To Encourage Ideological Diversity on College Campuses, Donors Need to Think Bigger
Harvard University isn’t exactly ground zero for the so-called “war on woke.” That’s why so many were taken aback by the school’s recent announcement that it was naming its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after Ken Griffin, a hedge-fund billionaire who pledged $300 million to the university and who is also a major backer of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s White House bid.
Why would a DeSantis booster pour so much cash into the belly of liberal academia? The donation seemed especially odd given DeSantis’s
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Harvard University isn’t exactly ground zero for the so-called war on woke. That’s why so many people were taken aback by the college’s announcement that it was naming its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after Ken Griffin, a hedge-fund billionaire who pledged $300 million to the university and who is also a major backer of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s White House bid.
Why would a DeSantis booster pour so much cash into the belly of liberal academe? The donation seemed especially odd given DeSantis’s battle against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Florida’s schools, including a law forbidding discussion of gender and sexuality in classrooms, and attacks on ideologically monochromatic college campuses.
While Griffin supported the original law against mentions of gender and sexuality through third grade, he recently broke with the governor’s expansion of the policy, with his spokesman telling the Harvard Crimson he supports “academic freedom and free speech.”
The timing of the Griffin announcement was especially notable. The next day, a group of Harvard faculty announced the launch of the Council on Academic Freedom to confront the university’s less-than-stellar record of respecting diverse political views. In a Boston Globe op-ed, two of its founders — Steven Pinker and Bertha Madras, psychology and psychobiology professors, respectively, at Harvard — complained that the university has engaged in “cases of disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions.”
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, Harvard ranks 170th out of 203 institutions in its most recent Free Speech Rankings.
Unsurprisingly, the response to Griffin’s gift largely confirmed that many at Harvard seem unwilling to tolerate dissenting views. Government professor Theda Skocpol told the Harvard Crimson that her employer’s choice to name a school after Griffin was “a shocking and unnecessary sell out.” On Twitter, fellow political scientist Steven Levitsky said it made him “feel sick.” Someone might tell them that founder John Harvard also donated a few pennies to the university — and wasn’t exactly a paragon of modern progressivism.
While Griffin’s gift surprised many, it’s hardly big news that an American business tycoon donated megabucks to an elite university. In the philanthropic world, higher education remains the preferred venue for the prestige-minded 1 percent to send their disposable dollars. Media mogul and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, recently gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University and another $150 million to Harvard — even though he, too, has spoken about how universities need to respect differing opinions, including in a provocative 2014 commencement speech at Harvard.
Start With Ideological Diversity
With all this money at their disposal, perhaps it’s time for donors concerned about political uniformity on campuses to consider a new approach — one that makes ideological diversity the goal from the get-go.
Instead of posting more checks to Cambridge, Mass., and its ilk, why aren’t philanthropists worried about the dearth of ideological diversity putting their money where their mouth is? Where’s the next generation of Cornelius Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegies, and James B. Dukes reimagining and reinventing America’s higher education landscape?
For the daring, deep-pocketed, educational entrepreneur, it’s time to erect ideologically pluralist schools that challenge, rather than reify, the establishment. There’s no blueprint for how to do this, but the goal should be to create more ideological-diverse educational institutions that aren’t afraid to tackle society’s big, controversial questions.
The American university system clearly needs a shake-up. Although the United States has long been the global leader in higher education, trust in its institutions is starting to wane. While Lumina-Gallup’s 2023 State of Higher Education report found that most Americans value higher education, a 2021 Axios-Ipsos survey reported that Republicans are less likely to say they’d feel comfortable at a university. Meanwhile, less than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents expressed confidence in college professors to act in the public interest, compared with 84 percent of Democrats, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
On-campus controversy over ideological differences isn’t new. FIRE has documented more than 1,000 instances of sanctioning faculty on the left and the right over the past two decades. And students protested controversial speakers long before social media ensured that such episodes went viral.
On the left, perceptions of hostility from liberal faculty and students toward less progressive colleagues, peers, and even prospective hires has dampened the culture of free expression on which universities are supposedly built. Conservatives, too, have often responded with their own versions of speech repression on campuses, such as a professor watchlist developed by the youth-led conservative group Turning Point USA.
All of this points to an opportunity to transform the current model of higher education that eschews such constraints. The possibilities are endless. New institutions could encourage intellectual diversity among both staff and students in their hiring practices, curriculum design, and campus climates. New philanthropy-backed institutions could also move to democratize higher education further by testing models such as lottery admissions, which randomly select students to enroll who meet certain academic criteria, incorporating more vocational training, or expressly serving underprivileged communities.
Some notable ventures have started to integrate one or more of these approaches. Yet most are relatively limited in scale or designed as add-ons to existing institutions. These include the University of North Carolina’s proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership and the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, which both hope to build skills focused on debate and promoting free speech on campus.
The University of Austin at Texas, or UATX, is a more ambitious attempt, spearheaded by journalist Bari Weiss, at creating a new school from scratch whose goal is to encourage viewpoint diversity and academic freedom. In the announcement letter, inaugural president Pano Kanelos explained that the school aims to be an antidote to what the founders see as America’s broken higher education system — and a place where intellectual dissent is encouraged. UATX has the potential to show what’s possible when smart, committed risk-takers aren’t afraid to try something different.
Of course, launching a new university comes with real challenges regarding resources, recruitment, and name recognition. UATX, for its part, is still in the accreditation process after its 2021 announcement and does not yet have a physical campus, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Giving to established institutions may feel less risky, and many philanthropists understandably want to give back to their alma maters. Donating to the Harvards, Princetons, and Dartmouths of the world may seem more efficient since such funds would support cutting-edge research and teach the talented youths already clamoring to get through their gates. Donors who choose the traditional route are still doing something admirable.
Yet there’s no reason why new universities can’t compete with the old guard by attracting students and faculty who want to break free from conventional modes of teaching and learning. Institutions could accomplish this in many ways, but their main goal would be to accept and encourage ideas across the political spectrum, including uncomfortable and nonconformist ones. Those are the lifeblood of academe.
More competition could encourage existing universities to rethink their approach to free speech and intellectual pluralism. U.S. education demands dynamism fueled by bold ideas, not safe bets. Today’s crop of visionary philanthropists has spent a lifetime building businesses and other ventures that have changed the world by taking gambles.
For those who want a future where students and faculty are encouraged to pursue Harvard’s motto — “veritas,” or truth — and not just imbibe the fashionable orthodoxies of the day, why not build this dream from the ground up?