Money and Motives

Donald Lazere follows the trail of dollars and ideas in the academic culture wars -- and offers a challenge to the right.

July 20, 2005

In the past year or so, the latest in the perennial waves of attacks by conservatives against liberal bias in college faculties has included several research reports like one by National Association of Scholars allies Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, "Politics and Professional Development Among College Faculty,” decrying a preponderance of Democrats in academe. These reports have worked in tandem with the crusade led by David Horowitz for an "Academic Bill of Rights," versions of which were introduced into several state legislatures.

Aside from the disputable accuracy of conservatives’ charges, it’s time to call attention to their frequent origin in organizations funded by Republican-aligned foundations.

Conservatives claim that "their" foundations and think tanks simply serve to counterbalance more highly funded liberal foundations, professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association, and the totality of university scholarship. These are false comparisons:

1. The conservative foundations and think tanks established in the past 30 years were designed to be, in effect, public relations agencies or lobbies for the Republican Party and the political and economic interests of their corporate sponsors, many of whose executives have also been visibly partisan, influential figures in that party, such as Richard Mellon Scaife (Scaife Foundations), the Coors family (Heritage Foundation), William Simon (Olin Foundation), and William Baroody (American Enterprise Institute). The same cannot be said for more liberally inclined foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and MacArthur, in relation either to corporate sponsors or the Democratic Party. The very fact that these foundations fund projects that are often antithetical to their corporate patrons' class interests is evidence that their motives are philanthropic, not propagandistic; they fund precisely the kind of projects least likely to attract corporate sponsorship. This can also be said about George Soros’ politically oriented projects; Soros, perhaps more than any other liberal sponsor, does have Democratic Party ties comparable to those of Scaife and other Republicans -- he supports, the Center for American Progress, Emily’s List, Americans Coming Together and several labor unions -- but it would be hard to make a case that his philanthropy advances his corporate interests. Much of his and his grantees’ writings warn against capitalists like him gaining too much wealth and power. In contrast, the outcome of the ostensibly objective research conducted by conservative corporate-funded scholars is virtually predetermined to support its sponsors’ financial and ideological interests.

2. Academic professional associations democratically represent their membership, and are primarily funded by dues. Their officials are not appointed by, and are not accountable to, any higher power or special interest other than the majority rule of their members. Thus, whatever political biases they may have are those of their own constituencies, not of patrons or party organizations.

3. Likewise, the terms of faculty hiring and salary are normally determined by peers, not patrons or parties. The political views of  faculty members in the humanities and social sciences are, in general, the consequence of their years of independent study, not influenced by outside sponsorship or affiliation with party apparatuses. That is, they may vote Democratic, but, with rare exceptions -- Robert Reich comes to mind -- faculty liberals, and especially radicals, in recent decades have not had the kind of insider roles in the Democratic Party or presidential administrations that Republicans with academic backgrounds like William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Irving and William Kristol, and Chester Finn, all also beneficiaries of the conservative foundations, have had in that party. It is a breathtaking bit of sleight-of-hand that so many conservatives’ high-minded protests against the politicizing of higher education have come from individuals and foundations that are up to their neck in Republican politics and that have the power to incite government action against their academic opponents.

I do not doubt that many scholars who accept money from the conservative foundations maintain intellectual independence and integrity, and are motivated by their own beliefs. It is disingenuous of them, however, to claim they are not compromised by their sponsors’ motives of recruiting the best minds money can buy. These scholars claim that the sponsors do not dictate a line to them, which may be strictly true, but there have been cases of withdrawal of support to grantees who depart too far from the sponsors’ line. Ample evidence of sponsors’ direct control of studies by conservative think tanks and foundations has been provided by apostates from them like Michael Lind and David Brock.

Lind, in Up From Conservatism, writes: “The network orchestrated by the foundations resembled an old-fashioned political patronage machine, or perhaps one of the party writers' or  scholars' guilds in communist countries. The purpose of intellectuals was to write essays and op-eds attacking liberals and supporting official Republican party positions.” Brock, in Blinded By the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, describes the executives heading the conservative “counter-intelligentsia” as “Leninists of the right,” who exercise control over their subordinates that is “far more rigidly doctrinaire than the PC crowd that had so offended me [as an undergraduate] in Berkeley.”

Brock exposes the pseudo-scholarly trappings of conservative think tanks, mocking his own former title of “John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional Studies” at Heritage. He also recounts how Scaife, the biggest financier of right-wing attacks on Bill Clinton before and throughout his presidency, withdrew funding from Brock (who at that time was the highest paid political journalist in America) and later from The American Spectator when he found their writings about both Bill and Hillary Clinton insufficiently damning.

Conservatives insist that their studies should be judged solely on their intrinsic validity, and they dismiss any suggestion that their sponsored scholarship or journalism is tainted as a fallacy of guilt by association, poisoning the well, or argument ad hominem (perhaps ad lucrem would be the more appropriate term). But a rhetorician’s motives, associations, and past credibility are sometimes relevant considerations. Are we not justified in being more skeptical about the motives and merits of arguments presented by hired lobbyists (say, for the tobacco industry), party propagandists and spin doctors, advertising or public relations agents, than we are about those presented by independent scholars and journalists? So shouldn’t those who accept funding from the Republican-aligned foundations also be willing to accept the burden of proof on their independence?

Conservatives may not like the politics of us tenured radicals, but it would be hard for them to claim that many of us are in it for the money. For example, the Radical Caucus in MLA, to which I belong, for the past 30 years has been publishing the journal Radical Teacher. Its editors from the beginning have included such leftist notables as Richard Ohmann, Louis Kampf, Paul Lauter, and Lennard Davis, who are portrayed by conservatives as immensely powerful figures. (Lynne Cheney’s 1995 book Telling the Truth singled out Radical Teacher as a key organ of the leftist menace.) When academic leftists were starting out in the sixties, we were as marginalized as conservatives now claim to be. Many of us didn’t get jobs or were fired after gaining them, because of our politics. (This still sometimes happens, contrary to conservatives’ lurid accounts of leftist academic hegemony; some editors or contributors at Radical Teacher are afraid to list it on their vitas.)

To be sure, several radicals by now have indeed become tenured, respected, and in some cases -- through the cultural contradictions of capitalism -- have acquired endowed chairs, incomes in the (low) six figures, administrative positions, foundation grants, and other perks. (My own salary, more typically, peaked at around $65,000 after 35 years of teaching.) Their success, however, is mainly attributable to the quality of their ideas and scholarship developed over four decades, not to patronage. (Are there zealots, cronies, and incompetents on the academic left? For sure, though not demonstrably more than among those of any other ideological or theoretical bent, including conservatives, and they are disowned by more responsible colleagues.) No one has received a penny in payment for the countless hours they have put into the Radical Caucus or Radical Teacher, whose current financial balance amounts to $15,000, and which subsists solely on subscriptions and limited newsstand sales, with virtually no advertising and only small contributions by individuals.

Compare that record with the millions and millions spent by conservative foundations in the past three decades funding the National Association of Scholars (which in 2003 received $250,000 from the Scaife Foundations alone, according to the Scaife Web site), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Campus Watch, Horowitz’s enterprises, conservative student organizations, and research like Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte’s. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Horowitz has been making upwards of $500,000 a year in personal income from Scaife, Bradley, Olin, and other foundation grants and college lectures, at $5,000 each, also subsidized by the same foundations through funding of conservative campus organizations.

One can understand that as conservatives see it, they are outnumbered, outspent, and discriminated against in the humanities and social sciences, and so they have turned to conservative foundations as their only recourse. Nothing should prevent them from doing this, but neither would anything prevent these acolytes of free-market competition and overcoming adversity through individual spunk from independently gaining a foothold in academia and expanding it purely through the value of their ideas and scholarship, as leftists have done over four decades. Again granting the integrity of many cultural conservatives, isn’t it coy of them to get indignant over any suggestion that multi-million-dollar patronage by special interests gives their beneficiaries an unfair advantage and is likely to attract opportunists?

It is also legitimate to ask how similar the kind of research on which conservatives’ cultural offensives are based is to the pseudo-scientific variety produced by corporate special interests through the usual foundations and think tanks (and all too often through ostensibly independent university scholarship) -- research that purports to refute all evidence of corporate damage to the environment, health, and safety. The greatest danger of the machine that has been set up by Republican fronts, in science as well as in the humanities and social sciences, is that it has developed the capacity to take any finding produced through independent research or analysis, no matter how valid, and fabricate counter-research to discredit it, thus jamming the airwaves of public discourse to the point where ascertaining the truth is virtually impossible.

Conservatives have sanctimoniously denounced poststructuralist theories denying any objective truth and have accused leftists of being Orwellian twisters of the truth, but many of their own forces -- political, journalistic, and academic -- have cynically pursued the 1984-ish policies that truth is determined by whoever has the power to dominate public perceptions of it and that the righteousness of their ends justifies dishonest means such as distorting and ridiculing their opponents’ positions without substantive refutations (as my arguments here will predictably be distorted and ridiculed).

Thus, I do not think it is unfair to ask conservative scholars and journalists of integrity to demonstrate it by honestly addressing the ethical problems posed by Republican-aligned foundation sponsorship, by dissociating themselves from the more extreme positions of the Republican Party and its corporate, religious, and journalistic allies (e.g., Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter), and by presenting a body of evidence proving that they apply the same critical standards and zeal to the forces of the right that they do to the left, along with similar evidence that their sponsors are willing to subsidize such criticism. 

One such model of integrity is Nathan Glazer, the prodigious Harvard sociologist who throughout his long career has shown scrupulous independence, extending to his role as co-editor with Irving Kristol of The Public Interest, subsidized by the Olin, Bradley, and Smith-Richardson foundations. Although he identifies himself as a neoconservative, Glazer has written in defense of affirmative action and multiculturalism, and, as he noted in the final issue of The Public Interest this spring, “in defense of the more developed welfare states of Europe, which to my mind have created a better society than we have in the United States.” If such refreshing heresies against Republican orthodoxies were the rule rather than the exception in conservative intellectual circles, I would cease and desist from further criticism.

Here is a proposal that might forestall the further descent of polemics on these issues to the level of, “Yeah, and you’re one too!” Horowitz’s blog comprehensively surveys the forces of what he defines as the American left in politics, the media, foundations, and academia, along with their sources and amounts of funding. Suppose that he, or like-minded conservatives, were to collaborate with leftists on assembling a comparable survey of the American right (including, say, major corporations and the military, along with university faculties in service to them, and the forces of the religious right), so that something like an objective comparison of relative power could be attained. Who will volunteer for such a project -- and what foundations will fund it?


Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His textbook Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen's Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric was published this year by Paradigm Publishers.


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