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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.

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."

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