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Are Donors Dangerous?

WE HAVE BEEN HEARING a lot of criticism lately about “thought policing” donors who supposedly want “to purchase faculty positions as playthings for their ideological desires.”

These comments typically come from leftist critics who concentrate their fire on conservative and libertarian donors. As I have argued elsewhere, the hypocrisy involved is evident, but here I’ll just argue that the griping is overblown.

True, it is possible to imagine a donor who would threaten academic freedom and integrity. If a donor demanded that academically substandard hires be made, that would threaten academic integrity; and if a donor tried to force the firing of a faculty member he disliked, that would violate academic freedom.

But the pretense that no donor’s views should ever influence a university is unserious. It’s simply not improper for a donor to try to add to the views on a campus by supporting scholars’ work or new academic centers.

Consider the fascinating case of Stanford law school, where center-right funders who wished to increase the study of law and economics collaborated with Stanford Law School dean Paul Brest, a serious scholar in his own right who has never been accused of having conservative views.

Brest, now a major donor himself as he presides over the Hewlett Foundation’s billions, has praised the law-and-economics donors and urged other funders, regardless of their political views, to learn from them. He devotes a chapter of his book, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, to the role of donors in “building fields and social movements.” In it, he discusses the example of the conservative legal movement, as well as the hospice movement, the women’s rights movement, and “the population field” (a euphemism for the population control movement).

Brest’s account of the law-and-economics movement emphasizes the large role played by a single funder, the John M. Olin Foundation, which underwrote law-and-economics centers at numerous law schools, including Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, and the University of Chicago, in addition to Stanford. Olin also helped launch the American Law and Economics Association, to solidify the movement in academia. Brest agrees with his fellow “prominent liberal legal scholar” Bruce Ackerman that law and economics was “the most important thing in legal education since the birth of the Harvard Law School.”

As a longtime law school dean, Brest saw firsthand how the donors, grantees, and other scholars functioned, but he voices no concern over threats to academic freedom or integrity. I know from him and the funders involved that both sides, despite their differing views, got along well and knew that their opposite numbers were keen to maintain the highest academic standards.

Of course, one part of high academic standards is vigorous debate that leads to evolving views—something that the law-and-economics donors, far from quashing, have helped foster. Brest notes, for example, that “in recent years, the law and economics paradigm has been challenged by research in behavioral economics,” which means that even a successful academic movement never achieves a permanent victory, but rather spurs further academic work. Real scholars welcome that.

Brest adds that this kind of development through argument is typical of nearly all successful social movements, and his remarks on the other movements he analyzes remind us that such movements typically include intersections between academe and donors seeking social change. The hospice movement, for example, has been intimately connected with the Yale School of Nursing and its dean. That movement has also seen significant funding of medical school faculty by the Open Society Institute, a giving vehicle for George Soros, who is a political left-wing donor whose giving equals or surpasses that of Charles Koch and David Koch combined.

Similarly, Brest notes that the Ford Foundation was central to the rise of the so-called women’s movement. He quotes former Ford president Susan Berresford, who brags about “supporting research in the new field called ‘women’s studies,’” which of course has had dramatic effects on college curricula and hiring.

Other examples I would add to Brest’s list include Soros’s crusade to reshape the entire discipline of economics, which he believes suffers from “market fundamentalism.” Soros has promised to funnel $5 million a year for 10 years through Central European University, a Budapest school he founded in 1991 and to which he’s donated hundreds of millions.

Soros launched his economics project in 2010 at King’s College, Cambridge, where 200 academics were exhorted for three days “to develop new paradigms that explain market imbalances and uncertainties and that reject ‘static’ concepts such as rational expectations and market equilibrium.” Now grants have begun to flow to Boston College; Carnegie-Mellon; Washington University, St. Louis; UC Berkeley; and Duke.

One Soros grant in particular makes nonsense of the claim that donors with political views necessarily warp academic work. The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke has received Soros funding, even though it was founded in 2008 with a grant from the John William Pope Foundation.

Professor Bruce Caldwell, who directs the Center, says that neither Soros’s nor Pope’s staffers “ever gave a hint of attempting to influence what we do.” Caldwell explains: “We tell any potential donor to look at our mission statement to see if they want to support the work. We in turn look for good scholars doing good research. We’re glad when our work involves people with differing views because that’s much more interesting, but our discussions typically aren’t about politics. They’re about academic issues, such as how to interpret episodes in the history of economic thought.”

The most vociferous critic of outside “right” funders, the American Association of University Professors, may have missed this insertion of Soros money into academe because it was too busy thinking of ways it could obtain additional grants from his empire. In 2007, for instance, it hoped for a “grant from the Open Society Institute and Soros Foundation, the theme of which is the press and the academy, and the influence of think tanks on the press’s perception of the academy.” In 2006, at a meeting funded by Soros’s Open Society Institute, “members of Committee A, other AAUP leaders, and members of the AAUP staff discussed with representatives of many other higher education organizations the policy statement Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers.”

Brest also could have cited other Ford Foundation projects that have done far more to reshape faculties and curricula than anything a right-wing donor has ever dreamt of. For example, Ford pioneered the use of legal clinics at law schools as agents for leftish social change—a fact documented not only by conservative critics like Walter Olson and Heather Mac Donald but by left-wing supporters too.

And as I’ve noted elsewhere, Ford is a strong proponent of affirmative action, having spent decades funding (and sometimes creating) the most prominent left-wing groups that advocate for affirmative action. Not only is affirmative action one of the most controversial issues on any campus, it is also a major factor in admissions and hiring.

In perhaps its most significant contribution to this political movement in academia, Ford helped make possible the landmark Supreme Court decision that largely upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies; the foundation poured monies into the university’s legal defense, and to its nonprofit allies. AAUP, by the way, was one of those allies officially declaring its support for affirmative action while the case was underway and signing amicus briefs at every stage of litigation.

I’ve written about other ways AAUP has aided Ford’s affirmative action agenda for academe. But a free country will have donors who do such things and nonprofits like AAUP who eagerly collaborate. If you don’t like a particular project—if you think it’s unworthy of higher education or harmful to the nation—then argue over its substance. But please don’t complain that its donor has a political viewpoint.


Mr. Walter is president of Champion Consulting and a contributor to Philanthropy Daily. This article is reprinted from Web site of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.