Politics & Policy

Michael S. Joyce, R.I.P.

The legacy of a conservative philanthropist.

Effective philanthropy usually requires two different kinds of people: Someone to make the money and someone else to spend it wisely.

Michael S. Joyce, who died on Friday at the age of 63, was one of the conservative movement’s great philanthropic spenders. As executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation (1979-1985) and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (1985-2001), he was responsible for tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of spending on conservative ideas and causes. His name will long be linked to the rise of school choice, welfare reform, and faith-based initiatives.

“Mike was an inspirational leader,” said James E. Piereson, who was Joyce’s understudy and then his successor at the John M. Olin Foundation. “He basically invented the field of modern conservative philanthropy–it existed before him and he didn’t do it alone, but he made it far more successful than it had been.”

Joyce was born to a family of Democrats in Cleveland in 1942. He attended Catholic schools and then Kent State University, where he hoped to play football. Injuries kept him sidelined, and eventually he transferred to Cleveland State and graduated with degrees in history and philosophy. He taught history and coached football at St. Edward High School, and then took a job at the Education Research Council of America, which was producing textbooks. In 1975, he moved to Baltimore to run the Morris Goldseker Foundation.

During this period, Joyce saw himself as a liberal–but in fact he was a neoconservative in the making. As he read Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal and Michael Novak in Commentary, he began to harbor doubts about the great social programs of the 1960s. “I could see how well-intended programs set out to achieve impossible ends, and what kind of wreckage they created through unintended consequences,” he said. “It was a huge disappointment.”

He eventually came to the attention of the neocons, who shepherded him into the conservative movement first with a job at the Institute for Educational Affairs and then with his post at the John M. Olin Foundation.

“He was better at the job the day he walked in than I was the day I walked out,” said Frank O’Connell, his predecessor at the John M. Olin Foundation, on Sunday. “He had an extraordinary talent for perceiving what was needed as well as an extraordinary ability to see his projects through.”

Joyce, who earned a Ph.D. from Walden University, was an intellectual among activists and an activist among intellectuals. At the John M. Olin Foundation, he played a part in launching the Federalist Society, starting The New Criterion, and providing Allan Bloom with the financial support that eventually would allow him to write The Closing of the American Mind (which in its initial form was an essay in National Review). Following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Joyce served on the new administration’s transition team and was instrumental in securing William Bennett’s first job in Washington as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Mike was one of the great strategic geniuses of modern philanthropy and he was a dear friend of freedom,” said Adam Meyerson, president of the Philanthropy Roundtable–another organization that bears Joyce’s clear imprint.

In 1985, Rockwell International bought Milwaukee’s Allen-Bradley Company. One result of the purchase was to pump nearly $300 million into the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The suddenly enriched philanthropy recruited Joyce to lead it, with a mandate that he turn it into what one of the board members called “Olin West.”

To the extent that the Bradley Foundation funded conservative intellectuals, Joyce stayed true to this objective. Yet the Bradley Foundation was not simply a clone of the John M. Olin Foundation. Instead, it was committed to supporting local initiatives in Wisconsin. Joyce’s genius was to leverage conservatism’s best ideas and apply them on the state, county, and city level, where they wound up nevertheless having a national impact.

At the Olin Foundation, for instance, Joyce helped Charles Murray secure a grant that contributed to the success of Losing Ground, a landmark book on welfare. At the Bradley Foundation, Joyce worked with political figures in Wisconsin, such as Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, to push through welfare-reform measures that were inspired by the work of Murray and others. This in turn helped create the conditions for Congress and President Clinton to overhaul welfare at the federal level in 1996.

Joyce was even more closely connected to school choice, which has achieved greater success in Milwaukee than anywhere else. Earlier this month, Wisconsin’s current governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, agreed to raise the number of Milwaukee students who can use public money to attend private schools from 15,000 to 22,500. It is safe to say that without Joyce’s influence at the Bradley Foundation, few of these voucher kids would have had an alternative to the city’s government-run schools. Moreover, the very cause of school choice would not be nearly as prominent as it is today–it might still be a fantasy in the mind of Milton Friedman rather than a reality in one of America’s big cities.

In Milwaukee, Joyce also gained a deep appreciation for the importance of faith-based organizations in the lives of the poor, whether it was church groups that provided job training or Catholic schools that offered an education. Through his work on welfare and school choice, Joyce became a founding father of “compassionate conservatism”–a term that may mean many things, but one that also would have been nearly impossible for George W. Bush ever to utter without Joyce’s work at the Bradley Foundation. After Joyce left the foundation in 2001, he worked in conjunction with the Bush administration to promote the president’s agenda on faith-based initiatives. At a speech in 2002, Bush praised Joyce and his legacy: “The Bradley Foundation has always been willing to seek different solutions. They’ve been willing to challenge the status quo. They’d say, ‘Where we find failure, something else must occur.’”

“Mike was a populist in the best sense of the word,” said Frank Cannon of Capital City Partners, who cooperated with Joyce on faith-based programs. “He believed that people are able to run their own lives from the bottom up, and that this is preferable to some government’s running them from the top down.”

Joyce may go down in conservative history as one of its most important philanthropic spenders, but in fact he was a great builder–a builder of ideas and institutions that already have outlasted him and almost certainly will outlast the rest of us.

A final, personal word: Over the last several years, I have interviewed Mike Joyce extensively for a handful of projects, including my latest book, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America, as well as my Philanthropy Roundtable monograph, Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America, which covers the Olin and Bradley experiences. During these conversations, both face-to-face and over the phone, I came to admire his sharp mind and its ability to see the connections between ideas and public policy. Every talk with him left me feeling wiser than I had been going into it. He was a unique talent, and he is irreplaceable.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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