and administrative skills to help it succeed. Build your program around him or her. 
  • If you are launching a center to champion ideas that may be viewed as controversial elsewhere on campus – free markets or free speech, for example – make sure the institution’s top administrators, right up to the president, respect academic freedom. 
  • Always allocate your funding on a year-to-year basis, contingent on the center’s performance and its fidelity in carrying out your intent. Academic and administrative personnel will fluctuate, and new arrivals may not share your same commitment to the center or your goals. 

By following this advice and supporting academic centers such as the ones featured here, higher ed donors can reshape the campus environment and restore American values in the university setting. 

Read the rest of the tips in Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Top Ten Tips for Higher Education Funders.” 

Philanthropy Roundtable’s Programs and Services team provides a one-stop shop that helps donors navigate the complexity of higher-ed giving. Learn more about our higher education donor services. 

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