Don’t Feed Academia’s Wasteful Practices

As medieval Europeans placed their hope for salvation in the church and donated vast sums for the construction of splendidly ornate cathedrals, many modern Americans place their hope for a future better world in higher education and give accordingly.

In fiscal year 2014 (the most recent year for which aggregate statistics are available), Americans donated a record $38 billion, an 11 percent increase over 2013. Despite an unstable stock market and continued economic malaise, donations in 2015 promise to be even higher. School after school is reporting record contributions: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took in $447 million, North Carolina State University received $208 million, Purdue University raked in $343 million, and Colorado State University raised $172 million.

But what, exactly, is getting funded? Certainly, much of the money goes for scientific research or worthwhile scholarship programs. But it is also paying for a lot of activity that is counter-productive for students or society. Consider a few decisions made by the people controlling higher education this year:

  • UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism removed requirements for journalism majors to take economics and U.S. History courses.
  • The University of California system issued a faculty handbook that declared phrases such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “America is a melting pot” are offensive “micro-aggressions.”
  • Brown University announced a $100 million campaign to increase diversity when it has already been throwing vast sums of money to promote diversity and multiculturalism for years.
  • Spending on legal help and public relations to fend off punitive repercussions and adverse publicity for UNC-Chapel Hill’s ongoing athletic scandal reached roughly $10.6 million by October. This included a $1.65 million contract given to a single public relations firm.

Is that what you want your money to do? Chances are, reflexively writing an annual check to your school’s endowment fund or alumni organization may be contributing to such expensive or harmful tomfoolery. Especially if you attended a public university, a major private university, or a prestigious private school.

Additionally, even if your contribution goes to something you approve of, unless you have millions to give, the marginal benefit to the school will likely be minimal. Exactly how much will another $1,000 improve Harvard, with its $36 billion (with a “b”) endowment?

The truth is most college donations make very little impact, at best. On occasion, they are used to produce a bad impact. But that doesn’t mean giving to higher education is necessarily bad or irrelevant. In fact, if done properly, it can be exceedingly valuable.

Perhaps the place to start is for large donors who can structure their gifts according to their wishes. Well-heeled benefactors should always get their wishes in writing, lest the school use it for cross-purposes to their beliefs. Really big donations can help introduce intellectual diversity or create a safe haven on campus for conservatives, whether that means an academic center, a speaker series, or an endowed professorship. Yet, even the donor intent of well-structured donations is sometimes violated.

Donors can also make more of a difference by looking for schools that really need help. Harvard does not, nor do Duke or Davidson. But there are many small private colleges today that are struggling in the face of decreasing revenues from tuition to provide a quality education. A slight increase in fundraising can go a long way toward keeping their doors open. And a substantial donation can give the donor access to the school’s decision-makers.

An important development that has occurred over the last 15 years is the emergence of independent academic centers that provide a spark of the intellectual diversity that is in short supply on many campuses. Today, the number of such centers at U.S. universities is approaching 200; they focus on teaching traditional versions of history, economics, and American politics rather than from multicultural or post-modern perspectives.

A relatively small donation at these centers or institutes can be made immediately useful by enabling the creation of an informative lecture, book giveaway, or reading group. Or it can help endow courses on such important subjects as the American Founding or free-market economics.

The same goes for conservative or religious student organizations or publications. A few hundred dollars can help fund an event or an additional issue of a conservative journal.

There are also a growing number of organizations that seek to reform higher education through exposure of its excesses and by promoting sensible policies. They include the National Association of Scholars, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and, of course, our favorite: the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Some of them are operating on shoestring budgets, fighting to keep the spirit of free inquiry alive.

Higher education today is becoming a battleground of ideas. And that’s a good thing—for a brief time it appeared that the Ivory Tower would be completely closed off to any beliefs that did not adhere to the radical left philosophy. Please consider which ideas you want to support before mailing that check.