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Ayn Rand Indoctrination at American Universities, Sponsored by the Right Wing

Conservative activists have a good-cop, bad-cop approach to the university. In either case, the same right-wing foundations pay the bill.
 
 
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These days, rich conservatives want a lot more than their names on university buildings in exchange for big donations. The Koch brothers recently endowed two economics professorships at Florida State University in exchange for a say over faculty hires. Banker John Allison, long-time head of BB&T, has donated to 60 universities in exchange for their agreeing to teach Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged--some agreements even include the outrageous stipulation that the professor teaching the course “have a positive interest in and be well versed in Objectivism.”

The economic crisis has opened American universities to ever more brazen--and at times decidedly strange--attacks on the hallowed principle of academic freedom. Conservative efforts to shape hearts and minds on campus, however, are far from new. Like anything in a capitalist society, academia is a place where people with money fight for power, and take their advantage where they can. Indeed, the effort to mold higher education--which the Right has long caricatured as a hotbed of revolutionary agitation--in the image of the establishment has been central to the rise of modern conservatism.

“Conservatives have been funding such efforts for a while, but usually fairly quietly and without the rough touch of the Koch brothers,” says David Farber, a professor of history at Temple University and author of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism.

Inside academia and out, the conservative movement has prioritized young people and intellectuals since the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater and the 1968 youth rebellion, endowing professorships alongside a plethora of on-message think tanks. (The arms manufacturer John Olin, 78, was particularly appalled by the 1969 occupation of the student union at his alma mater, Cornell, by armed black activists.)

During the 1950s, the Volker Fund funded economist Friedrich von Hayek’s position at the University of Chicago and other professorships. But in the 1970s, a new breed of foundations known as the "four sisters"--Bradley, Scaife, Smith Richardson and Olin--began to aggressively cultivate conservatism on campus.

Olin funded faculty fellowships for the writing of conservative books, the funding of major conferences and colloquia, and the establishment of conservative “law and economics” programs at law schools nationwide. There are now John M. Olin Programs in Law and Economics at elite universities including Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and Chicago. The foundation funded the Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago. (The Center's first director, Allan Bloom, went on to write The Closing of the American Mind, the classic 1987 attack on liberalism in the academy.) An Olin-funded conference in 1982 led to the creation of the Federalist Society, the preeminent organization of conservative lawyers and jurists.

While funding from older foundations like Ford may have reflected liberal sensibilities, they did not directly subsidize the development of liberal thought. Conservatives understand what’s at stake, from curriculum to university funding and faculty labor conditions. As historian Jennifer de Forest writes, Olin embraced the now fashionable conservative moniker, “ideas have consequences.” And to ensure that the foundation was never taken over by the Left, it planned to close up shop once Olin’s successor died, preventing some hypothetical leftist granddaughter from ruining everything. (The John M. Olin Foundation officially disbanded in 2005.)

“Free markets could not be defended without reference to the rule of law, religion, the family and the evolution of our political institutions. This task required a full-blown engagement with the world of ideas -- a world traditionally dominated by the left,” James Piereson, then the executive director of the Olin Foundation and now director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, wrote in a 2004 Wall Street Journal farewell op-ed titled “American Conservatism: You Get What You Pay For."

“There exists today, in contrast to the 1970s, an impressive network of think tanks, journals and university programs supported by conservative foundations, which are engaged in different ways in promoting the cause of liberty and limited government. As a result, there is now a robust debate in American intellectual life between conservatives and liberals. The one-sided debate, dominated by the Left, is a thing of the past.”

Interestingly, others on the Right--including groups funded by the very same upstanding and seemingly well-mannered conservative foundations--take a far less rosy view. Despite their successes, they loudly decry a vast left-wing conspiracy, firmly entrenched and set to turn the young against America and capitalism. After 9/11, a re-energized right-wing movement emerged to attack a supposed left bias in academia, particularly in Middle East studies departments.

Daniel Pipes founded Campus Watch, a Web site that continues to denounce offending professors by name for anti-Americanism or for daring to criticize Israel. David Horowitz, never a shrinking violet, launched a campaign against a “fifth column” of “tens of thousands of active sympathizers with the enemy's anti-American cause” within academia.

The targets of vilification change with the times. Two decades ago, the Olin Foundation funded David Brock, the one-time conservative who went on to found Media Matters, to write his attack book The Real Anita Hill. More recently, right-wing saboteur Andrew Breitbart went after labor studies professors at the University of Missouri. And the Wisconsin Republican Party demanded the e-mails of University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon after he wrote about the American Legislative Exchange Council’s role in crafting conservative bills in state legislatures. The open records request specified e-mails containing words like “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining.”

Conservative activists have a good-cop, bad-cop approach to the university. In either case, the same right-wing foundations pay the bill. This is the way the conservative movement works across the board: a collaboration between country club manners and the issuing of position papers on the one hand, and frothing-at-the-mouth questioning of the president’s birth certificate and allegations of communist infiltration on the other.

The Bradley Foundation is the largest funder of Middle East Forum, which runs the "traitor"-denouncing Campus Watch. They also fund the more upright American Council of Trustees and Alumni, founded by Lynne Cheney and Joseph Lieberman (who has since distanced himself) to promote the Western canon and bash leftist professors. Two months after 9/11, they issued a report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It." Bradley has also given millions to the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and has bankrolled pro-charter and voucher organizations nationwide seeking to privatize American public schools.

Bradley funded a right-wing alumni association to attack Dartmouth College-- the same university where foundations (including Bradley, Scaife and Olin) funded a pathbreaking and sometimes vilely offensive conservative student newspaper called the Dartmouth Review. Such papers, with the support of the foundation-funded Institute for Educational Affairs (which in turn funded the conservative college newspaper Collegiate Network), began to pop up around the country in the 1980s. Newspaper alumni range from Dinesh D'Souza to Ann Coulter. Student groups like the Young America’s Foundation also benefit from foundation largesse.

Laying down its spear and putting on a tie, the Bradley Foundation also gives out a $250,000 Bradley Prize to a handful of conservative intellectuals like Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. Bradley throws a big Kennedy Center gala every year.

Asset manager Roger Hertog is another conservative--actually, a neoconservative--who moves easily between street-fighting and high-minded philanthropy, bomb-throwing activism and establishment propriety. Hertog funded pro-Israel journals at three universities, including Columbia, where conservative students launched a massive smear campaign against the Middle Eastern studies department. Hertog also funded the New York Sun, a small, right-wing daily that attacked Columbia professors in tandem with on-campus activists.

In recent years, Hertog has busied himself founding secretive and select “grand strategy” programs for budding military and political leaders at elite universities. Students practice giving Oval Office-style presentations, enjoy "intimate dinners" with people like former Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, and take up jobs in the national security establishment after graduation. (This article provides a good description of the Yale prototype.) Hertog also funded the New Republic, is chairman emeritus of the Manhattan Institute, and has funded fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and American Enterprise Institute.

The campaign to privatize and corporatize American education is a top-to-bottom effort. The casualization of academic labor gains inspiration from the ongoing and often successful movement to privatize secondary education; the watchwords in both cases being “end tenure.” As a recent New York Times article disclosed, the Gates Foundation has funded thinkers inside and outside of academia, including $3.5 million to Harvard to “place ‘strategic data fellows’ who could act as ‘entrepreneurial change agents’ in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere." The campaign to bring Atlas Shrugged to colleges mirrors a vast effort in American high schools, to which the Ayn Rand Institute has distributed hundreds of thousands of free copies.

“The degree to which public education fell so easily gives the Right more confidence to go after higher education,” says Henry Giroux, professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

The movement to buy conservative beachheads within academia and vilify leftist professors is clearly not new. What’s new today is that universities are incredibly vulnerable to conservative encroachment and attack. A debilitating economic crisis has dried up state revenue amidst a long-term move to casualize academic labor so that part-time adjuncts scurry from school to school with no hope of tenure, while tuition continues to rise while household incomes plummet. Those professors lucky enough to land full-time jobs are not very often eligible for tenure. Students shut out of enrollment-capped community colleges are forced to try their luck at for-profit “colleges” like the University of Phoenix, where record numbers of students accumulate record debt with few job prospects.

“The neoliberal attack on the university is now backed by so much money and so many resources that it’s almost overwhelming,” says Giroux. “You couple that with deficits, and it’s a perfect storm.”

The university is increasingly modeled after a corporation; presidents are CEOs set to raise money, and professors are judged by the “value” they produce in the classroom. Students are consumers, expecting well-manicured lawns, fully equipped athletics and a high grade point average.

In Texas, Governor Rick Perry recently forced out the chancellor of Texas A&M, his former chief of staff, allegedly for moving too slowly to implement corporatizationplans. The university already makes public a list of the pay and benefits of all faculty members compared against the number of students taught and the amount of funds they attract through research.

There is a growing effort to stigmatize the study of the humanities as a pedantic waste of time, and narrow the focus of academia down to a vocational school for corporate America. Today’s political class does not, to be sure, readily accept the idea of the university as a public sphere for the critical working out of the ideas necessary in a functioning democracy. Ironically, the Olin Foundation and its peers were able to accomplish what they did precisely because they invested in abstract ideas, taking the long view instead of demanding immediately measurable results.

There are signs that academics are pushing back against the corporate encroachment. For one, faculty members have resisted being forced to teach the 1,000-page free-market romance novel Atlas Shruggedas serious political philosophy (though political philosophers of any political hue do regularly assign serious conservative texts like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom). And in the first major breakthrough of a joint campaign by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors to organize major research universities, a majority of faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago signed cards to form a union. Adjunct professors not only lack job security, they lack a real say over a university’s governance. Without a strong corps of tenured faculty, higher education will not be able to withstand the corporate onslaught.

“The most powerful forces against the university are coming from outside,” says Giroux. “The most powerful forces to defend the university will come from inside. If the people who work inside the university can’t defend it, no one will. “

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia.
 
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