Give Carefully: A Word of Warning to Conservative Higher Ed Donors

Over 40 years ago, Lewis Powell, who was later named to the U.S. Supreme Court, warned that a liberal takeover of Americans universities was turning students into opponents of the free enterprise system. Powell sought to rally right-minded donors to combat this trend, and many responded. Over decades, foundations like Bradley and Olin poured millions of dollars in funding toward conservative scholars and centers on campuses. More recently, the Charles Koch Foundation has been a leading funder in this area, as we've reported, giving to programs on over 200 campuses.

Related: Charles KochFoundation: Grants for Higher Education

Still, many conservative funders worry that not enough is being done to push back against liberalism on campus and that donors who should know better don't ask critical questions before giving money to universities. These concerns have grown acute lately, with more college kids talking up Bernie Sanders or standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Sometimes, conservatives say, faculty are standing with them—that is, when they're not being hectored for failing to deliver "trigger warnings." While parents may have worked hard to inculcate their heirs with good American values, conservative donors worry that left-wing professors and a liberal campus culture are undermining that intent.

How can conservative campus donors avoid inadvertently funding the progressive march? Well, they might want to get in touch with DonorsTrust, the top donor-advised fund on the right. Launched in 1999 to promote and fund a “culture of liberty,” DonorsTrust has a lineage in the decades-long campaign by conservative foundations to advance free-market principles and small government. Earlier this year, we took a look inside this interesting funder.

Related: InsideDonorsTrust: What This Mission-Driven DAF Offers Philanthropists on the Right

DonorsTrust’s key appeal can be found in that word: trust. True to conservatism’s basic premise, the fund emphasizes original donor intent, ensuring that any giving matches the values and ideology of the giver—even if his or her children one day think differently.

The fund’s vice chairman, James Piereson (who also heads the William E. Simon Foundation and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute), wants higher ed donors to apply similar logic. In a post on the DonorsTrust website, he makes a case that the current atmosphere on campus has become decidedly liberal and overly critical of the free market. So before giving to their alma maters, or any school for that matter, conservative donors should do their research.

While most American universities aren’t the one-sided leftist hotbeds Piereson portrays, he does have a point. Conservatives and  libertarian ideas remain marginal on most campuses, and faculty tend to be more liberal than the public at large.

Piereson offers conservative donors several nuggets of advice. First, don’t trust the university administration. They are, he rightly notes, in the business of soliciting maximum funds with minimum restrictions, just like any nonprofit. Second, endowment donations sound nice, but they don’t have a good record of preserving donor intent and are problematic in other ways. Discussing endowed professorships and the like, Piereson writes, “there is really no such thing as a ‘perpetual’ program in a world that is constantly in flux. There are many endowed chairs set up a century or more ago to support fields of study that no longer exist.” 

Instead of dumping money into this kind of black hole, Pierson advises donors to do a little extra homework and find things to support on campus that are truly aligned with their values.

With a bit of effort, says Piereson, donors can often find conservative work to invest in on campus. He cites Princeton’s James Madison Program and Brown’s Political Theory Project as the kinds of efforts that donors should seek. He notes that places like the Charles Koch Foundation and the Manhattan Institute have already done plenty of legwork to identify conservative activities on campus. There's a whole network of scholars and programs that donors can tap to find the right fit for their funds, Piereson says.

Most of all, Piereson doesen't want conservative and libertarian donors to give on campuses, or underestimate how much impact their money can have if given wisely. Such funders, Piereson says, are badly needed as a means of balancing the debate on campus and of providing an education to the next generation of Americans."