Anti-Capitalism on Campus

Prof. Brad Thompson of Clemson University writes this week in Minding the Campus on the impact of corporate donations to institutions of higher education. In particular, he describes some of the controversy we’ve seen in recent years about donations from unabashedly pro-capitalist sources like BB&T and the Charles Koch Foundation. The allegedly insidious influence of such funding has even inspired the creation of the activist group “UnKoch My Campus.” Of course, as Casey Given of Students for Liberty has recently pointed out, George Soros has been spending far more on higher education programs than Charles and David Koch put together, but that hasn’t kept the campus left from crying foul.

Donations from both sources should be welcomed. If politically-savvy billionaires want to rain funding for more teaching and research down on the universities of America, let them. As Prof. Thompson reminds us, the endowing of new programs and study centers tends to lead to more campus diversity and academic freedom, not less.

The standard dictionary definition of academic freedom is the “freedom to teach or learn without interference.” The principle applies to individual faculty members and their right to teach ideas that might be unpopular. The BB&T and Koch academic programs have done nothing to interfere with the freedom of anyone to teach or learn what they want. At every university that has accepted BB&T or Koch money, not a single faculty member’s academic freedom has been denied or compromised in any way. I publicly challenge the critics of these donations to name one faculty member anywhere in America whose academic freedom has been threatened by these grants.

The real reason why activists want their trustees to turn down millions of dollars in potential funding is that they share the anti-capitalist bias that is widespread in U.S. higher education. The effort to keep “corporate money” out is part of a larger effort to shut down and delegitimize the voices of anyone in the wealth-producing economy. We see it at colleges and universities, and we see it in politics on both the state and national levels.

When leftist activists started attacking the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2012, they declared that bringing business representatives and state legislators together, as ALEC does, constituted some sort of nefarious plot. Their argument was that public policy that was generated with even the partial input of for-profit companies must be tainted. My colleague Fred Smith wrote at the time:

This effort to drive out pro-market voices is far more extensive than the attack on ALEC. Anti-business forces already have succeeded at excluding business experts from governmental policy advisory councils and imposing second-class status on them in academic journals. Any nonprofit political organization that receives business funding comes under constant attack – unless, that is, the funding is aimed at expanding the size and scope of government.

Both the campus environment and our national political life need as many good ideas as possible. More voices and perspectives lead to a more robust marketplace of ideas, and the only people who need fear that diversity are those who suspect that their own theories are too weak to withstand the competition.