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Hoover in the Heartland

September 20, 2007

Is it an "academy" or a "fund"? The name of the new Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund could be read either way. And the way people at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are reading the name has something to do with how they view it.

Supporters describe it as a fund created by alumni to support interests they have at the university, in this case the study of Western civilization and free market economics.

But many professors see it as much more -- as a move by conservative alumni with influential national support to bypass normal faculty governance, create new courses and impose ideological tests on who gets certain pots of money. The alumni who have given the money for the effort, currently housed at the university's foundation, are explicit that they want a formal role in who gets money from the fund, the views those people should have, and the eventual goal of creating a new version of the Hoover Institution at a top public university, with the ambition of inspiring others to follow their model.

As a result of those statements and other concerns, professors at the university are debating whether the new academy is appropriate for the university. Some like the program, others think it could work with certain oversight provisions, and others find the entire idea questionable. With the program about to kick off formal activities and the Senate at the university preparing to vote on oversight proposals for the academy, the debate is heating up. And the debate comes at a time that critics of academe are increasingly embracing a model of creating free-standing centers to sponsor fellowships, courses, lectures and other activities around such themes as American history, Western civilization, and free markets.

Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions has in many ways been the model for such efforts up until now, and it has been praised (by people with a range of political views) for the intellectual rigor of its programs.

But governance of some of these programs has been controversial. The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization was recently created as an institution independent of any college, after plans to have the institute as part of Hamilton College collapsed, with the founders of the institute blaming the controversy on politics and many faculty members at the college saying that the founders didn't want their program to have standard oversight that other programs receive.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who is on the advisory board for the new Illinois center and who has championed some of the other programs, called these efforts "oases of excellence" in higher education. But where Neal sees an oasis, others see a swamp. "This has been an end run around faculty governance," said Cary Nelson, an English professor at Illinois who is president of the American Association of University Professors. He said that the funds had been accepted by the university without appropriate review and said that he feared that committees now being created to oversee the program were not real governance but would just amount to people with the power to "whisper in the chancellor's ear."

What is the program being created that incites such feelings?

James E. Vermette, one of the founders and board members, makes clear that the program has "big plans and big dreams," and he said that the programs at Princeton and elsewhere don't have enough of an impact because they are at private institutions. He would like to see something on the scale of the Hoover Institution, which is on the campus of Stanford University, eventually copied by other universities. Supporters have already provided $2 million for the effort and there are plans to raise $10 million within 3 years and $100 million within 10 years -- ambitious goals, but targets that those familiar with the backers of the program say are probably achievable.

Vermette, a businessman and investor who is a former president of the university's alumni association, said that the program came out of the conviction that key ideas are lost on too many students, and that money coming into higher education doesn't change that. "I just have been concerned that the young people in particular are not being exposed to the value of free market capitalism and also limited government at our great universities," he said. "There is almost a disdain for the free market."

"I have known many donors through the years -- all capitalists -- all wonderful, generous people, who enriched our campuses throughout the country, and the ones who have benefited from their wonderful generosity seem to give dishonor to how they made their money," he said.

The new program will sponsor educational programs (the development of new courses or new curriculum for courses), lectures, conferences, research and more. The programs will all be based on "free market capitalism," Vermette said, citing the ideas of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and the Austrian economics school of such libertarian thinkers at Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Vermette said that the founders of the center "very much want to work with faculty" at Illinois to support these programs. "We'll work within the system," he said.

Vermette stressed that the founders weren't trying to exclude professors, but he also said that the donors anticipated having a real role in determining who gets support through the fund. Faculty members, he said, "will help us decide what programs are acceptable." If professors at the university don't want to get involved, he said, "we'll bring in adjunct faculty when we need to," he added.

Another goal for the program is to develop video games for children -- but not standard games. "We're going to try to develop game technology to teach Western civilization and teach free market capitalism, and especially financial literacy and entrepreneurial capitalism," he said. "There is potential to develop all kinds of games that would have a profound influence on everyone who plays them. They could change young kids," Vermette said.

The academy's official debut is later this month, with scheduled appearances from Joseph White, president of the University of Illinois System; Richard Herman, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus; and Robert Novak, the conservative columnist and an alumnus; plus some university professors, Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and Stephen Balch, a board member of the academy and president of the National Association of Scholars.

Nicholas C. Burbules, chair of the Senate at Illinois and professor of educational policy studies, said that professors have a range of views about the new program. "Some faculty want to just give the money back and say this has too many strings attached to it, that it is too narrowly and rigidly prejudging not only the broad scope of research but the particular conclusions that the research should be reaching," he said.

Senate leaders have been working, however, to develop appropriate governance measures that might make the program acceptable to more professors, Burbules said. At a meeting October 1, the Senate will hear proposals to create an ad hoc committee to work on the program now, with the idea that a permanent committee be created later. The principles for either committee, he said, would be to assure that any program had quality, preserved academic freedom, and respected "multiple points of view." He said that "we want to give faculty an appropriate voice" in the project.

Currently, the program is set up so the chancellor would approve all funds distributed for courses or other programs and "everyone [on the faculty] agrees that is not sufficient" to protect the values of the university, Burbules said. (The chancellor's press officials did not respond to inquiries about his views on the project.)

The Senate wants to be clear that its concerns are not about the ideology espoused by organizers of the capitalism academy, but about process and oversight, Burbules said. "This is about very broad principles of academic freedom, accountability and openness, which we'd apply to any other academic entity."

Still, the program envisioned by its funders is "unprecedented," he said. Generally at Illinois (and in higher education), donors play more of a role in setting up a broad subject area for support than in selecting recipients. In terms of statements that Vermette and other founders of the academy have made, Burbules said he disagreed with the idea that they could hire adjuncts for their programs. And of the idea of the center creating video games to encourage children to be more capitalist, Burbules said: "I can't imagine any faculty member or department taking money for that purpose."

He also questioned the idea that the campus was somehow against free markets. Urbana-Champaign has "one of the biggest and most influential business schools in the country," Burbules said, as well as a "very strong" and very market-oriented economics department. A wide range of political views are present on the campus. "I really don't think Illinois is a particularly good example of a campus with a left wing bias," he said.

Nelson, of the AAUP, said that the idea that the new program might hire adjuncts to teach courses was a perfect symbol of the flaws of the effort. "The want to emulate all the worst elements of capitalism in higher education," he said. "They want to promote the capitalist exploitation of workers in higher education. They may want to fund additional wars in the Middle East, too."

There is nothing wrong, Nelson said, with professors with common intellectual interests banding together to build centers or programs, or building programs with a particular philosophy. He said his questions were about the idea that the center was being created outside of normal procedures for new academic programs.

Nelson said it was "good that the Senate was trying to lasso this enterprise," but he questioned why the discussions about oversight were happening "after the fact," when funds have been accepted and opening ceremonies planned with senior university leaders. He also said he was disturbed by Neal's involvement. "I am ashamed to see Anne Neal's name associated with the university," he said. "I am concerned that her presence on the roster means this academy will try to engage in unscrupulous ad hominem attacks."

Of Nelson's remarks, Neal said that academe "should be about ideas, not about demonizing people who are on advisory boards." While the advisory board has only just been created, she said she would push for all programs to be open to people from a range of perspectives. There is no reason for faculty to be fearful of such efforts, Neal said.

Professors should be pleased that "there are alumni who want to provide resources for students to have more choices and more ideas," she said.

Jeffrey Brown, a professor of finance at Illinois, is another member of the advisory board. He said that he's not shocked by the opposition -- "there are some people here who think profit is a dirty word" -- but that he views the new program as a good thing.

Brown said he was "not an expert on university rules," so he didn't know the specifics of how funds would be given out to support projects. But he said that since this was a "donor-initiated fund" and that the goal was to involve professors from a range of disciplines, it made sense to house it in the university's foundation. The programs the new academy will support all make sense to him. "The types of things they are talking about doing -- research and seminars and speakers -- these things are the lifeblood of any academic institution," he said. Brown added that he "could not imagine" the academy dictating who would be hired for professorships or anything that would intrude on faculty roles.

When he was approached about the idea, he said, "what I saw were a fairly motivated, dedicated group of loyal University of Illinois alumni who had a vision and were willing to dedicate some resources to what I saw as a good educational program."

 

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