For years, conservatives have complained that liberals are controlling our colleges and universities, especially public ones, and squashing academic freedom. Now, it turns out that private donors are using their money to exert influence over the administration of schools. At Virginia’s largest public university, George Mason University, the Koch brothers put strings on donations that gave them influence over hiring and firing faculty.
They aren’t squashing academic freedom. They’re just putting a price on it. You know, applying free-market principles to funding higher education.
The episode exposes the devolution of the conservative movement into a group of whiners and victims — and scam artists. They’re trying to rig the academic system like they’ve tried to rig elections, but it’s not flying with people who are well-educated. For all of their pissing and moaning about free speech on campus, conservatives like the Kochs made a deal with the devil when they allied themselves with reactionary populists who see science as a threat to evangelicalism and who have resented institutions of higher learning for decades.
For the past 30 years, conservative thinkers have marched with climate change deniers and revisionist historians who place Confederate leaders along side the Founding Fathers as heroes of our country. They’ve embraced the religion of supply-side economics and free-market extremism even as wages have stayed flat and income inequality has exploded. They’re philosophy of economics benefits too few and leaves too many behind. And they wonder why academics have largely rejected the conservativism that led to Trump.
The Kochs have long tried to influence academia. Here in North Carolina, they’ve funded the Center for Free Enterprise at Western Carolina University. That’s a fine endeavor as long as they don’t force the faculty to adopt and defend their political philosophy that’s entwined with their economic one.
The John William Pope Foundation recently announced a very generous $10 million grant to UNC. We should all express our thanks to the Pope family for the gift — as long as it doesn’t come with strings attached. Unfortunately, the Kochs’ manipulation makes large grants from donors who hold strong political views suspect. Also unfortunately, we have a Board of Governors at UNC with members who are meddling in the day-to-day operation of the University and who have obvious political intentions. In other words, we don’t have the oversight we need at one of the nation’s premier public university systems to protect academic integrity from partisan political meddling.
It’s not that conservative ideas and philosophy don’t have a place in academia. They do, but when they’re combined with a political agenda, they’re infringing on the academic freedom conservatives claim to cherish. They should focus as much on the ideals of limited government, personal liberty and the virtues of western civilization and less on the tactics they’ve tried to use to achieve them. And they should stay away from trying to buy our public colleges and universities.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis. Originally published at politicsnc.com.