A New Study Utterly Fails to Demonstrate the Sinister Effects of Right-Wing Philanthropy at Universities

This month, David Austin Walsh at the Urban Institute published a report called “Conservative Philanthropy in Higher Education” purporting to chart the power of right-wing philanthropy in academia.

What does it do analytically to be worthy of the Urban Institute imprimatur? It names the achievements of some scholars who received support from foundations with free market or small government goals. This includes the Walgreen Foundation at the University of Chicago which gave aid to Richard Posner, who went on to become a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and “the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, and John McGee, a law and economics scholar whose work on predatory pricing was cited in a 1986 Supreme Court case that Walsh thinks helps undercut antitrust law.

Walsh also gives a quick history of the defunct Olin Foundation’s funding of law and economics programs (to duel with the more left-leaning “critical legal studies”) and various Koch-funded foundations’ support of free market economists at George Mason University.

The section on the Federalist Society concludes with the giveaway that “If placing conservative faculty at top law schools has not totally transformed those institutions into conservative spaces, it has nevertheless normalized right-wing politics in the academy to an extent conservatives could have barely imagined in the 1960s.”

The phenomenon that disturbs Walsh, that he thinks will disturb his readers, is the presence of any ideas in academia at all other than leftist or big government ones.

Now, it would make sense for people trying to valorize such foundations to blithely credit anything that happened with any free market thinker, scholar, or apparatchik to the money they received from such foundations. But to implicitly presume that none of their achievements would have happened without such money is to fall back on a frequently unstated background presumption of non-free market oriented institutions and thinkers: that belief in strong government action and mistrust of free markets is natural and normal and correct.

And if you think that, than any idea or scholar outside that consensus is a strange aberration, requiring some sort of interesting explanation (other than that some smart people studying the world could possibly conclude that free market ideas are correct), and couldn’t be expected to occur without ill-meaning plutocratic manipulators. It seems unlikely on its face, though, that scholars with the power and reach of Posner or Becker only got anywhere in intellectual culture because of right-wing paymasters.

What the study certainly can’t do to defend its value is pretend that, outside the few case studies it mentions, free market money has succeeded in changing the overall ideological bent of the modern university.

Phil Magness over at the American Institute for Economic Research notes that academia, in most significant senses, is still powerfully opposed to the free market-ish trends Walsh notes; indeed, without this background fact about American intellectual life, Walsh’s paper wouldn’t have a reason for existing, his scraping at what he sees as a dangerous infection of right-wingery in an otherwise healthily left body.

Magness writes that Walsh “offers no empirical control (such as the parallel rise of left-leaning philanthropy on campus)” and “is either unaware of or ignores a vast empirical literature on the subject of political ideology in the academy.”

As Magness “documented previously, survey data point to a sharp and overwhelming leftward shift in faculty political self-identification starting around the year 2000 and persisting to the present day” with “self-identified liberals…a clear 60 percent majority in the last two decades.

“Conservative faculty, by contrast, dwindled away from one-third of the faculty as recently as 1984 to just 12 percent today,” he notes. In fact, there was an “explosion in the number of faculty who identify on the far left — a category that includes Marxists, socialists, and adherents of derivative ideological positions such as critical theory.”

“If conservatives currently comprise 12 percent of the approximately 813,000 full-time college professors in the United States,” Magness writes, “their actual number across all disciplines is likely fewer than 100,000 individuals — a decline of about 35,000 faculty since 1975, even though the total number of people employed as college professors essentially doubled in this same period.”

Textbook analysis and survey data on partisan affiliation and ideological positions Magness presents, both overall and in special areas like economics and law where Walsh thinks free market money has upset the apple cart, buttress the point that academia is still strongly left-leaning.

Trying to assess the balance of academic political orientation by looking only at free market or right-leaning foundation money ignores a lot, Magness notes, including that:

Academia is awash with left-leaning faculty, research centers, and even entire degree programs dedicated to overtly political and activist causes — to the advancement of “social justice,” to critiques of “capitalism” arising from humanities professors with little to no economic training, to labor-union organizing, to an assortment of environmentalist political causes. Many of these institutions enjoy generous philanthropic contributions by billionaire donors and foundations on the political left that match or exceed similar conservative giving. Many academics on the political left even valorize and champion their own political activism, portraying it as a necessary complement to their scholarly research and even insisting that it should count toward promotion and tenure.

The perspective that Walsh writes from (and expects his readers to read from) is that anything outside that leftist perspective is suspicious and requires some special explanation outside of the simplest explanation—that free market ideas, to some people, seem to explain the world well, and that applying such ideas can make the world richer and more efficient. Walsh’s baseline presumption is that, in a world not corrupted by big money, such ideas would appear nowhere and convince no one. The bias underlying that presumption requires no examination of big-money funders to grasp.

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