The last time big conservative donors made a major effort to add right-wing voices to American collegiate dialogue, we got Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Laura Ingraham, Rich Lowry, and Michelle Malkin.
That was the 1980s-'90s launch of right-wing campus newspapers. In most cases, rather than creating dialogue, it further polarized and divided left from right, with students on each side sucked into the echo chamber of the like-minded that increasingly dominates our national political discourse.
Today, the right is again tackling what they view as overwhelmingly liberal academic discourse. But this time, funders are taking a new tactic.
In the past, major conservative foundations like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation (now defunct), and Earhart Foundation have channeled their money toward fellowships for graduate study, stipends for faculty to write papers and books, and grants for policy-driving centers. They have underwritten conservative intellectuals, with an eye toward influencing public policy — not the average undergrad.
The new trend turns the focus back toward campus life. Now, funders are working through official university channels to underwrite lecture series, conferences and colloquia, and centers geared for the general-interest student, all carrying university imprimatur.
Results from this new approach are already apparent at elite institutions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
In 2008, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the first in Harvard Law School's new Harvard W. Vaughan Lecture Series. This year, the College of the Holy Cross created the Charles Carroll Program Lecture Series. Brown University's Political Theory Project and Amherst College's Colloquium on the American Founding have both expanded over the past couple of years.
All of this has been made possible by outside funding, mostly from conservative-leaning foundations and private donors.
Ideally, these new centers and programs will add to the eclectic mix of ideas that should fill every college campus. On the other hand, they could easily end up breeding the next Coulters and Malkins.
DEAD WHITE MEN WALKING
Much of the new funding is for campus programs that celebrate America's Founding Fathers, constitutional originalism, and the great works of Western Civilization — the so-called "dead white males" of history, long championed by conservatives like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, and enjoying renewed vogue among Tea Party conservatives. Popular books by W. Cleon Skousen and Larry Schweikart — not to mention Glenn Beck — have revived the claim that today's students are subject to a tainted, liberal view of history and society.
Meanwhile, colleges are happy to find funding from anyone these days, for anything. Public universities are feeling the pain of state budget cuts, while endowments have declined at private schools.
That's what prompted the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) — a conservative group co-founded by Cheney — to revise its signature publication, "The Intelligent Donor's Guide to College Giving," for the first time in over a decade. Two years earlier, ACTA issued a report on "Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas." The advice in both: don't give to general operating funds; give to specific programs or faculty — and keep an eye on them to make sure they don't stray.