Tuesday, October 4

Buying the campus mind


This April, the Smith College Center for the Study of Social and Political Change released a report claiming that college campuses are overrun with liberal faculty. Conservatives used the report to opine, as Cathy Young of the Reason Foundation did in her Boston Globe column, that this "lack of intellectual diversity endangers the very purpose of the academy." Then, during this spring’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Republicans used the study to argue for including an "academic bill of rights," which sought to withhold government grants from colleges whose professors push a "political" agenda in their classrooms. Similar state-level legislation pending in more than a dozen legislatures — including Massachusetts’s — was also bolstered by the study.

This is all rather ironic, given that the author of the study, Stanley Rothman, is an openly conservative ideologue whose center exists at Smith only because of funding provided by right-wing foundations paying him to pump out material for their political agenda. The Sarah Scaife Foundation, a wing of Richard Mellon Scaife’s conservative empire that also funds almost every right-wing think tank you’ve ever heard of, provides the center with $75,000 a year. The Earhart Foundation, a long-time funder of conservative economics thinkers — and more recently, of college anti-affirmative-action campaigns — chips in $25,000.

Those two foundations, in fact, pumped $2.5 million into college coffers in 2003, according to a Phoenix review of their most recent available tax records. But that’s just a drop in an increasingly large tub of money coming from private, ideologically driven foundations, in a deliberate effort to use colleges as their breeding grounds. And unlike years past, much of the money is going toward humanities and social-science programs.

Foundation funding for the humanities grew from $134.1 million in 1992 to $335 million in 2002, according to The Foundation Center, a nonpartisan, philanthropy-supported research group based in New York that tracks more than 1000 charitable foundations. Over this 10-year span, colleges and universities were facing a variety of increasing financial pressures, including tighter government funding, high campus infrastructure costs, and, starting in 2000, shrinking endowment investments.

The resulting need for money has not only made these schools more willing to seek out grants from potentially biased sources, it has made it easier for those sources to demand greater control over how their money is used. Two-fifths of humanities grant dollars to colleges — funding for language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, ethics, art criticism, and social sciences — went to fund specific projects in 2002.

But is it bias? Consider this: the Walton Family Foundation gave more than $15 million in contributions to US colleges and universities in 2003. The same family has spent millions supporting George W. Bush and the GOP, and the family’s namesake, Wal-Mart, consistently refuses to sell CDs, DVDs, magazines, and books that its in-store censors deem inappropriate.

University reliance on private grants in the hard sciences has drawn skepticism from, say, those concerned that research paid for by drug companies will inevitably skew toward the funders’ wishes. But the effect may be even greater in other, more politically charged fields of academia, where analysis is often partly subjective and funding comes more often from private sources: while the federal government pays for nearly two-thirds of all college-based research and development in the sciences, it pays for only 40 percent in the social sciences, education, and humanities, according to the National Science Foundation. Each year, the balance — a billion dollars — is paid for largely by various sources, with private foundations being a large and growing chunk of it. At Harvard, for example, foundations paid for $86 million of such funding in 2004, up from $57 million in 2000. But in contrast with the skepticism shown toward industry funding of the hard sciences, few question the motives behind foundation grants in the humanities and social sciences.

The arts and humanities side of many campuses is filling up with faculty, research, interdisciplinary centers, students, publications, and campus events sponsored by ideologically driven donors. Whether students know it or not — and most do not — it is changing their college experience.

"I can say, anecdotally, that particularly among younger donors, they want more control over how their dollars are spent," says Steven Lawrence, The Foundation Center’s director of research. "Instead of just funding institutions, donors are reflecting their interests."

And increasingly, those interests are political. "Public affairs/society benefit" has seen the fastest increase in grant dollars from foundations, jumping from $63.9 million in 1997 to $193.3 million in 2001.

That has led to considerable internal debate among university administrators and faculty over how much control to give up versus the value of the donation, says Lawrence.

But you won’t hear that debate, or its results, aired in public. Colleges are loath to make public the terms of a donation, or even the fact of it. Local colleges and universities contacted by the Phoenix, including Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, Boston College, and Boston University, were unwilling or unable to provide a list of private foundations that currently provide grant money to them, let alone the conditions attached.

Some funders, notably the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, attach their names boldly to much of what they fund — you can find the John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics and Business at Harvard, and take classes with David Gress, the John M. Olin professor in the history of civilizations at Boston University.

But most keep it quiet. That’s often to keep the research independent and uncorrupted, says Pamela Thompson, vice-president for communications for the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which funds research on how religious belief improves character, values, and civic life, including nine current projects at Harvard, Wellesley, Tufts, and Lesley in Massachusetts. Too much publicity about the projects could corrupt participating subjects, Thompson explains.

Fair enough, in some cases. But in most cases, the discretion more likely comes from a desire to maintain the appearance of objectivity. Why, other than the perceived gravitas of the college name, did the Scaife Foundation fund Rothman’s center at Smith, rather than having the research done at one of the many right-wing think tanks funded by the same group: American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Hudson Institute, and Media Research Center to name a few?

And the schools certainly wouldn’t benefit by publicizing potentially biasing sources of funding. The new research on "the economics of environmental regulation and policy" at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute might be taken more seriously if people don’t know that it is being funded with a $25,000 grant from the eco-friendly Bauman Foundation, which is on a "political left" hit list maintained by conservative watchdog David Horowitz.

Colleges and universities also don’t want controversy like that which embroiled the University of North Carolina earlier this year, when dozens of faculty members protested plans for a major grant for Western-civilization studies from the right-wing John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

So, most schools keep quiet about their sources of funding, whether it be the $50 million grant from the progressive Ford Foundation to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government a few years ago, or the $29 million in recently approved future grants from the conservative Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation to Wellesley College.

It’s hard to say how much sources of funding affect scholarship. But the fact is that if Rothman, at Smith, issued a report that ran contrary to the known ideological viewpoint of his funders, they could simply turn down his application next year and his center would be out of business. That can’t be good for the objectivity of his scholarship.

Technically, all of these foundations are apolitical — as nonprofit charitable institutions, they are forbidden from direct political engagement. Many of them fund projects of many kinds, including plenty that are clearly agenda-free. And of course, bias is often in the eye of the beholder; a research topic that sounds neutral to a liberal might strike a conservative as blatantly political, and vice versa. In fact, when attention is drawn to "biased" funding, it often comes from those pushing their own biases — such as those at Hamilton College who raised a stink this year over the funding sources that brought controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill to their upstate New York campus.

But don’t you want to know who is paying for your prof?

If you are a Boston College student and have attended any of the public lectures presented by BC’s Institute for the Study of Politics and Religion, did you know that those words you heard were paid for by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the handful of conservative powerhouses at the heart of what some call the "vast right-wing conspiracy"? In the early 1990s, the Bradley Foundation spent more than a half-million dollars paying the American Spectator Educational Foundation to chase the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones story. (And another $12,000 to David Brock to write his book pillorying Anita Hill; Brock was also a "John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional Studies" before renouncing the right wing.) The conservative Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which regularly funds, for instance, an institute run by global-warming denier S. Fred Singer, gave Tufts $42,800 in 2002 to fund a conference on finding "A New Start in Undergraduate Education."

In addition to $3 million for a new parking garage, the money coming to Wellesley from the Davis Foundation will pay for scholarships, faculty, financial assistance, and "various scholarship programs." The extent to which those programs and scholarships represent the Davis Foundation’s openly conservative leanings remains to be seen. Will the Davis Foundation approve each scholarship and fellowship applicant? Will it comb over the essays, looking for any remnants of liberal thought? Those details are not available.

Earhart sponsors faculty and students at dozens of campuses, including many in Massachusetts: $20,000 for Celia Wolfe-Devine of Stonehill College’s philosophy department to write an article titled "Affirmative Action: Con," for instance, and $10,000 to Paul Franco of Bowdoin College’s department of government and legal studies to write a biography of British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Recipients of Olin and Bradley Foundation grants are also teaching or studying at many local schools.

This follows a longer effort by conservatives, dating to the early 1980s, to influence campus life and political culture. The Scaife, Olin, and Earhart foundations funded conservative publications at campuses across the country, and paid for conservative speakers. They also fund think tanks that work to influence academia, including the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Representatives of right-wing foundations have argued that they are merely trying to level a playing field that liberals have been tilting for years. The Ford Foundation, for example, although originally a more conservative organization, has for years been a reliable funder of progressive college programs — programs that arguably helped women’s studies, postcolonial area studies, and other fields become mainstays of the modern American campus.

Again, bias is often in the eye of the beholder. But we will never get our eyes on it as long as decisions to take millions in grant money and disperse it throughout the campus and curriculum are mostly being made out of sight.