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The souls of our nation’s institutes of higher education are endangered by ideological rot. Donors must step in to defend them.

When Duke University sophomore Sherman Criner showed up to class last fall, his professor would begin each session with a polarizing topic. He would discuss abortion, the Israel-Palestinian conflict or some other topic many students wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, at least not if there was a chance someone might disagree with them.

But in John Rose’s “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization” class, discussion is the whole point. “It was very distinct” compared to his experience elsewhere on campus, Criner says. Students were able to disagree strongly without hurling insults or storming out of the room.

“The entire class as a whole was a lot more civil than you’d expect with the type of issues we were talking about, you’d kind of expect it would be more hostile,” he says. “It changed my perspective. I’d assumed people would be more combative with the way they respond to hearing a contrarian view.”

There is a certain selection bias here, with students choosing the class because they want to learn to engage well. But much of this success in civil discourse is thanks to Rose, associate director of Duke University’s Civil Discourse Project.

Rose says his political polarization class is “sort of civil discourse 101.”

“On campus, it’s thought of as the forbidden topics class,” he says. “Students love it. It spends a little bit of time talking about polarization, but most of the semester is reserved for case studies, or I sometimes call them stress tests, on the most controversial topics of our time.”

This is the “signature class” of the Civil Discourse Project, and Rose estimates that 500 students have been through it.

“I’ve seen students have really remarkable conversations on issues of identity and certain no-go zones elsewhere,” Rose says. “I have students who take my class because they have a damaged friendship due to politics, and they come out of the class able to mend that friendship.”

The Tide Is Turning

Destroyed friendships, self-censorship and intolerance of differing viewpoints are just a few symptoms of an ideological rot spreading on college campuses. It’s no secret that free speech in higher education is in trouble. Prestigious universities such as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown rank among the worst for free speech. Nearly 75% of students feel pressure to avoid certain topics among their professors and peers.

Meanwhile, college administrators have done little to assuage the fears of Jewish students as anti-Israel protests have spread across the country. Courses on the Constitution or Western tradition have been replaced with divisive, politicized topics such as gender studies, critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Onlookers may wonder whether the academy is broken beyond repair. But there are plenty of people and organizations working to champion civil discourse and American values on campus, and they’re not giving up.

In some ways, it seems the tide is turning. Over the past few months, following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel and the explosion of antisemitism on college campuses, the atmosphere has shifted. After the widely criticized congressional hearing in which the presidents of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania failed to unequivocally condemn antisemitism at their institutions, one donor pulled a $100 million gift from Penn. Two days later, the university’s president resigned, as did Harvard’s president less than a month later.

There’s no doubt the power of the purse works. But if donors are withdrawing blanket grants to universities they no longer trust to spend their money well, where else can it go?

“The Foundations of Western and American Civilization”

Expanding free speech at a private school has its own pros and cons. Since they are not publicly funded, such schools are not required to have robust First Amendment protections in the same way public schools are. A university such as Duke, Rose says, also struggles with political diversity and a strong pre-professional student body, keenly aware of how saying the wrong thing could affect their future career. At a public university such as the University of Florida, the focus is different. Just ask William Inboden, director of the Alexander Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the university.

In the fall of 2022, the state legislature established the center “to support teaching and research concerning the ideas, traditions and texts that form the foundations of Western and American civilization.”

“We are trying with the Hamilton Center to fulfill our legislative mandate,” Inboden says. “I take very seriously the public part of our mission, our accountability to the public and our need to be responsive to them.”

The center’s “broad mission” as Inboden says, gives it many areas of focus, one of which is “to promote the values of citizenship and to promote civil discourse on campus.”

“What we are doing is trying to be innovative, but in a lot of ways we’re a throwback,” Inboden says. “We’re trying to recover the more traditional classical liberal model of higher education. We’re not going to be doing reverse indoctrination. We’re not engaged in political partisanship. We’re trying to depoliticize higher ed, which has become hyper politicized, and welcome a broader range of views. And that is very consistent with the Western tradition.”

Inboden seems cautiously optimistic about the future of higher education, at least where students learning about Western civilization and America’s founding principles are concerned.  

“We are trying to build something positive here,” he says. “We are trying to show that it is still possible to develop and teach a curriculum based on Western civilization and the great books, that combines knowledge, skills and values, my mantra of the trinity, if you will, of what we want our courses and degrees to embody.”

The center is on track to become its own college within the University of Florida, and it already has the authority to hire tenure-track faculty and offer majors and degrees.

“Those are really the key levers of influence and ability to get things done within any university,” Inboden says. “I think a number of past, smaller-scale efforts at higher ed reform weren’t able to have as much influence because they were a little more tangential in how they were located in the university.”

Considering the state of higher education, there’s certainly a need for efforts such as the Hamilton Center. And among students and faculty, there’s a demand for it too. In just 18 months, Inboden says, the center has had over 1,100 applications for its faculty positions. Inboden considers the strong student interest one metric of success, but he also asks, “Can we inspire imitators and competitors?”

“Ultimately, we hope that we can make a positive difference nationally,” he says. “We’re trying to reset the demand signals there and show the rest of higher ed that there is a demand for these kinds of academic efforts.”

Growing From Center to School

Similar to the Hamilton Center, the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, is a fairly new initiative, spurred by the state legislature, that aims to promote civil discourse and civic virtue on campus. What began as a research think tank will soon be part of a new college with the ability to create courses, confer degrees and hire faculty, with the goal of “exploring the ideas and institutions that sustain a free society and enable individuals to flourish,” according to the institute’s website.

Creating a new college to house the institute is significant, says Justin Dyer, executive director of the Civitas Institute and dean of the new School of Civic Leadership. 

“The standard strategy that people had for higher ed for a long time was to create centers within universities,” he says. “And those are great, and they do a lot of good work. They’re limited in that they do not hire faculty directly and they don’t develop new courses for students. What the school does is it allows us to combine the best the center has to offer with an actual academic unit that can do core academic functions.”

New schools within universities aren’t created every day, he says, making this a “generational opportunity,” he says.

“Through the school, we’ll be able to have an integrated and thoughtful curriculum that prepares students for leadership positions by connecting them to the legacy of American constitutionalism and the Western tradition and equipping them with the skills they need,” Dyer says.

In Texas and elsewhere, addressing civil discourse and reintroducing American values on campus is a wide-ranging problem. Part of the disinterest in free expression on campus comes from faculty, but some of it comes from students. And the faculty members, of course, were once students themselves.

Dyer emphasizes the importance of encouraging students not to turn away from a future in academia. One challenge is to answer the question: “How do we create the talent pipeline for the next generation?”

Through hosting guest speakers and other programs, the institute aims to model open inquiry for its members. The Civitas Institute is in a good location for this.

“Austin is a hub of intellectual energy for people who have different ideas than what we’re seeing in mainstream higher ed,” Dyer says. “It’s a kind of haven for center-right contrarians.

“But free speech isn’t the goal,” Dyer continues. “Free speech is a necessary condition for education, but once we have the necessary conditions in place, we still have to go about the task of education, which is different than just free speech.”

The Donors’ Role in Funding Reform

Tina Snider offers a philanthropist’s perspective on building support for intellectual diversity and the study of Western civilization. A financial supporter and board member of the Benson Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Snider is a big fan of the Western civilization-focused academic center. “If you build it, they will come,” she says, “and that’s what we found.”

Snider has been involved with the Benson Center since its inception in 2013. She received her bachelor’s degree at UC Boulder in the ’80s but found that by the time her daughter was a student, the university had changed. It was hamstrung by bureaucracy and had no rigorous teaching of the Western tradition. So when Bruce Benson, later the president of the university, asked her to join the board of the new center, she said yes.

Snider donates to her alma mater, but it’s important that she didn’t just write the university a blank check. Her money goes specifically to the Benson Center. Before the center was founded, the university sought her financial support, and she wasn’t interested.

“They reached out to me through the development office,” she says. “Well, my answer was, ‘No, I’m not giving you a penny because I don’t like what’s happening there.’”

Now the Benson Center has the second-largest endowment of any center in the UC system. It invites visiting scholars, hosts guest speakers and summer workshops and more. The center “promotes study of the intellectual, artistic and political traditions that characterize Western civilization,” per its website.

According to Snider, the majority of the pushback against it for the teaching of American values comes not from students, but from faculty. “It’s so funny to see people afraid of ideas,” Snider says.

“You Can’t Give Up on Higher Ed”

Leaders of organizations supporting civil discourse and American values within and outside universities agree now is not the time to abandon higher education.

“You can’t give up on higher ed because it’s such a culture-shaping institution,” Rose says. “For better or for worse, what happens on campus, especially at elite schools, has a huge impact on wider society.” He recalls the 2018 headline from writer Andrew Sullivan “We All Live on Campus Now.”

But for many donors, giving to higher education institutions should look different than in the past. Rose recommends donors find just a few faculty committed to intellectual diversity and support them in bringing civil discourse initiatives to campus. Targeted giving is key, as is knowing what institutions deserve donations.

“Sometimes the best way to help your alma mater is to give to a different school,” he says.

Snider cautions against endowments and warns that donors must “go on performance.” She tried to support Lesley University, where she got her master’s degree, in creating a civics course. The course was taught for two years. But the next time she saw the curriculum, after “the scaled tipped so far the other way,” it had been edited to put a heavy emphasis on “the lens of [Ibram X.] Kendi,” author of How to Be an Antiracist. Snider immediately pulled her funding and moved on.

Through the success of initiatives such as the Civil Discourse Project, the Hamilton Center, the Civitas Institute and Benson Center students and professors have shown there is a large demand for greater support of free expression and the study of the Western tradition.

“When donors and others look at the otherwise grim landscape of higher ed and see the hyper-politicization of so many majors and radical activism on so many campuses, we want to show that amidst all that, there is another model being returned to here,” Inboden says of the Hamilton Center.

Dyer says we have to “fight for the soul” of our country’s academic institutions.

“Don’t give up on these institutions because they’re too important for America and for the next generation,” Dyer says. “They’re enormous public resources. On the question, ‘Should we build new things or should we reform old things?’ my answer is always, ‘Yes. We should do both.’” 

Originally published at Philanthropy Roundtable on April 23, 2024, at https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/how-donors-can-restore-american-values-in-higher-ed/.

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