How Philanthropy Can Improve the Quality of Higher Education

Report Political Process

How Philanthropy Can Improve the Quality of Higher Education

October 2, 1989 13 min read Download Report
Representative Dana
Policy Analyst

(Archived document, may contain errors)

How Philanthropy Can Improve the Quality of Higher Education

by Leslie Lenkowsky Although it has not been much noted in the philanthropic world or elsewhere, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the publicat ion of Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth. Extraordinarily influential (and controversial) in its time, it made a powerful case for the duty of the very rich to distribute their "surplus" for the betterment of the poor. What led Carnegie to this conclusio n was his fear that society faced an unprecedented and potentially intractable problem. Thanks to the great advances in manufacturing that had occurred in the latter part of the 19th century, most people were able to enjoy a higher standard of living than e ver before. However, some continued to live better than others, and a few - those whose talents had contributed the most to economic growth - inevitably reaped spectacular rewards. What worried Carnegie was the possibility that these disparities might fom e nt envy and eventually lead to political or social unrest that would make further progress impossible. To prevent this, the rich needed to lessen the growing gap between themselves and the rest of society. After rejecting other options, Carnegie hit upon t he idea of urging the wealthy to give away what they did not need as the route to both personal and social salvation. Dressing up the Biblical idea of stewardship in industrial clothes, he proposed that the rich should view themselves merely as the custod i ans of a community's fortune; they were thus responsible for seeing that it was put to the use of all. In a society that subscribed to this belief, to die rich, he wrote, would be to die in disgrace. For Carnegie, not just any kind of giving would do. Eve n in his own time, the wealthy supported many different causes, most of which, in his estimation, were worthless. (Citing the authority of his publisher, he contended that "nine hundred and fifty out of every thousand dollars bestowed today upon so-called c harity had better be thrown into the sea.") The reason was that the most popular charities fostered dependency rather than motivating their beneficiaries to improve themselves. As a result, far from reducing the gap between rich and poor, they preserved a n d perhaps even widened it. Laudable Benefaction. What should the wealthy favor? At the top of Carnegie's list was the founding and expanding of universities. "Perhaps the greatest sum ever given by an individual for any purpose," he wrote, "is the gift of Senator Stanford, who undertakes to establish a complete university upon the Pacific coast ...... So laudable was this benefaction, thought Carnegie, that "a thousand years hence," an orator would say of Stanford what Griffith says of Wolsey in Henry VIM In bestowing, madam, He was most princely. Ever witness for him This seat of learning... though unfinished, yet so famous.

Leslie Lenkowsky is President of the Institute for Educational Affairs, Washington, D.C.. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on Jul y 28, 1989, in the Resource Bank series of lectures featuring leaders of conservative public policy organizations. ISSN 0272-W5. 01989 by The Heritage Foundation.

So excellent in art, and still so rising. That Christendom shall ever speak his virtue. Un fortunately, what Carnegie could not have anticipated was the possibility that a thousand years from now, no one - and certainly no one from Stanford University - would be reading Shakespeare. Fondness for Education. Carnegie is not alone in this. Through o ut American history, philanthropists always have had a special fondness for education. Next to religion, it receives a larger share of gifts than any other kind of activity: nearly 10 percent of the total. Foundations and corporations have been especially sympathetic. According to Giving U.S.A., the annual source book on charitable giving, over one-fifth of foundation grants and nearly half of all corporate contributions now go to education. Not surprisingly, the affection of these donors has been reciproc a ted. Organized philanthropy, in particular, derives much of its character from its relationship with the world of knowledge. From Mr. Carnegie's handful of "clerks" to today's legions of program officers, a background in education has been a useful starti n g point for a career in giving. Indeed, the heads of most of the major foundations come from the ranks of university officials. (The new president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is the first in a long while to come from the corporate world, and even he spent most of his career on the research and development side, not in marketing or finance.) Scholars typically populate foundation-sponsored study groups, and to no small extent, the measure of a good project is the degree to which it taps their expertis e in solving problems. In that sense, whether liberal or conservative in politics, all organized grant making is progressive in its belief that knowledge holds the key to social improvement. Ideology Replacing Scholarship. As a result, when the state of ed u cation suffers, so does philanthropy. And that, of course, is the condition we face today. For reasons that go far beyond the scope of these remarks, the quality of knowledge has become increasingly strained (to use an allusion most students will soon be u nable to recognize). Especially in the humanities and social sciences, the two areas most relevant to the work of philanthropy, ideology has gone a long way toward replacing scholarship, and the consequences can can be felt from the classroom to the learn e d societies. When foundations or corporations now seek to enlist the best minds, they are apt to get the politically correct ones instead. Even worse, given where most of those in philanthropy have come from, they might not even be able - or want - to per c eive the difference. In this audience, it goes without saying that these trends have generally not been toward what are usually thought of as conservative ideas. To be sure, more economists now appreciate the virtues of the free market, more sociologists n ow recognize that the breakup of the black family has affected racial mobility, and more political scientists have concluded that a well-meaning internationalism is usually insufficient as a guide for foreign policy. These are but straws in a westerly win d . On most major campuses, students of Leo Strauss need not apply for tenure, those who find Charles Murray's conclusions worth taking seriously should keep their opinions to themselves, and those who want to lecture on the problem of Communism in Latin Am e rica should buy a tomato-and-egg resistant set of clothes. In all the disciplines, left-wing paradigms flourish and are often powerful enough to impose silence or conformity on all but the most foolhardy. Add to that the new totems of race, gender, and se xual preference and you can see why, if he were alive today, Mr. Carnegie might be sorely tempted to revise his list.


Mindless Philanthropy. Or would he? The truth is that philanthropy has been more than an unwitting accomplice in these developments. Foundation grants have fostered some dreadfully influential revisions of the college curriculum and helped advance the car e ers of scholars who had fashionable views and interests ahead of those who did not. In some cases, philanthropic support was even conditioned upon compliance with certain standards, such as the proportion of fellowship money an institution gave to minorit i es. But for the most part, the real sins of the grant makers were those of omission. There are lamentably few instances where donors have withheld ftmds to protest actions at odds with academic freedom or unbiased teaching and research, and most of those i nvolve corporations whose recruiters were barred from campus, or whose business activities were denounced. (Even they are outnumbered by the cases where a company has simply turned the other cheek.) Perhaps a tightfisted, pugnacious Scot like Carnegie mig h t have behaved differently, but if he listened instead to his "clerks" and trustees, he almost certainly would not. Ten years ago, the Institute for Educational Affairs was created to do something about this form of philanthropy of, by, and for the mindle s s. The impetus was the warm reception accorded articles and speeches by, among others, Irving Kristol, David Packard, W. Allen Wallis, Charles Wohlstetter, and especially William E. Simon. All of them faulted grant makers - and, in particular, business gr a nt makers - for providing support to organizations that were undermining the very system that had made such generosity possible in the first place. In A 7"Imefor Thith, Simon (who became our founding chairman) put it this way: There are few voluntary inst i tutions in America today that are organized to finance intellectuals who fight for economic as well as political liberty. Most private funds - inevitably from business itself - flow ceaselessly to the very institutions which are philosophically committed t o the destruction of capitalism. The great corporations of America sustain the major universities, with no regard for the content of their teachings. They sustain the major foundations which nurture the most destructive egalitarian trends. And with their a dvertising, they sustain the mass media, which today inevitably serve as a national megaphone for every egalitarian crusade. In the last analysis, American business is financing the destruction of both free enterprise and political freedom (pp. 244-45). S o mewhat unexpectedly, in response to this and the other statements came not a flood of protests but an avalanche of letters and calls for help. Harmony Between Philanthropy and Scholarship. IEA was established to be a vehicle for providing assistance to fo u ndations, corporations, and individual donors who wanted their grants to go to projects that nourished the values and institutions of a free society, especially (though not exclusively) in higher education. We were prepared either to advise and point give r s in the right direction or to pool and administer funds on their behalf. We would work closely with other groups, including the small number of conservative foundations then in operation. Our board consisted of an equal number of scholars and writers, on the one hand, and businessmen and philanthropists on the other. In this way, we paid homage to our core belief.- that there existed a natural harmony between enlightened philanthropy and enlightening scholarship. It would be nice to be able to say that, s ince our founding, this mutuality of interest has reasserted itself. But anyone who has visited, or even worse studied at, a campus recently knows that is not so. Nor is there a great deal of evidence that foundations and corporations


are becoming mo re selective in their choice of benefactors. Bill Simon could reprise what he wrote about philanthropy a decade ago without much fear of contradiction. Indeed, in a Wall Street Journal article last summer, he did. Stimulating New Courses. Nonetheless, the past decade has not been bereft of accomplishments. Along with others, we at the Institute for Educational Affairs have been able to identify and support a sizable number of scholars, including several younger ones who have earned permanent faculty status as a result of the research our grants permitted them to do. Through judicious use of seed money, we also have succeeded in stimulating the development of new courses for undergraduates and law school students. IEA funding helped launch the Federalist Soc i ety, as well as a network of "alternative" student newspapers that now can be found on four dozen campuses. And we have also underwritten some provocative studies on university governance and finance, including the National Review article by Allan Bloom t h at became the forerunner of 7he Closing of the American Mind. At the same time, we have built up a network of over 170 grant makers. Not all are committed conservatives, but they are at least interested in hearing what conservatives have to say. Moreover, charitable-giving watchers claim that corporate support of higher education has tapered off; last year, in fact, donations from all sources to education declined for the first time in fifteen years. Perhaps this indicates that Mr. Carnegie's priority list is being revised after all. If none of this amounts to a revolution, it does show there are things philanthropy can do to improve the quality of higher education. And now is a particularly propitious time to undertake them. For all the anger they directed at Bill Bennett when he was Secretary of Education, college and university officials know, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that his criticisms of them touched a nerve among the American people and are relying on more th a n public relations to repair the damage. (National Endowment for the Humanities Director Lynne Cheney's upcoming report on the core curriculum should add new fuel to this fire.) With the college-age population declining, applications for admission even to the most prestigious schools have fallen off, creating a buyer's market for higher education. If parents and students take advantage of it, colleges and universities may have even more incentive to get their houses in order. Coming to Terms with Reality. F or those donors and organizations who want to lend a hand, IEA!s experience offers a number of lessons. First, it is essential to recognize and respect the nature of the institution. Philanthropic efforts to improve education must start with an appreciati o n of how colleges and universities actually work, just as understanding the traditions and procedures of Congress is necessary to influence the outcome of a legislative debate. Unlike those in a corporation, college directors and presidents usually have l i ttle power; nor do the alumni, unless a school is strapped for cash. Throughout most of higher education, the faculty rules, and unless a grant maker comes to terms with that reality, his efforts are likely to be futile. There is no substitute, in other w o rds, for supporting carefully designed programs of faculty and curriculum development, including those aimed at junior professors. If help is needed in identifying potential participants or topics, it is not hard to find. Likewise, the authority students p ossess is more often moral than real. Universities are not democracies and students are not citizens; their votes do not count, despite the now common practice of having pupils grade their teachers. However, organized groups of students can infuse particu lar causes with the kind of passionate enthusiasm adolescents are


famous for. And that, in turn, can ignite those aging post-adolescents on the faculty and in the administration, who yearn for the joyous days of their own youth, sometime in the 1960s or 1970s. One of the reasons our student newspapers (or the Federalist Society) are so threatening (and so successful) is that they spoil the comfortable assumption that true commitment exists only on the Left. Our students are as concerned about importa n t issues as any of their peers. By banding together and publicizing their views, they help break the sort of self-imposed tyranny that can be established when only one side of an argument appears to have principles worth arguing for. Organizations interes t ed in improving higher education can surely find more to do along these lines. New Intolerance. Indeed, increasingly, some of the most basic beliefs in higher education work to the advantage of change in the status quo. Take academic freedom, a principle a t the heart of the college and university enterprise.'Mere was a time when the Right was thought - not always unfairly - eager to restrict it. Now, thanks to rules governing supposedly offensive speech on campus, or interest-group sensitivities to course c ontent, the Left is coming in for criticism. Moreover, the new intolerance in higher education is being directed not just against faculty and students well-known for their politically conservative views. Last year, at least two prominent liberal academics felt so much heat that they decided to stop teaching highly regarded courses that touched on racial issues. Such incidents, as well as the double standards and administrative cowardice that usually accompany them, deserve as much public exposure as possib l e. But even more important, those who find fault with the intolerance of the Left must make clear that they are not simply interested in replacing it with narrow-mindedness of another sort. The logic of freedom applies to the campus as well as the marketp l ace, and just as the results of the latter may not always be to our liking, so too for inquiry and teaching in the academy. As one of our founding directors, Walter Berns, has observed in another context, the duty of conservatives now is to defend liberal principles on campus from the assaults of the "liberals." Respecting academic freedom, however, does not necessarily mean kowtowing to it. There is nothing improper about insisting that universities and colleges adhere to certain standards of conduct, or p roduce acceptable results in return for philanthropic support. Just as no sensible parents would send their child to a college whose degree was worthless, no donor ought to give money to a school whose activities were hostile to what he holds dear. Nor sh o uld he be intimidated by the charge that, in so doing, he is illegitimately seeking to interfere with the conduct of higher education. Nothing prevents a university or college from finding other sources of support for controversial programs or carrying th e m on regardless of criticism. That is, indeed, what makes academic freedom so important. Yet, by the same token, unless there is some awareness that its exercise may not be costless, that freedom will sooner or later become debased, as is rapidly occurrin g today. Enlightened grant making may be good not only for conservatives but also for higher education. Preferring the "Quick Fix." So, perhaps, as in Carnegie's day, higher education is still a worthwhile area for philanthropic investment. Yet, surprising l y, relatively few organizations are taking advantage of it. In addition to IEA, there are some groups, like the National Association of Scholars, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Accuracy in Academia, the "Second Thoughts" project of the National Fo rum Foundation, and the National Center for Public Policy Research that have programs devoted chiefly to the campuses, but they are few, compared to the number concerned with precollegiate education. Likewise, there are


several grant makers who use a sizable amount of their funds for carefully targeted giving to colleges and universities. However, most donors and trustees tend to prefer the "quick fix" and direct the bulk of their grants toward trying to affect public policy or the media directly, app a rently not realizing how much of what concerns them originates in the theoried classes of academe. Some, especially in the corporate world, have decided to give up the battle on the campuses altogether. Such disengagement is neither useful nor necessary. C onsternation on the Left. Ironically, from the viewpoint of the Left, conservatives already hold the upper hand on campus. For example, this week, the Center for National Policy, a liberal think tank in Washington, held a conference for its own group of " a lternative" campus political journals. The invitation made the following observation about the state of higher education: As you are well aware, the conservative right is well-funded and well organized. Conservative think tanks give hundreds of thousands o f dollars to conservative college newspapers.'Ibey not only give them money, but an agenda goes along with it. We, on the other hand, have a little money to give out and absolutely no agenda nor propaganda is attached to the check. Our mission is for the o nce two-sided debate to become two-sided once again. Reading faculty contributions to The Chronicle of Higher Education or hearing college and university administrators speak about publications like 77te Dartmouth Review would also lead to the conclusion t hat they believe the barbarians must be at the gates. The fact of the matter is that the barbarians are really inside and we who seek to uphold the great traditions of higher education are barely at the gates. Yet, if we have caused so much constemation w ith such little effort, imagine how much more foundations and corporations could accomplish if they set out intelligently to try.




Representative Dana

Policy Analyst