It is a strategy more subtle than what once prevailed. In the 1980s and '90s, conservatives spent huge sums proclaiming higher education's liberal bias, funding right-wing college newspapers, and building a private network of think tanks that served as a sort of shadow academy.
None of it did much to alter the undergraduate experience. Surveys still showed a lopsidedly liberal faculty and administration; conservative voices, if a bit amplified, were still marginal.
Then, in 2005, talk of a new approach bubbled up at a meeting of the Philanthropy Roundtable, an association of private donors. Among the frustrations: benefactors would endow a university program or department chair and, almost immediately, lose control.
This reality was of particular concern to conservatives, many of whom worried that their money was drifting into a liberal black hole. The new approach called for identifying right-leaning professors and funding academic institutes that would forward their ideas.
A collection of emerging, loosely coordinated foundations — the Jack Miller Center, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute's Veritas Fund for Higher Education, among them — took up the cause.
The aim was not to create overtly political institutes, but to push higher education away from the postmodernist focus on race, class, and gender and back toward the study of democracy, capitalism, and the nation's founding.
This was, at its heart, an attempt to put the contributions of the much-derided "dead white men" front and center again.
Glenn Ricketts of the National Association of Scholars, founded in 1987 to "foster intellectual freedom" on the American campus, says progress has been slow. "It's hard to find any social sector where you hear the word 'diversity' used so much," he says, "and you have so much homogeneity."
But the growth of right-leaning academic programs is undeniable. Three years ago, NAS counted 37 of them. It now lists 53, including the Political Theory Project, Boston College's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, and the University of Maine — Orono's Program in Western Civilization and Western Freedom.
There have been controversies. The Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University has fed the Republican Party's deregulation agenda. And Charles Koch's $1.5 million gift to a Florida State University center promoting "political economy and free enterprise" came on condition that his representatives screen potential hires.
At Brown, left-leaning academics inside and outside the Political Theory Project say they haven't detected any sign of donor influence. "There's no evidence of it here," says Alex Gourevitch, a self-described Marxist who is a postdoctoral research associate at PTP this year. "And if there was, I would say something."
Indeed, Gourevitch's presence speaks to the broad ideological berth of the place. But, he says, there certainly seems a libertarian tilt to the project, even if his colleagues are entirely welcoming of his views.
Three of the current crop of five postdocs have been fellows at the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies — an organization which, incidentally, awarded Tomasi its Fifth Annual Charles G. Koch Outstanding Alum Award several years ago.
And Gourevitch says he has some long-term concerns about the freedom of any institute that is dependent on private funding sources. Indeed, it is hard to imagine PTP's funders sticking around if the place drifted too far to the left.