It is easy to give money foolishly to colleges and very hard to give it wisely.
But at a handful of schools, enlightened alumni not only have learned how to avoid misguided benevolence but are also figuring out how to re-introduce serious scholarship to their campuses. Their initiatives are doing what presidents and trustees have failed to do: break the Left’s illiberal stranglehold on their institutions’ intellectual life and restore true academic freedom to campus.
Their strategies are very different from most big-time college giving, which too often funds some of today’s more regrettable violations of scholarly seriousness. One of Harvard’s most prominent benefactors, Sidney R. Knafel (Harvard AB ’52, MBA ’54), is a prime example of misguided philanthropy. Chairman of Insight Communications, the nation’s ninth-largest cable company, with a market value of some $2.1 billion, Knafel has recently forked over a juicy $1.5 million to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a font of feminist grievance and left-wing posturing.
The Radcliffe Institute supports some of the silliest academic orthodoxies around—a belief that knowledge, gender, and race are “socially constructed” rather than based on any reality, a fascination with homosexuality, and an obsession with endemic American sexism and racism. At the end of this past academic year, the institute brought two prominent feminist journalists to lecture on campus. Susan Faludi—whose 1991 bestseller, Backlash, argued that the “patriarchy” was trying to re-enslave women—claimed preposterously to her Radcliffe audience that 9/11 had triggered yet another “backlash against feminism.” Barbara Ehrenreich, who lectured on “Weird Science: Challenging Sexist Ideology since the 1970s,” is a fierce critic of the economic system that made donor Knafel a megamillionaire. American capitalism, in her eyes, is a racket whereby the privileged perpetually exploit the underprivileged.
Faludi and Ehrenreich might form one side of an interesting debate about women’s equality, but the Radcliffe Institute shows no inclination to invite speakers who would argue the other side: not only that American women are the freest in history, but that they are free, period, thanks to the Western tradition of individual rights. Instead, many of the institute’s humanities and social-science fellows pursue left-wing topics, from discussing “how feminist knowledge travels” through a close analysis of the 1970s women’s-health book Our Bodies, Ourselves, to “exploring the intense interest in female same-sex relations” in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Branching out into ethnic advocacy, a lecture this spring claimed that the U.S. subjected Mexican immigrant workers (read: “illegals”) to “terror” and “surveillance.”
But the Radcliffe Institute’s most enduring contribution to American academia will be its role as command center for the pillorying of Harvard president Lawrence Summers. In January, Summers had hypothesized that the distribution of mathematical skills in men and women might possibly influence the ratio of male to female scientists at elite institutions. Outraged, the Radcliffe Institute organized a March conference to discuss the “receding mirage” of “equity” for female scientists and in May published the Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty (see following article). Radcliffe Institute dean Drew Gilpin Faust, the task-force chair, predicted that the recommendations would “transform . . . the culture of the entire university community.” Alas, they will. They will further dilute meritocratic hiring standards at Harvard (and across the country) by embedding gender and race quotas even deeper into academic culture.
Earlier this year, Sidney Knafel endowed two fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute in honor of his mother and mother-in-law. Why would this capitalist entrepreneur do such a thing? Did he fully understand what his $1.5 million would be funding? Knafel described his mother-in-law, namesake of the new Mildred Londa Weisman Fellowship, as someone who had “high ideals and little tolerance for self-centered obstacles that seemed to thwart the realization of those ideals.” What would Mrs. Weisman have made of the institute’s many speakers who see “obstacles” to women’s progress everywhere in American society? Radcliffe Institute lecturer Rebecca Walker, for example, created the “I Spy Sexism” initiative, which asks young women between the ages of 15 and 30 to keep logs of the “sexism, racism, and homophobia” that they see as they walk down the street or go to movies. Mildred Weisman’s “most salient motivation [was] truth,” added Knafel. She would have felt quite out of place at the institute, then, whose scholarship too often embraces the postmodern view that “truth” is merely an artificial construct created by the dominant power structure.
Knafel’s other honoree—his mother, Lillian Gollay Knafel—would probably have been just as bewildered by the Radcliffe Institute. Whereas Mrs. Knafel, a founder of a League of Women Voters chapter in suburban New York, worked on World War II war-bond drives, the Radcliffe Institute will be deconstructing war and gender next fall with a conference entitled “In the War Zone: How Does Gender Matter?” Topics will include “Home Front / Battle Front: The Gendered Geography of War.”
Knafel claimed that if his mother had known “what Radcliffe is about in giving shape to the Radcliffe Institute, she would have proclaimed that this is clearly just right. What more effective direction could one take with the rich assets developed under the Radcliffe name?” In fact, quite a few more effective directions suggest themselves, such as studying how Western ideals of freedom and women’s rights can be exported to repressive societies, or how to strengthen marriage in the inner city so that children can be raised with the guidance of their fathers and women don’t live in poverty.
Such mismatches as the Knafel fellowships will continue, however, for most donors can’t possibly decode the jargon of constructivism and wouldn’t believe its premises if they could. An academic insider hears such Radcliffe research topics as “how the conceptualizations of race and poverty have shaped discourses of social mobility, cultural difference, and nation building,” or how the “twenty-first century reenactments of [a slave couple’s story] illuminate the constructions of black masculinity and femininity they help to fabricate,” and immediately knows the worldview that these mannered phrases connote. But how could a businessman who graduated from college back in 1952 guess that beneath the ubiquitous “discourses,” “constructions,” and “negotiated meanings”—behind the coy hyphens, parentheses, and slashes—lies the belief that there is no such thing as the “self,” or “truth,” or “males” and “females,” or “good” and “bad,” that all are arbitrary categories designed by an oppressor class of white male heterosexual capitalists to keep a victim class of minorities, women, and poor people silenced and powerless? How could he know that, according to the dominant campus ideology, Western civilization is merely a factory for “colonialism, slavery, empire and poverty,” as a Yale English professor puts it, and that the purpose of studying its great works is to unmask the various defenders of white male privilege?
Now it is of course possible that Knafel shares the institute’s belief that America still saddles its women with institutionalized sexism. But he wouldn’t say. He refused an interview about his giving, because “he’s a very private man,” as his secretary explained. Other donors to the institute were also inaccessible, including Richard M. Cashin, Jr. (Harvard AB ’75, MBA ’80), chairman of One Equity Partners, which manages over $2 billion in investments for JPMorgan Chase & Co. Cashin gave $750,000 this year for a Radcliffe Institute fellowship. Explained his wife, Lisa, to Harvard’s press office: “The institute provides us all with the tremendous opportunity to stretch our horizons.” Rita Hauser, a philanthropist and international lawyer with a strong history of public service, was too busy to speak about her financial support for the institute. In 1971, as an advisor to the Nixon White House, Hauser had called on the administration to support “responsible feminism,” as opposed to the radical version propounded by the bra burners yelling about sexist pigs. The Radcliffe Institute’s outlook, however, owes more to the bra burners than to the responsible feminists.
Even if Harvard hawked the Radcliffe Institute to Knafel as a mom-and-apple-pie expression of women’s progress, he still had ample opportunity to look beyond the bromides before he showered such largesse upon an enterprise whose victim politics were readily knowable. And gifts like his make academic reform much harder, since universities have less reason to reconsider the value of activities that attract big bucks, while graduate students, always looking for the next new thing, see that studying the construction of black masculinity, say, rather than the influence of Montesquieu on the American Founders, can lead to prestigious fellowships.
Princeton’s class of 1943 made a less obvious kind of error when it endowed a religion chair for its 20th reunion. Universities in 1963 were at the zenith of their prestige, having sponsored remarkable scientific breakthroughs, as well as humanities research and teaching of high seriousness. No one could have predicted how debased higher education would become. But by creating a chair, the class gave up any say about who would occupy it. The Princeton administration bestows chairs; allowing class members merely to express an opinion about whom they fund would supposedly violate academic freedom. By now, remarks class member John Brinster, “there is usually some controversy in these matters, as you can well expect.” Perhaps victimologist Cornel West, the chair’s current occupant, was just what the class had in mind when it created the chair; but some members, at least, may not have been expecting to support a neo-Marxist poseur who records rap lyrics and advises Al Sharpton.
The class of 1943 may have made an unavoidable mistake, but today’s donors have no excuse for creating empty vessels, such as endowed chairs, that their colleges may fill at will. Worse still is to pour in unrestricted money to fund every betrayal of serious learning that the college is currently sponsoring. But many alumni seem blind to that danger. “The willingness of alumni to give large sums of money—often without restrictions on its use—to colleges and universities that teach nothing but contempt for the values they hold dear is the best evidence I know for the failure of these institutions to teach students how to think,” sighs Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert George. “I’ve concluded with sadness that there is no atrocity a university can commit that will cause large numbers of alumni to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”
The editorial choices of Yale’s alumni magazine support George’s observations about alums’ indifference. The magazine, which operates independently from the university, regularly highlights the most radical aspects of campus life, without apparent risk of alumni backlash. The April 2003 cover story, for example—“Larry Kramer Couldn’t Be Happier”—opened thus: “In 1997, Larry Kramer ’57 loudly declared that his alma mater was homophobic. Six years, one new liver, and a million dollars later, Yale has a Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay
Studies, and everyone is happy. For now.” Playwright Kramer’s new center at Yale, endowed by his brother, hopes to be the country’s locus for queer studies. Queer theory, as the Yale article helpfully explains, views “gender and sexual identity” as “a kind of performance, [which] changes with circumstances.” In other words, there are no “men” and “women” but just individuals who at any given time are performing socially constructed roles as “men” and “women.”
College trustees seem even more determined than alumni to see and hear no evil. Nothing produces more discomfort and denial in your average trustee than being told about the excesses at his college. Federal appellate judge Jose Cabranes has served as a trustee at Yale and Colgate, and is currently on the Columbia board. Have you ever heard your fellow trustees express an interest in the curriculum? I asked him. “Not only never, but such questions make them anxiety-ridden. If the question comes up, most trustees stare vacantly into space.” (The one exception to this rule, however, would be an attempt to discard Columbia’s core curriculum, Cabranes guesses, which would likely produce a trustee counteroffensive.) A Brown trustee explains: “The culture wars are vicious; most trustees don’t want to be involved. They don’t care about the curriculum. All they want to know is if SATs are up.”
To test this claim, I asked a New York University trustee what she thought about Andrew Ross, a royally paid American studies professor. American studies “core” courses include “Marxist Thought and Critical Practice” and “Queer Historiographies.” Ross has or should have embarrassed the university many times over—if not for his public declaration in 1994 that he eschews reading books in favor of popular culture, then certainly for his falling for one of the most delicious hoaxes in modern academic history.
Until recently, Ross edited Social Text, a journal of the nonsensical jargon that today substitutes for knowledge of history or literature among humanities professors. In 1996, Social Text published an issue devoted to the trendy claim that scientific “knowledge” is merely a rhetorical construct like “gender,” the “self,” or “history.” Included in that issue was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” by NYU physicist Alan Sokal. The essay flawlessly parroted the received wisdom in Ross’s world: “It has become increasingly apparent,” Sokal wrote, “that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” And throwing in the obligatory bow to Michel Foucault, Sokal added that “scientific ‘knowledge,’ so far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it.”
The essay was a perfect contribution to Social Text, no different from Ross’s own work or that of Sokal’s co-contributors. Only problem was: the piece was a hoax, designed to expose the vapidity of the “cultural studies” racket that Andrew Ross championed. As Sokal himself wrote afterward, his article lacked “anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.” But though Sokal’s hoax won wide press coverage, including a front-page New York Times story, the NYU trustee had never heard of Andrew Ross. She quickly changed the subject to NYU’s rising place in U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings.
Such unruffled acquiescence in whatever folly one’s university has cooked up is not surprising. A board is a creature of the college president, nominated by people close to him or by alumni associations whose members are also chosen for their loyalty. Trustees are usually so grateful for the honor and prestige of the position that they shy away from rigorous oversight. As one big donor observed, the “anxiety for status among what should be self-confident businessmen is remarkable. Once on college boards, they grovel.”
Colleges assume—apparently rightly—that academic matters are the last thing that trustees or the alumni who elect them care about. Witness the 2005 ballots to elect alumni fellows to the Yale Corporation. They gave short biographies of candidates Will Miller and Paul Steiger, but no hint about their educational philosophies or their goals for the university. Alumni who thought about such matters were left to try to read between the lines. Did Miller’s trusteeship on the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for example, signify trendy ideological leanings? One could only guess. Yale’s vice president explained in the ballot what Yale itself valued in its trustees, besides money and connections. “As you can see from the biographies [read: ‘pictures’] of the current Fellows,” announced Linda Koch Lorimer, “Yale has achieved important gender and ethnic diversity with six women and four individuals of color among their number.”
Even conscientious trustees, determined to oversee their colleges’ quality of education, face numerous barriers—from stonewalling administrations to inhibiting peer pressure. A renegade regent at the University of California, San Diego Padres owner John Moores, Sr., has taken up the cause of a colorblind, meritocratic admissions policy. Even though race-neutral admissions are now the law in California, thanks to courageous former regent Ward Connerly, the university has tried a series of feints to circumvent the mandate, and it fiercely resisted Moores’s efforts to learn about actual admissions practices. Moores finally had to commission, at his own expense, a private study, which discovered that the Berkeley campus—the system’s most competitive—was indeed admitting minority students with radically lower scores than those of non-minority students whom it had rejected.
Rather than backing up Moores’s campaign to pry admissions data from the university, his fellow regents stood icily on the sidelines and then rebuked him for publishing the numbers. “The regents are furniture,” he says. “They do absolutely nothing. If they were a board of directors of a corporation, they would fire people on the spot for not revealing material information. But the regents don’t want to know about admissions standards. They accept with a sort of biblical inerrancy the revealed truth that ‘diversity’ is always good.”
If trustees are subservient to the administration, they are positively supine before the faculty. Aspirations to influence the curriculum wilt before the “academic freedom” taboo, placed like a fire at a temple’s gates to prevent the uninitiated from entering. Silicon Valley entrepreneur T. J. Rodgers won a seat on the Dartmouth College board in 2004 as an insurgent write-in alumni candidate. During the heated campaign, he had blasted the race and gender orthodoxies at the school, arguing that excellence should be the sole concern of colleges. He had even dared to notice that Dartmouth offered little instruction on the history of American democracy. Since then, however, he has dropped his vocal interest in what he calls “left/right issues”: “I have scrupulously avoided left/right issues to be effective. If I immersed myself in an attack on far-out disciplines . . . [and] if I ran up the flag about ethnic or women’s studies, I would be sucked up into a debate that would soak up my bandwidth.” He has even dropped his agitation for colorblind admissions standards. “I agreed to leave diversity alone when I came in,” he says. “I don’t talk about it.”
Faced with their own seeming powerlessness, conservative trustees can develop a case of existential doubt. A trustee at one of the most notoriously liberal private universities in the country sounds anguished discussing his service. “Being a trustee is hard to do if you want to live an examined life,” he says. “It’s a very problematic equation. Maybe I should just walk away. It would be completely rational, because so much is so bad.” Like Rodgers and nearly every other college trustee, he says that he refuses to fight the “culture wars.”
The Harvard Corporation displayed precisely this naked and abject fear of the faculty during the Larry Summers women-in-science debacle. In February, after Summers had already begun his serial apologies for having referred to scientific research on sex differences, board chief James Houghton wrote to the faculty about the matter: “We know that [President Summers] genuinely and deeply regrets having spoken as he did. . . . More generally, we know him as someone very much determined to learn from experience, to encourage discussion and debate, and to help Harvard pursue academic excellence in all of its many forms.”
Here’s the letter Houghton should have written: “The Corporation supports the president without reservation. President Summers’s willingness to explore in good faith all possible explanations for the gender imbalance in science faculties is in the greatest tradition of this university. We hope that he continues to show the same commitment to evidence and reasoned debate in the future.”
How did trustees get so emasculated? After all, they once ran the colleges. A Northwestern University trustee expressed the blithe self-confidence typical of his peers in 1900: “As to what should be taught in political science and social science, [the professors] should promptly and gracefully submit to the determination of the trustees when the latter find it necessary to act.” Legal opinion throughout the nineteenth century held that trustees had the power to dismiss professors at will, write Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger in The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. Presidents, too, retained sole authority to hire faculty, though in the late nineteenth century, in some eastern colleges, faculty started recommending or at least consenting to new hires.
What changed was the rise of the doctrine of academic freedom. Progressive-era college benefactors and trustees did not appreciate their professors’ railing against the private concentration of power or calling for government regulation of the economy. The first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, complained that he couldn’t go to his social clubs without getting pounced on for a Chicago professor’s radical ravings. All told, six professors nationwide were disciplined or fired for challenging laissez-faire economic orthodoxy.
In response, in 1915, economics and social-science professors formed the American Association of University Professors, which formulated the doctrines of academic freedom and tenure. As these notions gradually became the norm, professors came to occupy a uniquely privileged position in the American workforce, essentially untouchable by their putative bosses. By the middle of the twentieth century, writes National Association of Scholars president Stephen Balch, colleges had effected a wholesale transfer of intellectual power from their overseers to their faculties.
By now, the doctrine of academic freedom has expanded far beyond its original scope of protecting professors from being fired for their opinions. It now means that no one outside the faculty fortress may even comment on what gets taught, as the demise of the $20 million Lee Bass gift to Yale in 1995 notoriously showed. The idea behind the grant—to strengthen Yale’s Western-civilization courses—was originally the president’s and the dean’s, not the donor’s; the new program would have added to Yale’s curriculum, not taken away from it. After faculty opposition to more Western-culture courses—“The major export of Western civilization is violence,” as one Yale history professor put it—and after foot-dragging by a new administration, Bass rightly began to worry whether his intention of creating an apolitical program of scholarship would be honored. Accordingly, he asked to approve (though not to nominate) new hires—a condition that the administration, defending the faculty’s interests, would not allow.
Though at first glance, the prospects that trustees and alumni donors can recall the universities from their descent into narcissistic know-nothingism look grim, donors nevertheless have two possible levers for change. One is as yet unused, but the other is already exerting effective pressure.
Unused is the power that trustees could wield—if they had the courage to do so. All boards have academic committees, meant to advise the president on academic matters, and university bylaws usually vest final say over hiring in the trustees. Nothing prevents trustees from actually reading the course catalog; doing so would be eye-opening. While no trustee today would dare to challenge an appointment, there is no reason that boards can’t start conversations with provosts about why, for example, their colleges no longer offer courses in American revolutionary history. They might also ask why their colleges require each student to take a “diversity” offering rather than an overview of European and American history, or why English departments offer far more courses in theory and “underrepresented” voices than in the greats of English literature. Asking questions is no violation of academic freedom, though professors and administrators will doubtless complain that it is.
Trustees could also hire presidents who understand the value of a liberal education and are committed to improving the curriculum. Unlike the Harvard Corporation, they should then back up their choices unequivocally. Liberal education, they should explain, has nothing to do with the party affiliations of professors. Rather, it means a willingness to engage the legacy of the past with seriousness, rather than condescension, and to understand the achievements of Western civilization—science, prosperity, freedom, and artistic marvels—rather than only moan over its failings. Will the faculty howl? Sure, but that does not mean that their “academic freedom” has been violated.
For now, though, the alumni are the most likely agents for change. A few savvy alumni entrepreneurs are already creating a blueprint for breaking the monopoly of the academic Left and bringing traditional scholarship and intellectual diversity back to campus.
The model is as follows: find a tenured professor committed to classical learning. Give him resources to expand his jurisdiction by bringing in new faculty or offering new courses. A tenured prof, it turns out, often has leeway to recruit faculty on a temporary basis and to set them to teaching—as long as the prof is highly respected and has his own pot of money independent of the university budget, and as long as he, not the donor, is the actual and the perceived force behind the new program.
The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton is the flagship of all such cartel busters, a conservative version of the left-wing research institutes, like the Radcliffe Institute, that have proliferated on campuses in recent years. Directed by the charismatic Robert George and funded entirely by foundation and alumni money, the program focuses on constitutional law and political thought. George selects six fellows a year to come from other campuses to pursue research in such topics as the nature of free institutions, to offer public lectures, and to supervise student writing projects. Sometimes a fellow may teach a preexisting undergraduate course that has lain fallow in the catalog for years, or he may devise a new course and offer it on a one-time basis, subject to the approval of the chairman of the politics department, where the Madison Program is housed.
The program, which has attracted an enthusiastic student following, has altered the political debate on campus. No longer can a speaker at a conference assume that everyone in the audience shares the view that America is the world’s prime source of evil; some of George’s fellows may be there and will ask uncomfortable questions. Students interested in American ideals now have a body of thinkers they can draw on to expand their knowledge and encourage them, and they have a mutually reinforcing peer group sharing their generally conservative worldview.
In a similar vein is the Political Theory Project at Brown, also under the complete control of an energetic professor and backed by a strong-minded alumnus. Political theory professor John Tomasi, a free-market libertarian, had watched in frustration as the political assumptions on campus and in the curriculum narrowed and ossified. He had his own scars from that close-minded culture. When he had dared to question Brown’s minorities-only freshman-orientation program, a powerful tool for indoctrinating students into the reigning anti-white, anti-capitalist orthodoxies, Brown’s diversity police launched a hate campaign against him, he recounts. His colleagues wrote letters to the campus newspapers denouncing his “insensitivity”; anonymous diversity commissars made harassing late-night calls to his family; “anti-hate” activists hung his picture, with the label “racist,” throughout campus; and vandals smeared slurs on his car.
Alumnus Curtin Winsor, President Reagan’s ambassador to Costa Rica, had seen the results of Brown’s doctrinaire left-wing culture up close. His daughters, in collecting their Brown degrees, had also picked up a set of political assumptions that he found “distressing.” “I’m still trying to detox them,” he says. “They look at the world from a socialist perspective, which is alien to their upbringing.”
Tomasi’s and Winsor’s benevolent revenge? Introducing free-market thinking to Brown freshmen. With financing from Winsor, Tomasi created the Political Theory Project, an umbrella for courses and student discussion groups in liberty and democratic values. The project brings in five ideologically diverse postdoctoral fel-lows from other universities to teach freshman seminars—a task that most of Brown’s own faculty regard as beneath them. The fellows, who stay at Brown for two years, create their own courses, based on their scholarly interests. The result: ten new courses a year in perspectives that Brown would otherwise lack.
Tomasi plays to the typical Brown student’s desire for the avant-garde. “I tell freshmen that if they want radical funky ideas, here are some new courses, such as in de Tocqueville, Locke, or the philosophical ideas of the American Founding. Students are not getting these books anywhere; they just get critiques of free-market politics and the canon. The classics are so untaught that they become trendy.” Tomasi wants to create undergraduates who’ve read different books from the faculty. “After a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years,” he says slyly.
The alumnus-funded Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies at Duke University provides one last variation on this formula: it uses faculty already in place to offer courses and conferences on the topics of liberty, democracy, and morally responsible behavior. The Duke engineering department had been putting the screws on Gary Gerst for a major contribution. But Gerst, chairman emeritus of Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago real-estate money-management firm, knew that a gift to the engineering school wouldn’t stay in the engineering school. A donation to one part of the university benefits the entire gamut of radical scholarship (which at Duke has been particularly concentrated in its English department), by allowing the university to shift resources from the newly funded program to other parts of campus.
Gerst had soured on Duke after a student newspaper-stealing incident, in which the leftist undergrads who burned the entire run of an offending conservative publication went scot-free, while the security guard who caught them was forced to attend sensitivity training. Gerst decided that he would only fund something that would otherwise not exist and that would break the campus dogmas. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni introduced him to Michael Gillespie, a professor of political thought and German philosophy who shared Gerst’s interests in democracy and personal responsibility.
Gillespie and Gerst chose to work with an existing first-year program at Duke, called Focus, in which groups of 30 freshmen lived together and took four thematically related seminars together. Some existing Focus topics were predictable in their politics—a women’s studies professor directed a series called “Forging Social Ideals,” for example. The Gerst Focus program, Visions of Freedom (which the Templeton Foundation also supports), introduces students to the seminal works in the Western philosophical and literary tradition, in order to explore concepts of freedom and moral authority. In addition to the freshman Visions of Freedom courses, the Gerst program also brings in a postdoctoral fellow to teach two new courses a year, offers upper-level classes, and provides course-development grants for Duke faculty.
Gillespie is cautious about characterizing the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies. “We’re not making an obvious ideological statement; we just want to make sure that students read good books,” he says. “If you want to turn students into serious readers and thinkers, you have to get them in their freshman year.” As the price of foregrounding Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, and Adam Smith, Gillespie has to add a sprinkling of the conventional left-wing ideologues, such as Marx and Bakunin, anti-colonialist revolutionary Frantz Fanon, and Italian Marxist terrorist Antonio Negri. “I could design the perfect program, but I couldn’t get it through faculty committees,” Gillespie explains. “I told Gerst that the students will read some books that we wouldn’t pick, but at least they’ll be reading serious books.”
Indeed, there’s a certain stealth quality to the Gerst program, like that of early Christians huddling in the catacombs. “The program wouldn’t be approved if we called it ‘Western Culture,’ ” says Gillespie. “People would say it needs to be more balanced.” No black studies or post-colonial studies program would ever be asked to show “balance,” of course, but for now, academic reformers simply have to accept that the deck is stacked against them. Similarly, Brown’s John Tomasi says he needs to speak “in code”; talking about free markets would not fly at Brown, he says.
The secrecy in which reformers are working is the clearest proof of how desperately academe needs change. At one Ivy League school, a government professor hoping to replicate Princeton’s Madison Program begged me to keep his college’s identity blank, “as this is something the feminists will try to quash as soon as they hear of it.” Alumni and a professor at another Ivy League college want to create an institute for researching the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Battle of the Ancients and Moderns. The institute will be a home for people who want to do non-political scholarship without being subject to discrimination, a donor explained. He might as well have been trying to set up a center for making anthrax. “We are reaching a crucial stage,” he said, in requesting anonymity, “and it will be extremely important that nothing be done that would mobilize the campus left in opposition.”
The challenges to re-introducing liberal scholarship are considerable. If the key to creating a Madison-type program is to find a tenured scholar in place who can run it, few are the colleges that still have such traditional thinkers—and fewer still that have anyone with the star power and organizing skills of a Robert George. A philanthropist looked into starting an Alexander Hamilton institute at what was once the premier American history faculty in the country, for example, and quickly concluded that there was no one left in the department who would champion such a program.
Yet the prospects for change have never been more auspicious. Activist David Horowitz’s nationwide academic-freedom campaign, complete with an Academic Bill of Rights, has provided the perfect entrée for alumni who seek to better their colleges’ education (see “On Campus, Conservatives Talk Back,” Winter 2005). Presidents are starting to get nervous that their campuses may be the next to be blasted by Horowitz’s bullhorn. The Center for Freedom and Western Civilization at Colgate University, established in 2003 by political scientist Robert Kraynak and funded by Colgate alumni, announces boldly on its website that it “seeks to challenge the prevailing [campus] conformity by presenting a ‘conservative voice’ and a genuine exchange of ideas.” Why this unusual honesty? Colgate president and feminist theologian Rebecca Chopp asked the center to designate itself as “conservative” to demonstrate Colgate’s intellectual diversity, according to the NAS’s Stephen Balch, writing in the June Philanthropy.
The Ward Churchill affair at the University of Colorado at Boulder has also started administrators worrying about whether their own campus radicals may blow up and expose their left-wing ravings to all the world. Desperately trying to recover after the press unearthed Professor Churchill’s comparison of the 9/11 victims to “little Eichmanns,” Boulder can look to its new Center for Western Civilization as a needed counterweight. (The center was also a beneficiary of Horowitz’s agitation.)
Would-be alumni entrepreneurs should seize the moment. The model for starting a revolution has already been forged: fund professors already in place. If you can’t find anyone committed to liberal education at your own university, send your money instead to places that are more open to traditional scholarship. The National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have databases of worthy candidates. If your alma mater sees that it is losing philanthropic dollars to institutions that support the traditional liberal arts, it may figure out a way to win back your donations. (Even universities with billion-dollar endowments hate to forgo significant alumni grants: in the 1980s, Harvard Law School alumni, angry over the Critical Legal Studies faction’s lock on tenure decisions, stopped giving money. The left-wing tyranny ended within a year.) Never give to a college’s general-support budget; it is money down the drain.
And always observe the donor’s Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. If enough alumni start to pay attention to what they fund, colleges may eventually be so transformed that even philanthropists like Sidney Knafel will make wise investments, in spite of themselves.