Are Conservative Academic Centers Thriving?

An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a conference held at the libertarian Cato Institute promoting a report from the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which concludes that conservative-leaning academic centers on college and university campuses founded by wealthy donors “are not just surviving but thriving.”  The report estimates that there are now about 150 college centers, programs, or institutes devoted to exposing undergraduates to conservative, traditionalist, or free-market-oriented perspectives—up from just two in 2000.

According to the Chronicle, the report,

Renewal in the University: How Academic Centers Restore the Spirit of Inquiry,” says most of the centers it describes are financed by just a few private major donors. Among their biggest supporters are the North Carolina-based BB&T Foundation, the Pennsylvania-based Jack Miller Center, the Manhattan Institute’s Veritas Fund, and various philanthropies associated with the billionaire conservative activists David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch.

Big donors, the report says, “have the leverage to negotiate the terms that can keep centers safe from faculty control at schools where the faculty is antagonistic to their missions.”

And the prospect of opening an academic center financed entirely by outside donors “can melt the heart of university administrators” of any ideological leaning, it says, noting that college presidents “are often judged primarily on their ability to raise funds.” . . .

The centers’ activities vary but can include offering courses, awarding fellowships and scholarships, sponsoring research, staging debates and colloquia, and simply distributing copies of books such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. . . .

The report alleges that philanthropists with liberal or leftist leanings encountered little faculty opposition in financing “explicitly political” centers or programs, with some being “run by self-described ‘activists’ rather than by legitimate scholars.”

Conservative or libertarian philanthropists, by contrast, were seeing their efforts to establish centers or programs that promoted their views co-opted by faculties, the report says. Typically, it says, faculties would argue that a donation tied to a specific perspective threatened free inquiry, would insist on a voice in the undertaking to remedy the problem, and would then take steps to ensure that any views espoused by the center matched their own.

The donors were left with the choice of going along with the faculty, rescinding the gift, or moving the center off campus.

The Chronicle article includes two quotes from me, dismissing the report as “a slick promotional piece” and its charges about liberal bias as “unfounded and extreme.”  These quotes come from a long email that I sent to the article’s author, Peter Schmidt, who asked me to read the report in advance of the Cato Institute forum and offer a response.  Schmidt did not quote most of what I wrote (not that he should have; I got a bit carried away).  So, given that it seems like a waste to let all that good vitriol go unread, what follows is the text of my email response to the Pope Center report, as sent last weekend to Peter Schmidt:

It is difficult for me to believe that this “report” would be taken seriously.  It is, to be frank, not much more than a slick promotional piece thinly disguised as an objective “report.”  It’s filled with loaded language and unfounded and extreme political allegations.  It’s aim is not, as it tries (quite unsuccessfully) to suggest, to introduce objectively an important new development in academic life, but is instead simply a puff piece designed to promote, without even a shred of dispassion, privately funded conservative academic centers.  It does so, first, by making wild unsubstantiated claims that universities today are dominated by something the author calls “the left” (which in the eyes of this “report” is apparently far more powerful and united than any self-proclaimed leftists would ever recognize), that dominates the faculty, who hide behind the fig leaf of “academic freedom” to promote their own radical agendas.  Second, it tries to recount what it sees as the many virtues of these centers.  Third, it argues that university governance “should primarily support the rights of a donor” over the “‘academic freedom’ of the faculty.”  Fourth, it contrasts these conservative centers to so-called “liberal centers” that are “explicitly political.”

I think none of these claims is much supported, although there is something to be said on behalf of the second claim, that these conservative centers are flourishing and making important positive contributions to universities.  So, let me begin there.  With the critical caveat that I do not know anything of the specific funding or programmatic arrangements underpinning the various centers and programs described in the “report,” I will readily acknowledge that many of them seem perfectly legitimate and even welcome.  I see nothing improper with such centers, for example, sponsoring speaker series like those described in these pages.  Nor do I see a problem with such centers sponsoring research projects, so long as these conform with university and AAUP principles, which contrary to the implication of the report are hardly biased toward so-called “leftists.”  Indeed, none of the examples cited under the heading of research in the report strike me as on their face at all problematic.

I’m not even all that troubled by the free distribution of Ayn Rand novels (my experience is that they are so tedious and boring that they quickly turn students off to their supposed philosophy). As for curriculum, I see no problem with faculty associated with such centers teaching undergraduate or graduate courses, providing these are approved through the usual course approval processes of the institution and the faculty are hired and assessed through the usual mechanisms, without outside interference.  While overall a school’s curriculum should reflect the full breadth of ideas across the spectrum of knowledge, I see no reason to establish ideological litmus tests that might prevent individual courses being taught from either a “pro-capitalist” or “anti-capitalist” perspective.

I will say, with respect to the programs described, however, that I do believe the report oversells its point.  Most of the centers discussed are at smaller and regional institutions.  There is little evidence that the broader efforts touted here have won more than occasional acceptance.  Moreover, at least one of the institutions about which the “report” boasts, Grove City College, is at minimal a questionable model.  GCC has been on the AAUP censure list longer than any other institution (since 1963!).  In 2009, the school suspended a student for working in the gay porn industry ( and in 2013 GCC was named by Princeton Review as the most LGBT-unfriendly campus in the U.S.  If this is the type of institution with which these folks want to be associated, that is certainly their right.  But I don’t think many scholars would be all that proud of establishing a center there.

Now, let me turn to the meaty stuff.  First, with respect to the tired old claim that left-wing faculty dominate the universities and impose their narrow political agenda on students, that the academy is “being scrubbed of free market economics, traditional attitudes toward Western civilization, time-tested methods of scholarship, and the general philosophy of liberty;” give me a break!  The single piece of evidence marshaled on behalf of this extreme and biased contention is a 2007 list of the 37 most-cited authors of books in the humanities and social sciences.  That’s it.  I’m not familiar with that list, but even if it’s accurate, my response is simply, “Is that all you’ve got?”

In fact, what the report will not say is that whatever “leftist” influence there may be in the humanities (and it’s far, far less than they suggest) it’s more than balanced by the iron-clad control that conservatives have over business schools and, in many places, departments of economics.  How many schools of business have even a handful of faculty who support labor unions?  How many economics departments question free market orthodoxies?  The fact is that the charge that universities are somehow dominated by leftists is now and has always been false and fantastical.  Repeating it over and over again may comfort some extreme ideological conservatives, but that doesn’t make it true.  No doubt more university faculty members vote Democratic than vote Republican, especially in the humanities and social sciences.  But so what?  Most CEO’s go the other direction.  But the key point is that conservatives have consistently failed to prove the case that where such leanings exist that this creates undue obstacles to conservative expression.  In the great majority of cases, it does not.

Moreover, the issue is not just “left” vs. “right.”  The report provides an interesting example:  The director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke reports “that the emphasis on applied economics and mathematics is slowly crowding the study of political economy from a historical perspective out of the economics curriculum.”  The report suggests that this conservative center is helping fill this “giant hole in the economics curricula.”  But a critique of overemphasis on applied and mathematical economics can and is made by the Left as well.  The Center’s director is quoted as saying that, “The history of political economics is the one place you can discuss the ideas of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and compare them with the ideas of Karl Marx.”  A Marxist would no doubt agree.  But the point is that while a university should bar neither a Marxist nor a Hayekian from its faculty, a course of this sort should strive to present all points of view fairly.  I can’t say one way or another whether the Duke Center does that or not.

The “report” claims that “the issue of academic freedom is not only about protection against administrative intrusion into the objective inquiry of faculty but also about the faculty evolving over time into a special interest group that limits the the range of ideas expressed on campus.”  The first part of this is true.  The second, not so.  As I’m sure any faculty member will readily attest, the notion that “the faculty” is a uniform “special interest group” is at best an aspiration of some.  Faculty members are divided by discipline, rank, and employment category (tenured, contingent, etc.), as well as by race, age, gender, and, of course, political leanings.  If we’re an interest group, we’re a pretty fractured one.

Now, to the donor issue.  The report explicitly faults the AAUP’s position that academic institutions should not “relinquish autonomy and the primary authority of their faculty over the curriculum” when they accept outside donations.  But this is not solely the AAUP’s position, nor is it anything new.  In 1914, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, then-President of Harvard, turned down a $10,000,000 bequest that was conditioned on the firing of a professor.  Indeed, on the issue of outside interference in the university– whether from government or private interests —  the AAUP’s view is essentially that accepted since 1957 by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In that year Justice Felix Frankfurter identified “four essential freedoms of a university – to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

Now, to be sure, donors have every right to request that their donations be used for goals they support.  That’s fine.  It is the responsibility of the university, however, to ensure that those goals do not conflict with the basic principles of university autonomy, of academic freedom, and of shared governance.  In this light, I have no problem with the report’s advice to donors to “get it in writing” and to make arrangements “that are acceptable to all parties.”  It is, however, the responsibility of the university’s trustees, administrators, and faculty to ensure that any such “deals” do not violate fundamental principles.

Finally, as to the “liberal” centers:  The report argues that conservative centers should strive to avoid “politicization” (good advice), but then suggests that they have succeeded in doing so while centers funded by allegedly liberal sources remain highly politicized.  But the fact is that there are centers on campuses whose approach leans left and others where the approach leans right.  This is hardly problematic, so long as these centers function in a scholarly way.  There is no such thing as totally “objective” scholarship; in all fields scholars argue for their conclusions.  In some cases these conclusions may have political implications.  That’s fine.  But it seems to me that to conclude that centers where the conclusions appear, to the authors of this “report,” to be “liberal” are somehow “political,” while those that produce outcomes they support are not politicized is simply disingenuous.



5 thoughts on “Are Conservative Academic Centers Thriving?

  1. I think you are too quick to dismiss the claim of leftist hegemony in universities. It’s less a matter of explicit political affiliation among faculty members and students, and more about the pervasiveness of what I would call a “Marxist habitus” in critical thinking. The critical tradition that is passed down from professor to student, in the humanities especially, is now almost entirely derived from the heritage of French and German post-Marxist thought (or “critical theory” in the broadest sense of the term). Many of those who would not consider themselves “left” strangely see nothing political about teaching or researching exclusively within this tradition. The pervasiveness of the Marxist habitus is, fittingly, more in line with Gramscian hegemony or Foucauldian discourse in that conservative students find themselves fighting a power/knowledge regime that excludes them without such exclusion being explicit or, in many cases, even intentional. You are right that other parts of the university and other economic sectors (I assume the corporate sector since you mention CEOs) have no such distinctly leftist orientation, but the humanities and social sciences should not become defensive havens for leftism if they hope to maintain any relevance.

    • Whatever a “Marxist habitus” may be (talk about post-whatever jargon!), the claim of the report is that the academy is “being scrubbed of free market economics, traditional attitudes toward Western civilization, time-tested methods of scholarship, and the general philosophy of liberty.” At a time when at many, many institutions business schools are larger and better-funded than departments in the liberal arts, it’s little short of crazy to claim that free market economics is hard to find. But who worries that business schools are becoming “defensive havens” for their tired orthodoxies? As for traditional attitudes toward Western civilization, such attitudes have been critiqued for some time from both Left and Right, in many cases for good reason from both sides. Do we really want to maintain, for instance, the “traditional attitude” most famously exemplified by Rudyard Kipling’s notion of “the white man’s burden?” (Actually, of course, curricula in western civilization remains widespread throughout academia; what the report bemoans is only that it is not taught in the precise way that a certain strand of conservatism would prefer.) Further, it seems more than strange for a report that makes these contentions with no more than a single piece of factual evidence to complain that “time-tested methods of scholarship” are under siege. If only the report had employed such methods! Finally, who can even say what “the general philosophy of liberty” means, much less whether it is or isn’t “being scrubbed” from the academy. But I will say that I would hardly trust any definition of liberty coming from a group that openly wishes to privilege the influence of wealthy donors over the time-tested principles of academic freedom, which such great conservative thinkers as Russell Kirk at one time espoused.

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