Another Round on the Jane Mayer Piece

Last Friday, I wrote a piece responding to what I think can only be regarded as a misleading and intellectually dishonest attack on the philanthropy of Art Pope and one of the organizations he helps to fund, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Among other comments, it drew a response from John K. Wilson, co-editor of the Academe blog of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). It necessitates one more round on the Mayer piece and the Pope Center.

Wilson’s post mentions only one of several points on which I took issue with Mayer’s New Yorker article, yet says that my response “reveals how accurate many of the critiques were.” I’ll just focus on Wilson’s single argument that I supposedly endorse what he (and Mayer) view as the malign influence of Pope Foundation money on college education by undermining “academic freedom.”

(For readers interested in a thorough evisceration of Mayer’s argument, I include the link to another article at the end.)

Wilson claims that I “praise the ideological control sought by Pope.” If anyone cares to go back to my piece, he will see that Wilson is setting up a straw man, since I said no such thing. In fact, I argued, perhaps too briefly, that Mayer’s fretting about bad things that would happen if people like Art Pope get to “buy the curriculum” is completely unfounded. My contention is that it is not possible for even the super-rich to do anything of the sort. All they can do is to try to add new people, programs, and perspectives on campuses, and if they succeed in doing so, that doesn’t in any way diminish or imperil academic freedom.

I made an analogy between the alleged efforts at “buying the curriculum” and trying to corner the market on silver—both of which are impossible. Wilson says that the analogy is inapt. Whether it is or isn’t, I think that my argument is sound. To show why, let’s try a “put the shoe on the other foot” hypothetical.

Imagine that billionaire George Soros, who likes to use his wealth to promote an array of “progressive” causes and organizations, casts his eye on the firmament of higher education and spots George Mason University’s economics department, which consists mostly of Austrian and libertarian critics of interventionist economic policies. Soros thinks, “That school needs more balance. I want to make sure some students at least get to hear the case for increasing government control of the economy.” So he comes up with a proposal for the GMU administration. He will give the school a huge amount of money (say, $100 million) if it creates a new chair in the department for a scholar who will teach the ideas he favors. Perhaps he suggests a few names, including Jeffrey Sachs, who might be induced to leave Columbia for a sweet enough deal.

If the GMU administration accepts the Soros offer, has academic freedom been diminished? Will Soros have “bought” the curriculum, or even a small slice of it? Should Rush Limbaugh fans be pressing the panic button?

I say no.

All of the existing professors at GMU are still just as free as they’ve ever been to write or say what they want to. If Sachs or someone else accepts the offered position, he’ll teach a few students, who will then probably discuss his ideas with professors like Don Boudreaux, Larry White, and Daniel Klein. Sachs might feel the need to consider their free-market analysis of his ideas more carefully, and vice versa.

I don’t see the slightest harm to the school or to “academic freedom” in this. The fact that money played a role in bringing about this change doesn’t matter at all. It’s no different than if Soros had simply persuaded GMU to use existing resources to make this supposed improvement.

Now let’s modify the hypothetical. This time Soros says to GMU, “You get the money, but you have to give the job to Ed Schulz of MSNBC. I can count on him not to go soft and start giving students that stuff about ‘on this hand, but on the other hand.’ He’ll just denounce the evils of capitalism straight.” If GMU officials were to take that offer, would that be an attack on academic freedom? (I know of no instance when any donor, even “right wing” ones like Art Pope and Charles Koch have ever tried to do anything remotely like that. But from what Mayer and Wilson write about “buying ideological control,” you might think that’s what they’re up to.)

No, it still would not be an attack on academic freedom for the reason given above. Everyone on the faculty is still as free as ever. What this would be, however, is an attack on the school’s academic integrity. I assume that the AAUP would denounce the deal—although for reasons discussed below, I’m not certain. I would also denounce it, and just as heartily if the new academic post were going to a conservative talking head.

Finally, one more variation. Same offer, but Soros says, “You get the money (maybe far more) provided that you terminate Boudreaux, White and Klein. Their ideas are anathema to me.” If GMU takes that deal, do we have an attack on academic freedom? YES. We also have an attack on academic integrity. I don’t think anyone has ever tried to do that, which really does smack of trying to “buy the curriculum.” If you get wind of anything like that, please let me know and I’ll denounce it with AAUP.

So much for the alleged threat to “academic freedom” from donors like Art Pope. I cannot, however, let the matter rest there. In his elaboration on Mayer’s piece, Wilson gives the impression that the AAUP is engaged in a principled defense of the academic enterprise when it takes the stands it does. I maintain otherwise.

I don’t have any data at hand, but I have a strong impression that “liberal” foundations have invested lots of money in colleges and universities in support of people and programs they favor. If the AAUP has come out against such philanthropy, I would certainly like to hear about it, but if not, that’s fine, because it doesn’t diminish academic freedom. (Some of the people and programs might not be very good for the school’s academic integrity, though. The Africana Studies program that Mary Lefkowitz wrote about in her book History Lesson is a good case in point.) But if I’m right that the AAUP turns a blind eye to efforts by leftist groups to influence campus programs and personnel, it undermines any claim to principled consistency.

Regarding the AAUP’s consistency, the history of the battle over campus “Residence Life” programs is illuminating. This egregious infiltration of college learning, with mandatory sessions amounting to blatant proselytizing for trendy leftist notions, first came to light several years ago when University of Delaware professor Jan Blits blew the whistle on it. He received no support from any AAUP member on his campus. Furthermore, efforts by National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood to enlist the support of the AAUP nationally to stop the proliferation of these Residence Life programs drew no interest.  It appears to be the case that the AAUP opposes only the growth of conservative, libertarian, or traditionalist ideas on campus.

That idea is strongly supported by incidents such as the opposition to even “inside” projects such as the proposed Alexander Hamilton Center, originally proposed for Hamilton College. History professor Robert Paquette has written extensively about that battle, where campus leftists took out their knives to kill off a proposed center that would have emphasized the thought of the American founding. That is just one of numerous cases I could point to in justification of my statement, challenged by Wilson, that there are many professors who exhibit a “thought police” attitude.

The sad fact is that many professors (although not necessarily all AAUP members) regard their roles as “social change agents” rather than as scholars searching for truth. (Occasionally, one even admits it.) They are hostile to increases in the number of “right wing” professors, programs and speakers on campus, no matter the source, because they might express ideas that contravene their efforts at imbuing students with a host of notions about “social justice,” multiculturalism, environmentalism, sustainability, the need for government economic controls, and so on.

To use Wilson’s own phrase, they are the ones intent on “ideological control.” They mount the opposition to speakers they don’t want to be heard (most recently at the University of Wisconsin), professors they don’t want to be hired, and programs they don’t want started. The only principle one can discern in their efforts is that all “progressive” thinking is acceptable and “right” thinking must be opposed.

In summary, Mayer’s hysteria over Pope Foundation college philanthropy is laughable and Wilson’s response does nothing to buttress it.

As I mentioned above, for readers interested in a complete demolition of Mayer’s “State for Sale” notion, here’s another reply to her article.