Education

The Koch Campus Controversy

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Here’s how conservative donors can have an impact on academia.

‘The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that the Kochs demonstrated the way in which any big donor can have influence over academia if the university is willing to agree to its terms.” That’s what Samantha Parsons, a former George Mason University student and now a spokesman for UnKoch My Campus, said she took away from the disclosure that the Charles Koch Foundation had made agreements with the school — a decade ago — that allowed it to influence faculty hiring.

But for anyone who has been watching universities for the past half-century, this should not have come as a surprise. As many have pointed out, the Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller Foundations have been exercising influence over American universities for decades. Their collective billions of dollars in gifts have helped to fund a reorientation of the academic programs of our elite universities. The recent focus on social justice, economic redistribution, bigger government, moral relativism, diversity, feminism, and gender equity has been supported by generous grants from these foundations.

Since 2006 (the earliest year of its database), the Ford Foundation has awarded grants to support such programs at American University, Barnard, Catholic University, Columbia, DePaul, Dillard, Duke, Georgetown, Howard, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and so on through the alphabet of prominent institutions. Ford has awarded grants amounting to many millions of dollars to promote subjects from housing subsidies to community activism to racial inequality to gender dynamics.

How did they know that the scholars they were supporting were going to arrive at the expected conclusions — for example, that racism and discrimination are the main causes of disparate outcomes in education, or that housing subsidies and generous welfare payments are critical in getting people out of poverty? Did they have discreet agreements with universities to make certain that sympathetic professors and administrators would direct the programs they support?

The answer is “probably not”: While some universities do allow such arrangements, it’s unlikely that the biggest philanthropies use them. The vast majority of professors and administrators on campus already agree with the outlook being promoted through these foundation grants. The Ford Foundation and other large philanthropies can award grants to top academic institutions in full confidence that their aims will be faithfully carried out.

Conservative and free-market foundations, though, must take a different approach owing to the ideological landscape of higher education. They cannot simply send open-ended checks to favored institutions in the hope that the funds will support teaching and research on constitutional government, free and open markets, and related subjects. If they wish to ensure that their funds are spent to support alternative viewpoints on campus, they have to allocate those funds to support particular individuals, departments, and programs with proven track records in these fields of instruction and research. Otherwise, the funds are likely to be diverted to other purposes in keeping with the ideological climate on campus.

As John Hardin of the Charles Koch Foundation has noted, “the irony of the controversy is that our intention is to ensure faculty are protected. There are many times when a university will take resources from faculty and send them somewhere else.” With agreements in place, professors can push back against efforts to divert those funds.

The entire controversy has been blown out of proportion, as the Koch Foundation abandoned those agreements many years ago and never actually tried to exercise the kind of influence granted by the contracts. Everyone is aware of the practical difficulty of exercising outside influence on the selection of professors, owing to nearly complete faculty control over the process and the extreme sensitivity to efforts by donors to influence it. For that reason, sophisticated donors start with credible faculty members in place and seek to build solid programs on that foundation — permitting those professors to select graduate fellows, outside lecturers, visiting professors, and perhaps full-time faculty. That means donors must follow the talent, rather than trying to create it in place. It requires some patience: Academic programs typically take a number of years to bear fruit as graduate students complete their degrees and move on to faculty posts and scholars pursue their research leading to publication of books and articles.

Donors need not feel any obligation to fund programs that undermine the very ideals that allowed them to achieve success in the first place.

Fortunately, there are now dozens of good programs on leading campuses that support courses and research on America’s founding documents, the evolution of constitutional government, the philosophical underpinnings of limited government and individual freedom, the advances that arise from free markets, the role of religion in a free society, and similar subjects. Thanks to investments made in past decades, conservative and free-market donors have many options available to support campus programs while maintaining fidelity to their principles.

There are, in addition, numerous off-campus organizations that support courses, seminars, and lectures on campus for undergraduate students — among them, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, and the Young America’s Foundation. The Federalist Society organizes high-quality programs for law students, and the Jack Miller Center supports graduate and post-doctoral fellows in government and history. The great virtue of these off-campus programs is that donors can use them to fund good programs for students without going through the maze of academic bureaucracies.

But people, programs, and institutions have a way of changing course, often without much in the way of advance notice — a condition that is especially pervasive on the college campus. For this reason, conservative and libertarian donors should follow a few simple rules in supporting campus programs: send the funds to people and programs with track records of performance; send it for a restricted period of time, perhaps three or four years at a time; renew the funding if the program performs and cut it off if it does not. In other words, invest in campus programs as one might invest in a business opportunity.

Of course it’s important to preserve a university’s academic freedom, but donors need not feel any obligation to fund programs that undermine the very ideals that allowed them to achieve success in the first place.

— James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institution. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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