Donors Should Contribute Less to Universities, More to Scholarship That Reflects Donors’ Values

March 20, 2020 Updated: March 22, 2020
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Commentary

The degeneration of U.S. colleges and universities into socialist political action committees has been widely reported.

We have seen how once-fine institutions of higher education favor politically correct courses and projects, while disfavoring Western civilization and traditional scholarship. We have seen how colleges punish dissenting students and faculty, and drive conservative and libertarian speakers off campus.

Over the past decade, the problem has become distinctly worse. One reason is that the small coterie of moderate and conservative professors has gotten smaller. Some promising young scholars are denied university jobs, while others obtain jobs only at lesser institutions that have neither the motivation nor the resources to support serious scholarship. Others are denied promotion or persecuted into leaving academia. Some retire. Still others depart to join policy centers called “think tanks.”

Think tanks are independent, nonprofit research institutions scattered throughout the United States and Canada. The better ones maintain their integrity by refusing to accept government money.

Think tanks offer an attractive opportunity to donors who wish to contribute to the advancement of learning, but are opposed to the far-left agenda prevailing at most colleges and universities.

Think tanks exist in every state. Their scholars perform and publish research, speak at schools and civic clubs, serve as part-time university faculty, employ and teach student interns, provide interviews to the media, host TV and radio programs, and write newspaper and online columns. They produce quality work at a fraction of what colleges and universities spend.

Some donors contribute to universities because they naively imagine it gives them leverage toward restoring universities to their proper missions. In fact, they usually make the situation worse. Their contributions enable left-wing academics and administrators to achieve their own political goals with other people’s money.

Some donors respond by targeting their grants to certain activities only. But academic administrators have ways of evading such restrictions. Money is movable, and they are experts at sloshing it around to get what they want.

One way to evade grant restrictions is simply to ignore them. For example, a donor left a substantial amount of money to a university in his will. Under the terms of the bequest, the institution was to save the money and use its earnings to supplement the salary of outstanding scholars. The idea was to encourage useful academic research.

Instead, the institution rotated the funds every two years among senior faculty members, whether they were engaged in scholarly research or not. Since the donor was no longer alive, he was in no position to complain.

Universities also employ more subtle methods of evasion. Suppose, for instance, a donor funds a program to hire conservative professors to increase intellectual diversity on campus. Administrators may use the money to hire professors who are “conservative” only by radically left university standards. Or administrators may put the newly hired conservatives to work covering basic courses, freeing up more money for creating additional “progressive” courses and hiring more “progressive” faculty.

And if the institution is a state university, its lobbyists may use its few conservative faculty members as political cover—that is, to deflect legislative scrutiny or encourage state lawmakers to fund other, predominantly left-wing, activities.

I was a conservative professor who left a university for a policy center.

My area of scholarship is America’s founding and the original meaning of our Constitution. Most people consider this pretty important. But in academia, subjects such as these are subordinated to more politically correct topics such as climate change, gender studies, and “social justice.”

After 25 years on university faculties, I decided that I’d had enough of being isolated and my work disadvantaged. One of the final straws was when one of my deans tried to push me into skewing my research into a more “environmentalist” direction. Presumably, this dean thought it would be easier to get government grants if I wrote papers claiming that George Washington and James Madison were environmental despoilers or, perhaps, “greenies.”

Accordingly, I announced early retirement and headed to the Independence Institute in Denver, one of America’s free-market-oriented policy centers.

The change resulted in much lower pay and fewer benefits. But it offered a welcoming atmosphere and opportunities for uncensored intellectual interchange. Moreover, the Institute’s staff was willing to encourage and promote my work in ways my university employers had never done. Partly as a result of their promotional activity, Supreme Court justices and other federal judges started relying on my constitutional research—something that never happened while I was on university faculties.

Think tanks may focus on one policy area or several. At the Independence Institute, we address mostly constitutional law, election law, K–12 education, energy, health care, fiscal policy, and transportation. Utah’s Sutherland Institute focuses on education, religious freedom, health care, and taxes. North Carolina’s James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal limits itself to higher education.

Some of these centers, such as the Montana Policy Institute, study only issues pertaining to their own states. Others—such as Washington’s Heritage Foundation or Canada’s Frazer Institute—are national or international in scope.

All of these policy centers publish scholarly papers and post them on their websites. A person who likes what he reads can give a tax-deductible donation to support the institution as a whole, or contribute to designated activities or particular scholars. The money probably will be used far more efficiently than if it were dissipated on academic bureaucracy.

You can find most of these think tanks by consulting the website of their trade group, the State Policy Network.

Rob Natelson is a senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the pro-freedom think tank Independence Institute in Denver. He was a law professor for 25 years and is the author of “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.