Why Big Money Can’t Easily Change Campus Politics

The author of this newsletter takes a generally dim view of wealthy donors who give lots of money to America’s richest universities, and an especially critical view of those who do so despite harboring strong objections to the leftward ideological drift of those same institutions.

But the ongoing donor revolts at a few notable schools — following administrative temporizing over the proper response to Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians and pro-Hamas statements by certain student groups — offer an opportunity to be constructive and prescriptive, not just critical. So for any rich person or rich foundation currently reconsidering the way they give to elite academia, here are some thoughts about the modern university landscape and what money can and can’t accomplish therein.

First, Jewish donors probably can’t win the identity politics game. This point is made effectively by Jason Willick in The Washington Post, responding to those donors who seem primarily upset by the delay in official recognition of Israeli suffering and whose main desire seems to be that schools like Cornell or the University of Pennsylvania “acknowledge a cause near to their hearts as readily as they acknowledge other causes.”

The problem, Willick points out, is that neither Israeli nor American Jewish interests have a strong position in the inverted hierarchy that dominates academic discourse. The State of Israel is too powerful, notwithstanding its cruel enemies, and broadly speaking American Jews are too materially successful to fit neatly on the “oppressed” side of the oppressor/oppressed binary. And the conspiratorial side of contemporary progressivism, its constant focus on “the domination of the powerless by the powerful,” can blur into old-fashioned antisemitic narratives, with the specter of Jewish privilege lurking behind the language of “white privilege.” (A recent study in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics found that Hispanics and African Americans agreed with antisemitic statements at rates similar to white Americans who identify with the alt-right — not an ideal indicator for the Jewish position within the circle of progressive allyship.)

This leads Willick to conclude, correctly, that Jewish donors would be wise to urge college administrations to step back from public political interventions and make stronger commitments to free speech, rather than just trying to make sure that Jews get their share of identitarian solicitude.

But this strategy also has inherent limits, insofar as the free speech protected by campus administrators is only as diverse as the people who are speaking. Which brings us to the second point for would-be reshapers of the university: If you can’t influence faculty hiring and tenure, you may be wasting your money.

A wise friend of mine compared the modern university to a complex medieval church-state arrangement, with administrators as the secular power and faculty as the priests and monks. Donors have leverage over the president’s office and so they naturally focus on ways to use those levers, to get presidents and administrators to fear their wrath (or stinginess) and respond quickly to their criticisms. But if you’re concerned about what gets taught and published and believed, you’re ultimately concerned with priestcraft, and the priests jealously guard their clerical independence and resist the impositions of administrators, let alone donors trying to work their own will through the president’s office.

As, to be clear, they should: Any conservative or small-l liberal model of a university assumes that the faculty, not the administrative caste, should be in charge of education. But if that’s the case and you’re a donor concerned about the substance of elite education, trying to exert pressure through the administrative system can be an exercise in futility. What you want is a theory of how to address the increasing ideological conformism of the actual professoriate — meaning both the disappearance of explicitly conservative faculty (a trend that predates the era of Donald Trump) and the greater pressure on moderate-liberal faculty as their left flank becomes ever stronger and their right flank disappears.

Such a theory might involve founding or funding centers or programs within universities that are committed to heterodoxy in some form. It might mean pressuring universities to commit to a project of intellectual diversification in hiring to match other commitments to diversity. It might mean finding a specific faculty member or a group of faculty members who need financial support and can use that support productively.

But in each case the goal shouldn’t be to simply protect an embattled unwoke professor here or there. You want your money to support a system where ideological diversity increases with every round of tenuring, where heterodoxy reproduces itself rather than being frozen in tokenism.

And if that’s your goal, you need to be aware of the third point, which is that real influence requires working with the grain of academic culture, not just seeking confrontation. When donors become disillusioned with their alma maters, a frequent impulse is to turn to culture-war and cancellation tactics — funding student groups that bring the most controversial possible speaker to campus pour épater les wokes, generating maximal controversy around a particularly radical faculty member or (as we’ve seen in the past few weeks) trying to impose real-world consequences on student radicalism by making it harder for the radicals to get high-paying jobs.

There is a rough justice to some of these efforts, and there’s certainly no inherent right to maintain a zealous commitment to dismantling the patriarchal violence of settler-colonialist white supremacy while also getting the Big Law job of your meritocratic dreams. But when donors turn to these methods, they are mostly giving up on constructive change within the school, because the effect within the academy is to ratify a fear of donor influence, a hostility to anything touched by anti-woke or centrist or conservative ideas. A few radical-but-careerist students may shut up, a few faculty leftists may tweet more prudently, but behind the scenes the left will claim vindication in its effort to keep any to-the-right-of-Bernie-Sanders influence at bay. (“See, you can’t work with them. They hate us for our academic freedom.”)

Yes, you can temper this left-wing vindication by closing up your checkbook, but — final point — elite universities are the hardest places to influence or punish, because they’re already so rich. Will the University of Pennsylvania miss the collection of major donors who’ve denounced the school in the past week? No doubt. Can the University of Pennsylvania survive a fair amount of donor flight, given that it’s managing an endowment worth $21 billion? You do the math.

Which brings us back to my own bias against giving to such institutions in the first place. If you want actual influence over American academic life, you’re just much better off finding a smaller or poorer school where your money will be welcomed, your opportunities to effect real transformation will be ample and your millions can build something dynamic or beautiful without always fighting through the thicket of powerful interest groups that grows up around powerful institutions. And to harp again on a frequent theme, if you’re absurdly, obscenely rich and care about higher education, you should Google “Leland Stanford” and then go and do likewise.

But I also understand that it’s hard to let go of the place where you yourself went to college, where you were young and happy oh-so-many years ago. In which case our disillusioned donors should consider choosing neither the waste of giving directly to schools whose ideology they now oppose nor the dubious satisfactions of doing battle with that ideology while possibly helping to entrench it.

If their memories of student life are what drives their generosity, then donors should find ways to give money to the actual students — through the Hillel or other Jewish or Israeli student groups if you’re especially concerned with the Jewish place on campus, but more generally through political or religious groups that promise to work against the school’s dominant assumptions, or through student associations that seem to foster free debate, or through campus-adjacent institutions that serve students but are independent of the schools.

But not with the goal of using such student groups as a means of conflict with the administration or the faculty. Rather, with the goal that such groups can become microcosms of the university you loved once and fear no longer exists, cells in a body yet to be restored, whose health and flourishing within the large world of Penn or Harvard or wherever is an end unto itself.


Michael Brendan Dougherty and Chris Caldwell on the defeat of populism in Poland.

Anthony Grafton on Renaissance magic.

Anthony Lane on Arthur Brooks.

Against George Orwell against boys’ weeklies.

Zvi Mowshowitz takes notes on falling fertility.

Keith Phipps revisits Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun.”

The royal wedding we need.

This Week in Decadence

— Maxi Gorynski, “On a Lack of Ambition” (Oct. 13)

Related Articles

Back to top button