Naomi Schaefer Riley

Conservatives in the ivory tower

By Naomi Schaefer Riley
May 31, 2011

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LAST WEEK, Florida State University announced it would review the terms of a $1.5 million gift from the Charles G. Koch Foundation to ensure the school’s integrity was protected. The gift allows a Koch Foundation representative to have input into the hiring of some faculty members in the economics department. The foundation says the goal of the gift is “to provide resources to faculty and students to facilitate a deeper understanding of the nature of free societies and the reasons why they foster the highest levels of well-being for the overwhelming majority of people.’’ Critics have accused the school of selling its academic freedom to the highest bidder.

With university budgets being cut around the country, colleges will increasingly be looking to private philanthropy to make up the difference. So it is worth examining the Koch gift and its implications. (Full disclosure: I participated in a Koch summer fellowship 15 years ago.)

The primary reason that conservative and libertarian foundations give money to universities is to promote intellectual diversity on campus. In the last election, college professors donated eight times as much money to Barack Obama as to John McCain. But it’s not only politics. Whether it’s the view of religion by social scientists or the view of string theory by physicists, university departments do not usually tolerate disagreement. Numerous studies show that the structure of the university is one that promotes uniformity.

Researchers Daniel Klein of George Mason University and Charlotta Stern of Stockholm University found that university faculties have “tendencies. . . toward concurrence-seeking, self-validation, and exclusion of challenges to core beliefs.’’ The first factor, say Klein and Stern, is “departmental majoritarianism,’’ the notion that academic departments make most of the personnel decisions by vote and that only rarely does an outsider override them. This system is the natural result of the narrow specialties of most academics, whose merit can allegedly be judged only by others in their field. Academic department members tend to seek out and attract people who are most like them.

In order to break out of this cycle of cloning themselves, some outside input is necessary, but the tenure system rarely lets that happen. Faculty effectively run most universities and they view administrators, donors, and even parents with great suspicion.

At a conference at New York University a couple of years ago, Elizabeth Bernstein, a vice president for the Ford Foundation, spoke about the threats she saw to academic freedom on campus — among them, the Catholic order Opus Dei, “anti-evolution groups,’’ “groups that want to cut off funding for those who are openly criticizing Israel,’’ and organizations that oppose affirmative action. But it’s not just official groups, it’s also the American people themselves. “Thanks to technology,’’ she complained, “the ability of average citizens to critique and demean faculty grows daily.’’ How can a representative of the Ford Foundation get away with such criticisms? Over the years Ford has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into American colleges and universities.

Conservative foundations are, according to Bernstein, “threats to academic freedom’’ while Ford, she is quick to point out, funds only programs that encourage free expression on campus. She cites, for instance, Ford’s recent “Difficult Dialogues’’ initiative, which offered campuses $100,000 each to host conversations about “fundamentalism and secularism, racial and ethnic relations, sexual orientation, and academic freedom.’’

Such dialogues are not difficult on most campuses because the outcomes are agreed upon. Secularism is superior to fundamentalism; white people are to blame for racial tensions; sexual orientation has genetic roots, and all orientations are morally equivalent. And what’s the party line on academic freedom? It has suffered, Bernstein said, because of the Bush administration’s “war of terror.’’

Ford’s view of the world has long been the dominant one on university campuses. It’s time for a little friendly competition.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is author of “The Faculty Lounges. . . And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.’’