Steven Pearlstein, a Washington Post business and economics columnist, teaches economics at George Mason University. While he applauds making visible contractual terms between the libertarian, loathed-by-the-left Koch Brothers and GMU’s Mercatus Center, he doesn’t see a big threat to academic freedom. (Get the background to this controversy here.)
Any time a philanthropist makes a donation to a university, writes Pearlstein, he or she influences the priorities of that institution.
When someone gives $10 million to an engineering school rather than the college of humanities, it changes the university’s priorities. When someone endows a center to study the causes and consequences of climate change, it affects who is hired and what is taught and researched. When someone gives enough to name a school after a public figure, it shapes a school’s ideological profile. It would be great if all donations were unrestricted, but they aren’t. Many donors have agendas; the Kochs are just an extreme example.
In the case of Mason’s economics department, the faculty have driven the donor relationships. In most instances, it was the faculty who approached and solicited Koch and other donors with specific projects in mind, not the other way around. Faculty also recruited and hired for the newly funded professors’ positions, decided which courses would be taught, chose which topics to research and selected the students who would attend its graduate programs. Our economics department is not libertarian and conservative because it is funded by Koch and his friends; they fund our economics department because its faculty is — and always has been — overwhelmingly conservative and libertarian.
The underlying problem, suggests Pearlstein, is that “the rules and norms of university governance give faculty the power to hire people who think like they do. … There is ample evidence that feminists prefer to hire other feminists, behaviorists like to hire other behaviorists, ‘crit lit’ scholars hire other ‘crit lit’ scholars. Sorting by political or academic ideology is a naturally occurring phenomenon at universities.”
Pearlstein is absolutely right, but he doesn’t quite complete the loop. The phenomenon he describes is overwhelmingly a left-wing one — progressives systematically purging liberals and conservatives from among their ranks. GMU’s economics department and law school are oases of alternative thinking in a vast, desiccated Sahara of the nation’s overwhelmingly left-leaning schools, centers, institutes and academic departments.
The demand for Koch Brothers transparency, while justified at one level (I totally believe that higher ed should be more transparent), is not uniformly applied. At Virginia Commonwealth University a few years ago, Philip Morris USA contracts with university researchers created a huge controversy that ended with the retirement of President Eugene Trani. The controversy was justified. But no one is holding other donors to comparable levels of public scrutiny. When philanthropist Jane Batten donates $10 million to the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, as was announced yesterday, does anyone ask if strings are attached? Does anyone demand to see the contract? No. No one asks because, I’ll wager, there are few high-profile libertarians or conservatives in the faculty to trigger progressives’ ire. (If I’m wrong, please let me know. I’d love to think that there is still some philosophical diversity at UVa.)
This controversy is all about power. Principles such as transparency and academic freedom are employed selectively and tactically to de-legitimize and expunge conservatives, libertarians and other bogeymen of the left like tobacco companies. Progressives never apply the principles against their own. It’s all about enforcing leftist ideological conformity.
(Hat tip: Steve Haner)There are currently no comments highlighted.