One blogger’s “short answer” is another’s hypothesis: there is, of course, more to academic freedom than revenue dependency, but money is a form of speech, and historically it has spoken with authority.

I still think the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, with its making unprecedented gifts contingent on colleges getting sectarian troublemakers off their boards—and their influence out of classrooms—did more than any other act of philanthropy to change the course of U.S. higher education. But how such power is expressed depends on the entity as well as other stakeholders. The Ford Foundation’s challenge grants to Stanford during the Frederick Terman era had a potent effect on faculty autonomy, from research priorities to the composition of search committees. In the 1990s, the question of whether funded research can come with First Amendment restrictions was left only partially resolved in Stanford University v. Sullivan. And maybe I’m reading between the lines, but in the Wall Street Journal’s April interview with Jonathan Haidt, I was struck by this remark: “What I think is happening…[is that] as the visible absurdity on campus mounts and mounts, and as public opinion turns more strongly against universities—and especially as the line of violence is crossed—we are having more and more people standing up and saying, ‘Enough is enough. I’m opposed to this.’” Haidt may simply have been referring to himself and his colleagues at the so-called Heterodox Academy, as well as other statement-of-principles-issuing alliances. But the references to visible absurdity and negative public opinion could have been lifted straight from the College President’s Fundraising Handbook under Things That Could Risk Your Prestige Among Potential Donors.

So far, anecdotes of the bad-giver variety have been nasty, brutish, and relatively few: oil and gas baron (and big University of Oklahoma donor) Harold Hamm’s displeasure at research findings on fracking; curriculum-shopping at Wake Forest, Florida State, and elsewhere by BB&T and Koch; even the Salaita controversy at the University of Illinois appears to have involved several unhappy donors. Probably the closest thing to an acknowledgement that philanthropoids are aware of the potential consequences (intended and otherwise) of their generosity is The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving, available for free on the ACTA website.


John Henry Newman said a lot of things about universities in The Uses of Knowledge, few of them relevant to today’s institutions. One of the more interesting images is a hypothetical vision I like to think of as Newman’s Wager:

“If I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years and then sent them away…I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.” (48).

Acknowledging the gendered language and the latent classism—and recognizing that the vision itself is inseparable from them—I like the theory of the University which does nothing. Higher education commentary has always had a place for aporia of this kind. Robert Hutchins argued that “the leading characteristic of educational institutions today is aimlessness”; Cohen, March & Olsen proposed a Garbage Can Theory of institutional decision-making that, in essence, punts. Newman’s insight, I think, was less jaded, maybe even testable. Along with making a convincing case for affirmative action admissions in their quantitative gobstopper The Shape of the River, Bowen and Bok also seemed to show that if institutions could be reduced to a single function, it would be to bring a number of young people into the country’s most elite institutions and let nature run its course.

Not everything important happens when young people get together, or for that matter at universities. Newton developed the calculus at home during the English Plague of 1665, when Cambridge was closed until further notice.


International students, of course, are oblivious to our problems and hypotheses. They spend a fortune getting in, getting here, and getting through it; they don’t expect us to do nothing, but they aren’t very particular about how we get it done. Intensive English programs, when available, provide a temporary relief–they are, after all, among others in the same boat–but eventually, they want results from their chosen institutions and from themselves.

My F-1s have always been an antidote for needless philosophizing. They may come from countries where top marks are a tradeable commodity to begin with; not much shocks them about Americans except our naivete, though it’s also possible they find it refreshing.

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