Brief Literature Review: Conservative Philanthropy in Higher Education
David Austin Walsh
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For more than half a century, factions within the conservative movement have sought to promote free-market and free-enterprise principles through philanthropy directed to college campuses. This literature review focuses on a number of such philanthropic initiatives, analyzes the impact claims made for them, and highlights areas where more research is needed.

Case studies of conservative philanthropic efforts on college campuses

Walgreen Foundation
In 1935 Charles Walgreen, the owner of a national drugstore chain, donated over half a million dollars to the University of Chicago in 1937 under the aegis of the Walgreen Foundation, for “[fostering] greater appreciation of American life and values among University of Chicago students.” Between 1958 and 1980, the Foundation awarded over 100 fellowship grants, as it aggressively promoted research from an anti-statist perspective.

The Walgreen gift helped spur the development of the Chicago school of economics and corresponding conservative philanthropic efforts in the field of “law and economics.” It exposes the underlying political stakes in conservative philanthropy in higher education throughout the rest of the twentieth century: a belief that campuses are hotbeds not just of liberalism but of socialism, even of communism and that funding programs that promote “American values”—particularly a defense of capitalism and free enterprise—is a proper and effective response.

Henry Manne and Law and Economics

Henry Manne attempted to build a dedicated conservative law program at the University of Rochester in the late 1960s, confident he could do so by cultivating conservative alumni and foundation support. This effort was a failure. Manne was later successful at transforming the George Mason University Law School in a conservative/libertarian direction in subsequent years. Comparing these efforts can help determine which factors were necessary for a successful campaign to promote conservatism on campus.

At Rochester, Manne had the support of both the administration and a generally sympathetic right-of-center Rochester faculty, but he was unable to attract significant philanthropic support and the project was eventually scuttled. A subsequent attempt by Manne to build a law and economics center at Emory University in the early 1980s was also a failure, despite having the backing of the John M. Olin Foundation, largely because it lacked support from the administration.

The Olin Foundation and the Beachhead Theory

The John M. Olin Foundation, a prominent backer of right-wing causes in the 1970s and early 1980s, was an innovative leader in right-wing philanthropic giving. John M. Olin, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was determined to ensure that his money was tied to meaningful institution-building and political change. The Olin Foundation was established in 1953 and began grantmaking to various institutions.

Olin’s commitment to conservative politics in philanthropic giving dated to the late 1960s. 

The upsurge in conservative philanthropic organizing on campus in the 1970s, led by Olin and his foundation, was a direct response to the student uprisings of the 1960s, and served a means to limit and eventually reverse the gains made by liberals, leftists, women, and above all students and faculty of color on campuses in the 1970s.

The keys to the Olin Foundation’s victories came from its willingness to take chances when funding projects, funding multiple approaches to achieve political goals, and not being wedded to failing strategies. In the early 1980s the Olin Foundation opted for what its executive director James Piereson called the “beachhead strategy”: embedding smaller conservative programs into elite colleges and universities, under the theory that other schools would follow suit.

The Kochs and George Mason University

As of 2015, the Koch family foundations had spent nearly $150 million funding academic programs at no less than 307 different institutions of higher education – with $50 million dedicated to a single flagship campus in the Koch system: George Mason University (GMU). 

The Kochs’ approach to philanthropic giving has important commonalities with Olin’s – the committed ideological vision, the importance of organizational entrepreneurs and sympathetic administrators, and the positive effect that dense networks of conservative activists and philanthropists have on individual projects.

The Koch family’s involvement in higher education philanthropy dates back to the 1970s. It is part of the funding of students through fellowships and scholarships on the one hand and the endowment of professorships and the creation of right-wing think-tanks and research centers on the other to provide those students with jobs later in their careers. 

The Federalist Society

By far the most important institution created by conservative philanthropy in higher education is the Federalist Society, originally founded as a group for conservative law students in 1982.

The Society has provided educational and social support for over a generation of right-wing judges, attorneys, and legal scholars.

The landmark cases settled by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court in the past decade—Citizens United v. FEC, Shelby County v. Holder, Janus v. AFSCME, and Trump v. Hawaii—would have been made considerably more difficult without the influence of the Society, not least because Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, the late Antonin Scalia, and Neil Gorsuch are all Federalist Society alumni, as well as the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

The Society and its members now in the judiciary are committed to the same free-market politics and policies as the foundations and donors discussed in this review. This is not a surprise, given that these foundations and donors have provided the Federalist Society with a considerable degree of financial support.

The Federalist Society was founded in the spring of 1982 by a small group of conservative law students at a conference at Yale Law School. By the end of that summer, student leaders had begun to establish personal relationships with officers at the Olin, Bradley, and Scaife foundations. The Federalist Society was particularly reliant in its early years on foundation funding, because it did not yet have an extensive membership of practicing attorneys or wealthy alumni. The Society quickly moved to expand to as many law school campuses as possible, sponsored conservative speakers and debates, and—critically—established a Washington, D.C. chapter for practicing lawyers. The growing political strength of the group stemmed from its position in the conservative career pipeline. 

The Federalist Society enjoyed a close relationship with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was, by the mid-1980s, firmly entrenched as both the major power center within the Republican Party and, with the election of Ronald Reagan, within the bureaucracy in Washington. The group has operated symbiotically with other elements of the conservative movement, providing a well of talented and ambitious lawyers with the right kind of politics for political appointments by right-wing administrators.

Undergraduate Student Groups

Conservative activists and philanthropists have underwritten student activism by right-wing undergraduates that supports free-market ideology-building on college campuses.

One of the earliest organized efforts was Young Americans for Freedom, founded by a group of some 90 young activists at the Connecticut estate of conservative publisher William F. Buckley Jr. in September 1960. Large-scale philanthropic support for conservative student organizations on campus accelerated in the 1970s alongside the explosion of new funding available for conservative institution-building writ large. Major conservative student activist groups in the 2000s include Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute (LI), and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).  Groups like Young America’s Foundation and the Leadership Institute essentially function as a conduit for conservative foundation money to be distributed to campus activists.

Key themes

These broad conclusions can be drawn from a survey of the literature on conservative philanthropy in higher education.

The importance of dense networks to achieve both immediate and long-term goals. Multiple foundations funded overlapping efforts at colleges and universities across the United States to establish centers for right-wing thought, and those efforts operated cumulatively over time. With these networks, conservative figures whom the foundations invested in as either students or scholars on campus would mature over time in a “pipeline” and increase in value both on and off campus in the future.

Identifying faculty organizational entrepreneurs and sympathetic administrators.  The Koch network at George Mason would never have been as successful as it has been without the collaboration of faculty and administrators. A corollary to this is the need to overcome institutional resistance.

Research Areas Education Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Higher education Foundations and philanthropy
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy