More Big Conservative Money on Campus, This Time in California

One of these days maybe we should stop thinking about academia as a bastion of liberalism. That's because barely a month goes by when we don't hear news of another large conservative gift going to fund conservative and libertarian thinking on university campuses. Charles Koch alone has plowed more than $200 million into such funding, with grants on the order of $20 million a year going out annually now to several hundred schools. 

We can't think of any progressive donors that fund on a comparably wide and systematic level, even as everyone repeats the mantras about the left's dominance of the ivory tower. Judging by the flow of grant money, at least, this is an increasingly dated picture. 

Charles Koch is not the only donor in this space. Other philanthropists on the right also recognize the value investing in scholarship and, more importantly, shaping young minds. And often some of the larger gifts we see for conservative work on campus involves a few donors chipping in to make something big happen. 

Consider the recent establishment of the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at the Orange, California-based Chapman University. The new institute is supported by $15.18 million in gifts from the Charles Koch Foundation and two anonymous donors, with additional gifts from Orange County donors Gavin Herbert and Rick Muth.

The Smith Institute is actually named in honor of two important Smiths: Adam, of course, the 18th century moral philosopher best known for The Wealth of Nations, and Chapman’s 2002 Nobel laureate in economic science, Vernon L. Smith. 

The gift builds upon a program that started at Chapman in 2010 with a single first-year seminar course designed to explore three "big" questions: What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? And what do these questions have to do with one another?

Chapman University will add 11 new faculty members to cultivate a cluster of researchers “interested in blurring the line between teaching and research." The faculty will envision "new frontiers of interdisciplinary research, developing them in conjunction with colleagues and students in their courses."

In short, by focusing on both Smiths and the moral underpinnings of a free and prosperous society, the gift is classic Charles Koch.

What's more, it's safe to say Koch doesn't want the institute's findings to sit in some notebook in a file cabinet. Like most donors, his gift is predicated on the premise that compelling ideas should morph into actionable public policy.

Viewed through this lends, the Chapman gift reminds me of a recent $5.76 million gift from his foundation to Montana State University. This gift's goal? To help the school expand its research on the impact "regulation and policy have on societal well-being, particularly in the areas of regulatory economics as applied to agriculture, healthcare, technology, finance, natural resources, education and other sectors."

But these legislative end-games are still a long way off. In the meantime, universities crafting libertarian-leaning curricula can rest assured they have an ally in the Charles Koch Foundation.