Acknowledging that 20 years and millions of dollars spent loudly and bitterly attacking the liberal leanings of American campuses have failed to make much of a dent in the way undergraduates are educated, some conservatives have decided to try a new strategy.
They are finding like-minded tenured professors and helping them establish academic beachheads for their ideas. These initiatives, like the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, Austin, or a project at the University of Colorado here in Colorado Springs, to publish a book of classic texts, are mostly financed by conservative organizations and donors, run by conservative professors and often referred to informally by supporters as conservative centers. But they have a decidedly nonpartisan and nonideological face.
Their goal is to restore what conservative and other critics see as leading casualties of the campus culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s — the teaching of Western culture and a triumphal interpretation of American history.
“These are not ideological courses,” said James Piereson, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, which created the Veritas Fund for Higher Education to funnel donations to these sorts of projects. The initiatives are only political insofar as they “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class studies, and postmodernism in general,” Piereson said.
The programs and centers differ in emphasis, with some concentrating on American democratic and capitalist institutions and others on the Western canon, the great books often derided during the culture wars as the history of “dead white men.” They sponsor colloquia, seminars, courses, visiting lecturers and postdoctoral students. At Brown, the Political Theory Project even put on a play by the capitalist heroine Ayn Rand.
Some, like the effort in Colorado Springs and the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, focus solely on exposing freshmen to classical thinkers. Others favor a return to a more traditional teaching of America’s past, featuring its greatest accomplishments instead of the history of repression and exploitation that had been the trend.
And this week, Cornell is negotiating the final details of a $50,000 grant from Veritas that will be used to create a Program on Freedom and Free Societies.
According to a list drawn up by the National Association of Scholars, a group created in 1987 to preserve the “Western intellectual heritage,” 37 of these academic centers exist; 20 were created in the past three years.
Many of them have received donations from a handful of relatively new organizations, including Veritas, which was created in 2006, and the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History. Miller, a Chicago entrepreneur, established the center as an independent nonprofit last fall after he worked with the 55-year-old Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which promotes conservative thought on campus.
Now, thanks in part to years of intensive lobbying by the National Association for Scholars, these projects may soon receive federal money as well. The new Higher Education Act, signed into law last month, provides grants for “academic programs or centers” devoted to “traditional American history, free institutions or Western civilization.”
The provision was “fashioned with this movement in mind,” Stephen Balch, a Republican and the founder and president of the association, said after the bill passed Congress, and “will help it gain even greater momentum.”
It is up to Congress to decide whether to finance the effort, and how much to put toward it. Piereson previously served for 20 years as the executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, one of the largest financiers of the intellectual right before it closed. “I would have to say in all that time, from 1985 and 2005, when we wound down, I’m not sure we made a lot of progress” on the undergraduate level, he said.
Decades of money from Olin and similar foundations helped create a kind of shadow university of private research institutes on the assumption that conservatives could not find a berth in an academic system dominated by liberals. They have been so successful, though, that they might have helped siphon like-minded thinkers off campus, creating a kind of right-wing brain drain.
Now, Piereson said, “what we’re trying to do is actually go onto the campus and fund professors who have the support of their deans, provosts and colleagues and try to influence the undergraduate curriculum.” That may be easier to do now, since the fevered pitch of ideological battles on campus has quieted in recent years. Supporters have still tried to keep a low profile, though, to avoid arousing potential liberal opponents, Piereson said.
Veritas has spent $2.5 million to support existing centers or create new ones on 10 campuses. In April, it received a $1 million matching grant — the final donation Olin made before zeroing out its bank balance.
Colorado Springs used its $50,000 grant to publish “A Free Society and Its Challenges,” a collection of classic writings including Plato’s “Apology” and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Every incoming freshman last fall and this fall was assigned readings from it.
Amid the get-to-know-each-other barbecues and field trips to Pike’s Peak during orientation last month, the college organized freshman seminars devoted to the readings.
At first some faculty members were suspicious of where the idea and financing had come from, said Robert Sackett, a history professor who publicly voiced his concern. Yet he added, whatever the back story, who could object to teaching King or Plato?
“An assignment that I initially had some doubts about has turned out better than I expected,” said Sackett, who points out that he is not a conservative. “I could see using it again.”
Although a few critics have accused these programs of having a right-wing agenda, many administrators and faculty have embraced the extra resources.
“The kind of thing that we’re proposing and developing transcends all those political differences whether you’re right, left or center,” said Robert Koons, the director of Texas’ program, who describes himself as a run-of-the-mill Republican. “It’s not the answers, but the questions” about ethics, justice and civic duty that are being discussed, he said.
Ideas for the new strategy began percolating in 2005 when the Philanthropy Roundtable, an association of foundation officials and big donors, met and shared their complaints about higher education. A few months earlier, Piereson wrote an article in the roundtable’s magazine warning donors not to endow university programs or faculty chairs. “Once the endowment check is written, the donor loses all control over the program he has funded,” he advised.
Conservatives have begun to realize, said Peter Wood, the executive director of the scholars’ association, that their contributions to colleges and universities frequently pay for what they see as left-leaning academic programs that run counter to their world views.
Instead of making no-strings-attached donations, he said, conservatives started asking “ought there not be some way that we could reach the donors and convince them that their donations to higher education could be more wisely spent?”
Although there are no formal links between the organizations, an informal network of advisers and activists work to bolster each other’s efforts. The Jack Miller Center spent $3.6 million in the past year to create among other things, a civics center at Florida Atlantic University and summer programs at two other colleges for professors. Several summer attendees like Michael Poliakoff, the vice president for academic affairs for the University of Colorado system, also received grants from Veritas.
The Thomas W. Smith Foundation, dedicated to supporting free markets, has started paying for scholarly centers on campuses as well, said Piereson, who is on its board of trustees. Last year the foundation gave $1 million to Brown’s Political Theory Project, which also received money from Veritas and the Jack Miller center.
“There’s a network of institutions out there” that know the academic landscape, said David DesRosiers, the executive director of Veritas. “We came in as venture capitalists, and they picked the stocks we invested in.”
Peg Bacon, the provost at Colorado Springs, said she had already been interested in having the entire campus read the same book, when Poliakoff suggested using the “Free Society” collection. Bacon said she first checked out the Center for American Universities at the Manhattan Institute, which runs Veritas.
“I saw it does a lot of things around civil rights,” she said. It looked like they had a variety of perspectives,” she said, and “they weren’t controlling” the specific assignment, which was decided by the faculty. She asked a handful of professors to review the book, which also included the U.S. Constitution and writings from Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederick Douglass. None detected any particular bias.
The faculty was so pleased with the way the program turned out in 2007, Bacon said, that they unanimously agreed to repeat it this year.
Asked about the possibility of establishing a center at Colorado Springs, Poliakoff said, “I have no set road map.” As for other plans with the university system, like endowing a chair in conservative thought on the Boulder campus, Poliakoff said there was no connection. “There is no vast right-wing conspiracy,” he said with a smile.
Elsewhere, proponents have had a bumpier road.
In 2006, at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., opposition from the faculty forced the administration to withdraw its support of an alumni-financed center focused on capitalism, natural law and the role of religion in politics. Many faculty members questioned if Hamilton would have sufficient oversight of it. At the time, the chairman of the faculty assembly, John O’Neil, was quoted as saying, “There are people on the faculty who think this center has an explicit, right tendency.”
The alumni donors and professors ended up opening the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization as an independent entity in 2007.