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A black and white portrait of Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell, an older white man.

Supreme Court justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in his official Supreme Court portrait from 1976, five years after he authored what’s become known as the Powell memo.

Color negative by Robert S. Oakes, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The “war” on higher education in the U.S.—and the status it once held as a public good—has been going on for decades. This war no doubt has many points of origin. One can be found in a once-obscure, intended-to-be-confidential document, written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 by Lewis F. Powell Jr., shortly before he ascended to the nation’s highest court.

Decidedly conservative, and dead set against the academy, the Powell memo, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” placed higher education in its crosshairs.

Powell’s manifesto—the focus of this essay—laid the groundwork for much of what we now see in the efforts to undermine tenure, to prohibit faculty from appearing as expert witnesses to share their professional knowledge in legal proceedings and to undermine the autonomy of institutional governing boards, not to mention the explosion of bills and laws emanating from state legislatures that would dictate what is to be taught in college and university classrooms.

These are but the latest in the multifaceted and unrelenting attacks on higher education, this time focused on what conservatives see as “soft spots”: tenure, “trendy ideologies,” “ideological indoctrination,” “woke activism” and whatever can be thrown under the umbrella of critical race theory.

These attacks intentionally obscure a less visible motive: to support free market ideas and advance corporate interests and those of other powerful market actors. The goal is to influence the institutions that educate future employees and, of course, those hired to teach them.

Cast in terms of a “culture war” or a “clash of values,” the attacks challenge academic freedom and institutional independence and undermine professional expertise while they advance the “corporate cause” that Powell espoused.

The Powell Memo

Powell’s 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asserted that “the American economic system is under broad attack” and envisioned a comprehensive, coordinated counteroffensive on the part of the American business community in response.

Powell singled out “The Campus” as “the single most dynamic source” of these attacks.

Powell saw “bright young men,” from campuses across the country,” who were seeking “opportunities to change a system which they have been taught to distrust … if not, indeed, despise.” They sought these opportunities to challenge free market ideology through employment in “the centers of the real power and influence in our country”—namely the news media; in government, as staff and consultants; in elective politics; as lecturers and writers; and on the faculties of educational institutions.

He saw these “bright young men” remaining in key positions of influence where they “mold public opinion and often shape governmental action … end[ing] up in regulatory agencies or governmental departments with large authority over the business system they do not believe in.”

Accordingly, Powell wanted to see the development of scholars and speakers to be strategically placed on campuses. He envisioned “attractive, articulate and well-informed speakers” exerting “whatever degree of pressure—publicly and privately—may be necessary to assure opportunities to speak.” He wrote, “The objective always must be to inform and enlighten, and not merely to propagandize.” (The italics are mine.)

Critical, too, was the need to “evaluate” textbooks to assure “fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism and communism.”

To Powell, a fundamental undertaking also had to take place to correct the existing “imbalance” in faculties, an objective, he conceded, that “is indeed a long-range and difficult project. Yet, it should be undertaken as a part of an overall program. This would mean the urging of the need for faculty balance upon university administrators and boards of trustees.”

He moved on to graduate schools of business, where the chamber could “suggest” courses, and then, although less of a priority, on to secondary schools. Other foci included the public, television and other media.

Nor did scholarly journals and popular magazines escape Powell’s attention: “There should be a fairly steady flow of scholarly articles presented to a broad spectrum of magazines and periodicals—ranging from the popular magazines (Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, etc.) to the more intellectual ones (Atlantic, Harper’s, Saturday Review, New York, etc.) and to the various professional journals.”

And he would have books, paperbacks, and pamphlets advocating “our side” developed for wide distribution, undertake paid advertisements to promote business and involve stockholders in aspects of this comprehensive campaign.

It was imperative, to Powell, that the business community become active, even aggressive, in the political arena: “Political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.”

And finally, and decidedly critical among his targets, were the courts, as “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.” Indeed!

The Impact

In Harper’s, Lewis H. Lapham writes that Lewis F. Powell Jr. “was a man well-known and much respected by the country’s business community; within the legal profession he was regarded as a prophet. His heavy word of warning fell upon the legions of reaction with the force of Holy Scripture.”

His warning prompted corporate interests to take up the challenge. College campuses have been targets ever since.

Richard Vedder, writing in Forbes, lays out the conservative campus movement—and it is that—as taking “at least four forms: entire schools where conservative or traditional values dominate campus life, national organizations promoting conservative ideas, foundations which support conservative or libertarian enclaves on campus, and non-university think tanks and research centers which provide conservative analysis of the world outside the traditional Ivory Tower.”

Conservative think tanks have been an integral and intentional part of the conservative ascendance in educational and political discourse. In a dissertation produced in 1991, “Conservative Think Tanks and Higher Education Policy,” Susan Marie Willis found conservative think tanks to be “substantially different from more traditional policy institutions in their open advocacy of a particular viewpoint, and in the relative weakness of the scholarly credentials and policy experience of their personnel, compared to more established policy organizations.” She found their “positions on higher education issues focused on a perceived decline in the teaching of Western culture, opposition to affirmative action and multicultural studies, and calls for decreases in funding for higher education.”

Gregg Easterbrook, in his 1986 The Atlantic article “Ideas Move Nations: How Conservative Think Tanks Have Helped Transform the Terms of Political Debate,” provides critical perspective on their impact and efficacy. He concluded that the think tanks “created an intellectual competitor for the university system, which is good, and rendered it dependent on not offending corporate patrons, which is bad.”

The think tanks created alternatives to the professoriate that their creators disdained. As the think tanks—the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Cato Institute—grew, critically placed people were invited to their seminars, conferences and roundtables, and members of the press became more dependent on them.

Attacking higher education institutions from outside—or inside, in the case of think tanks affiliated with perceived-to-be-liberal universities, such as CSIS with Georgetown and the Hoover Institution at Stanford—turned out to be an effective strategy.

George Mason University offers another variation on the theme. With $30 million in total donations—$20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation—its law school became the Antonin Scalia Law School, noted, now, for its focus on law and economics. George Mason also attracted a public policy center from Rutgers University, which with a change of name—Mercatus Center—and more Koch family funding has become a libertarian, free market public policy center.

Funding organizations like the Charles Koch and Bradley Foundations, the Liberty Fund, and, until its end in 2005, the Olin Foundation, among others, promote conservative values on campuses. Olin disbursed about $380 million in total funding, primarily to conservative think tanks, media outlets and economics and law programs at influential universities.

In the 1978 book A Time for Truth, William E. Simon, who later served as secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration—and for more than 20 years, as president of the Olin Foundation—channeled the Powell memo when he wrote:

“Funds generated by business … must rush by multimillions to the aid of liberty … to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers, and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty.”

Simon also called on business to "cease the mindless subsidizing of colleges and universities whose departments of economics, government, politics, and history are hostile to capitalism.”

Powell’s vision of a broad conservative counterattack on the forces Simon called “hostile to capitalism” became a reality. In their 2010 book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (Simon and Schuster), political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write, “The organizational counterattack of business in the 1970s was swift and sweeping—a domestic version of Shock and Awe. The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980. On every dimension of corporate political activity, the numbers reveal a dramatic, rapid mobilization of business resources in the mid-1970s.”

This mobilization of resources helped usher in changes in public attitudes and intellectual fashions. As Easterbrook notes, “during the 1970s millions of Americans came to the conclusion that liberalism was asleep at the wheel” and “conservatism became ‘the fashion’ … a society of like-minded people reinforcing one another’s preconceived notions and rejecting any thinking that does not fit the mold.”

Through its grant making and philanthropic giving and the establishment of such organizations as the National Association of Scholars, conservatives have built an infrastructure that seemed to have gone unnoticed—or not taken seriously—by much of the higher education community, accounting for the tepid response to the conservative critique and leaving the academy on the defensive.

Conservatives became successful in creating language to make their pitch while obscuring their intent. Terms such as “intellectual freedom” and “viewpoint diversity,” for example, provide cover for limiting free speech and academic freedom to promote free market orthodoxy. They have made the case that Western civilization itself is under attack in the universities and the job of the conservative foundations and their like-minded brethren is to save it—by, of course, changing higher education.

Going Forward

Attacks on colleges and universities and the professoriate go hand in hand with the mounting distrust of institutions and agencies of government, along with the independent press that keeps those bodies accountable.

Direct moves to diminish, indeed, to question the value of work that university-based scientists and other experts produce adds to the erosion of trust in institutions, spreading into antipathy toward regulatory and other public bodies that antiregulation conservatives, with rhetorical flourish, lump together as comprising “the administrative state.”

The polarizing politics that plague the nation, in the shadow of Powell’s call to arms, are further infecting academe. The professoriate remains a constant target, for what is taught—and what is often misrepresented as being taught—and for its voice in public domains. The more the professoriate can be labeled as a left-wing source that seeks to inform and shape policy, the more conservative scorn is directed its way, thus creating bogeymen for those who seek political advantage. To be sure, resistance to expertise is coming from individuals and groups with other interests at stake—political, economic, cultural and religious—and from those whom they intentionally confuse and mislead.

Understanding the roots of the current-day attacks on higher education, or certainly a significant piece of it, is crucial, particularly as we seek, continuously, as we should, to confirm its importance, to defend its values and to resist the chilling effect that can induce fear and conformity and cede ground to the conservative onslaught. Yet it’s also the case that what has been unleashed is not easily reversed.

Linda Stamato is a policy fellow at the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. She formerly served as chair of Rutgers’s Board of Governors.

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