From the President: Universities for Sale

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

One of the latest trends in higher education is for rightwing foundations and wealthy individuals to “donate” funds to colleges and universities for hiring conservative faculty members. For example, the Koch Brothers Charitable Foundation has given a total of $14.39 million to Florida State, Auburn, Clemson, West Virginia, Utah State, and other universities to fund faculty positions for right-wing scholars. At almost all of these institutions, the foundation has played a direct role either in making the appointments or in screening the faculty members who are ultimately appointed.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, the agreement with Florida State allowed the foundation to appoint a committee to determine the pool of candidates—and to withdraw its funding if it was unhappy with the final decision. These conditions make a mockery of shared governance and academic freedom, since faculty search committees know that the wrong choice will result in a loss of funding.

The context in which these types of arrangements are being made is important. Increasingly, states are cutting back on the resources that they provide to colleges and universities. This decline in public support is not just a response to budget constraints caused by the Great Recession; it is also part of a deliberate, well-funded campaign to accelerate the privatization of public higher education. Institutions that are desperate for money are told that they need to be entrepreneurial and to look for alternative sources of money.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, administrators recently announced the appointment of a “conservative scholar-in-residence.” The position is financed by $1 million in private money and housed in the College of Arts and Science. The ostensible reason for this appointment was to provide “intellectual diversity” and a counterbalance to the “liberal-leaning” faculty.

It is probably the supreme irony that one of the finalists for the position was Linda Chavez, who is the chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Chavez, of course, is also a syndicated columnist, a commentator on Fox News, and a staunch opponent of affirmative action. Yet the “conservative scholarin- residence” is, in essence, a special position just for conservatives, treating them as if they were members of a group that had historically been underrepresented. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that administrators saw such a position as necessary to counter the view that the university leans too far to the left, despite admitting in the same article that most faculty members are balanced in their teaching.

It is no coincidence that this appointment was made at a time when public funding for higher education in Colorado has been dramatically reduced. In the last two years alone, the Colorado legislature has cut funding for higher education by 31 percent. The presidents of all the public higher education institutions in Colorado have stated that they have been forced to develop partnerships with businesses to offset the cuts.

Foundations have a long history of donating money to support research or programs in a particular discipline. What is new about the donations by the Koch brothers and the position created at the University of Colorado is that donors are playing a key role in appointing or screening faculty members in order to promote a particular political agenda. For years, conservatives have complained pointedly about the inappropriateness of any political bias in academia; now they seem willing to accept such bias as long as it is their own.

Arrangements involving earmarked donations like these present a clear threat to academic freedom. Higher education should be a place where both students and teachers are free to investigate and to pursue various ideas. The academic freedom to pursue open inquiry lies at the center of the academic enterprise.

The same forces that were behind the Citizens United decision and are accelerating the corruption of our political system now endanger our public universities. Allowing wealthy individuals to donate money for new faculty positions and, as a condition of the gift, to impose an ideological litmus test on who is hired, what research is performed, and who teaches what to students is a very serious threat to our system of higher education.

Thomas Jefferson argued that education is the foundation of a democratic society. If the ruling elite can persuade political leaders to restrict governmental subsidies to public higher education—and then step in with an alternative source of funding that has strings attached— not only the quality of higher education but also democracy itself is at risk.  

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