The year is 1969, and racial tensions on Cornell’s campus have erupted into a group of armed black students taking over Willard Straight Hall. The administration and professoriate have surrendered age-old traditions of education to the violent opposition, and Cornell has become a hotbed of radicalism. Fast forward almost 40 years, and Cornell is still the same “cynonosure of student rebellion.” At least this is the Cornell depicted by the Veritas Fund for Higher Education.
A conservative charitable organization, Veritas recently donated $50,000 of seed money to plant the beginnings of The Program on Freedom and Free Societies at Cornell, which is intended to increase intellectual pluralism on campus. This donation may seem like a small sum compared to the $35 million donation from the Tisch family announced last Friday. Yet, as a Sept. 21 New York Times article brought to light, donations from conservative organizations to various institutions may be indicative of a larger trend toward taking back higher education from its supposed liberal leanings.
“If traditional learning can be rebuilt in the heart of ’60s student radicalism [at Cornell],” the Veritas Fund Update for Summer 2008 stated, “It can take place anywhere.”
Increasing Intellectual Pluralism
The conservative Manhattan Institute created the Veritas Fund in 2006. According to the Veritas update, the fund was created in response to a renewed dedication to diversity in higher education.
“America’s universities pride themselves on fostering gender and ethnic diversity, yet many campuses lack intellectual diversity,” the update stated. “The Veritas Fund was created to reveal this truth and capitalize the solution.”
To combat such trends, the “donor-advised” Veritas Fund recruits professors at leading universities “committed to bringing intellectual pluralism to their institutions [through] centers of academic excellence.”
David DeRosiers, executive director of the Veritas Fund, described the recruitment as a mix of applications, recommendations and project proposals.
According to data from the National Association of Scholars, 37 of these types of academic centers exist, with 20 of those created in the past three years. They may soon be eligible for federal money as well, as part of the new Higher Education Act, signed into law in August. Largely thanks to lobbying by the National Association of Scholars, the Act provides grants for academic programs or centers dedicated to “traditional American history, free institutions, or Western civilization,” according to The New York Times.
In its first year, the Veritas Fund raised and committed roughly $2.5 million to starting campus centers. Additionally, the final donation of the John M. Olin Foundation, “one of the largest financiers of the intellectual right” according to The Times, was a matching grant of $1 million to the Veritas fund.
Veritas has also aided the founding of programs at Georgetown, Boston College, University of Colorado, Brown, University of Texas, New York University, University of Virginia, Dartmouth and Emory.
Prof. Barry Strauss ’74, history and classics, is spearheading The Program on Freedom and Free Societies at Cornell using the $50,000 from Veritas.
Though Veritas approached Strauss about the Program, the foundation is not the sole source of funding. Strauss had already received “modest” funding to invite speakers to campus on the subject of freedom and free societies from former Provost Biddy Martin, as well as the Jack Miller Center in Philadelphia, which supports faculty dedicated to teaching America’s founding principles and history. Strauss is negotiating with the Jack Miller Center for further support.
Veritas identified Cornell as one such university that prides itself on diversity, but lacks the intellectual kind, stating in its update, “most new courses of the last several decades have focused entirely on race, gender, or postmodernism.” Cornell, over the last forty years, has neglected traditional learning offerings such as Western society, thought and economics, according to the statement.
“The idea behind what we’re doing is to bring back triumphalism to moderate the excesses of gender and [diversity courses],” said DeRosiers. “To teach courses that have gone out of style. They have had a focus on race, gender, class — and in doing so, students have been given a partial view of reality with America as the force of many evils. It’s more to the fact that they’re only receiving a diet of such things — they’re being malnourished.”
Though the Veritas summer update presented the program at Cornell as an “alternative to radicalism,” and despite his being quoted as part of this presentation, Strauss stated in an e-mail, “I’m very grateful to the Veritas Fund, but I wish they had consulted me about their summer update. I would have told them that I respectfully disagree with much of what they say. As far as Cornell goes, the protests of 1969 are water under the bridge. Let’s move on.”
“Courses in race, gender and postmodernism are legitimate and appropriate,” he continued. “In fact, race, gender and class are themes that figure in my own courses and my own writing. Every scholar today has to grapple with postmodernism, though not, of course, to accept its conclusions.”
Strauss pointed out that Cornell has a large and varied number of course offerings in Western society, thought and economics, and that these courses are not mutually exclusive with other topics such as gender and postmodernism.
The Limits of Donations
Prof. Charles Brittain, chair of the classics department, agreed that there is nothing inherently wrong with accepting money from an organization like the Veritas Fund. He noted a difference between teaching certain texts and ideologies, and utilizing certain methodologies to analyze them. When accepting money to teach texts that a professor would teach anyway, the problem comes into play when the charitable organizations influence how the texts are taught.
“I would accept money from the foundation because I want to study those texts,” Brittain said, referring to classical authors that he normally teaches in his classes. “But I’m certainly not going to let that limit the methodologies I use in reading them.”
Given that point of view, Brittain noted, “They are mistaken if they think that reading this stuff makes you right-wing. Just reading the texts doesn’t change political views: it depends on how you read them.”
Furthermore, Brittain noted that although the Veritas Fund tends to draw a line between “radical” left-wing concepts and classical ideologies, the two schools of thought are not necessarily distinct from each other.
“There was a time when ‘classics’ consisted of just reading a small range of texts in a standard way,” Brittain said. “That has really changed because people now have a more critical attitude towards those texts. There’s a much broader set of questions people ask about them, including questions about gender, race and social issues.”
Prof. Robert Vanderlan, history, described another way of thinking about the effects of this donation on Cornell curriculum.
“It seems the best way to think about this is to take the politics out of it and consider: if you have any group who feels their views are underrepresented, and to rectify it they put money into funding courses and creating an intellectual presence on campus, is that wrong?” he said.
While he said that it would be an ominous sign if a grant was meant to impose certain ideologies, he added, “I think the University in general would be very sensitive to anything that smacked of dictating an ideology.”
But many professors had no problem calling the mission of the Veritas Fund misguided. Prof. Kate McCullough, feminist and gender sexuality studies, took issue with Veritas’s assertion that programs like hers were taking over higher education.
“[The program] is correct insofar as locating the ’60s as a turning point in education. Students began thinking more critically about issues of social justice,” McCullough said. “There’s been a battle over what’s fit to study in the last 20 years, and it depends a lot on what you see the purpose of education being. Originally it was meant to train future leaders of the country, and you were trained in affairs of the states … As the demographic shifted, people wanted to know where their story came into it.”
From the Ground Up
Strauss emphasized that the program is still in its beginning stages, but that he is trying to put together an “academic program, non-partisan, open to all points of view, and with a serious intellectual interest in studying freedom, its spread and its defense.”
As far as what the program will offer, DeRosiers described a “very nutritious diet of good ideas, wide range of opinions and examples of civility.”
“If we can bring that back to Cornell,” DeRosiers added, “we will consider this a victory.”
Strauss described what he called the more practical results of the program offerings, such as seminars, lectures and debates open to the community, a visiting postdoctoral fellow, encouragement for new courses; and various attempts to get undergraduates involved. Last Friday, for example, the program co-sponsored a lecture by Philip Dimitrov, the former prime minister of Bulgaria, who addressed the continued threat of communism. The program will not offer any degrees or academic credit.
“My goal is to stimulate debate and ask questions, rather than try to get answers,” Strauss said.
Currently, Strauss is approaching various faculty on campus, putting together what he called an “academic brains trust” to try and create “an intellectually diverse and vibrant program.”
“Of course, we’re just a modest initiative at the moment and I don’t expect to have more than a modest impact,” he said. “We want to serve as a lightning rod, and as a focus for thought and debate.”
But DeRosiers noted the significance of Strauss’ role at Cornell.
“The fact that Prof. Strauss is there and we are able to support him is indicative of the fact that the winds of the University are changing,” said DeRosiers. “I don’t think for young students the old songs ring true anymore … let’s have a marked return to the real soul of the University. Not indoctrination, but instruction.”
A History of Reforming Thought
Ironically, the idea that the liberal leanings of American higher education have neglected key curriculum and led to intellectual monism was famously and forcibly espoused by former Prof. Allan Bloom in his 1987 bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind. In the book, Bloom critiqued contemporary American higher education, particularly the intellectual left. As a professor at Cornell, Bloom served as a member of the Telluride Foundation.
While the “reopening” of the American mind through intellectual pluralism is identified as the main tenet of the Veritas campaign, inheriting the tradition of Bloom, in most cases, the professors who receive seed money from the fund are like-minded conservatives.
“People we support are not conservatives,” said DeRosiers. “If they are, that’s not why we’re choosing them, it’s because they share this desire to share in the intellectual conversation … [they] share our mission and concern, and with some resources, could amplify their voice.”
“It’s very funny,” added DeRosiers. “I think the fact that people are concerned that a conservative point of view might be expressed on a college campus are verifying the problem. It strikes me as indicative … there’s such an intellectual monism on campus.”
Strauss further emphasized the non-partisanship of the program at Cornell.
“No University program that I’m involved with will have a political agenda, either right-wing or left-wing,” Strauss stated. “That’s not what universities are for; their aim is to pursue the truth without fear or favor. Their goal is also to stimulate debate. Good teaching creates students who talk back (politely) to their professors, not disciples.”
It remains unclear which University policy, if any, applies to donations and funding that come with stipulations, or from companies or individuals whose agendas could be construed as political.
Interim Provost and Vice Provost for Social Sciences, David Harris, indicated in a meeting with members of The Sun that the administration had little to do with pursuing the Veritas funds. He and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Michele Moody-Adams emphasized that “a specific faculty member” — Strauss — accepted the grant.
“None of us had any involvement in pursuing the grant,” Harris said. “It’s a huge University — there’s a lot of things going on. In the broader sense of curriculum set in the colleges, we don’t get involved in issues.”
Though Dean of Arts and Sciences Peter Lepage declined to describe his role in the process of Strauss’ recruitment as a recipient for the money, he did note, “The proposal is limited and the grant is relatively small, so the program will not have a huge impact on campus. It will add one more element to a curriculum that already has an amazing diversity of academic offerings.”
Lepage expressed that he did not find the question of agendas important.
“To varying degrees, all foundations have agendas,” Lepage said. “We are less interested in the foundation’s agenda than in Prof. Strauss’s program. What matters to the College administration is that our faculty and students will be able to use resources provided by the foundation to engage in activities of quality and of interest within our community.”
Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell Press Relations, described the negotiation process: the original grant proposal was looked at by the College of Arts and Sciences, which determined that some aspects — such as the idea that the project would be a full-fledged academic program, and that there was some commitment on Cornell’s part for future funding — needed to be changed. He explained that any time a grant comes in, it needs to be reviewed. Following this review, Strauss and the Manhattan Institute adjusted the language of the proposal, and it was approved.
Moss also explained that the Office of Sponsored Programs generally handles donations, and stipulations about various things that will be accepted.
“There’s definitely a policy on donations,” he said. “For instance, we don’t take tobacco money and things like that … I would be fairly confident in saying if it was a donation from the Nazi Party, we wouldn’t approve it.”