by Kerry McDonald
This year, for the first time since graduation some two decades ago, I did not donate to either of my alma maters. Like many of you, I have become disillusioned with the illiberalism on many college campuses and could no longer support them with an annual gift. While higher education has historically tipped to the political left, the gap has widened in recent decades. Analyzing data on faculty ideological leanings, the American Enterprise Institute reported that “in less than 30 years the ratio of liberal identifying faculty to conservative faculty had more than doubled to 5.”
At Harvard, where I attended graduate school, the faculty political imbalance is particularly striking. According to a 2021 survey by The Harvard Crimson, the college newspaper, out of 236 faculty replies only 7 people said they are “somewhat” or “very conservative,” while 183 respondents indicated that they are “somewhat” or “very liberal.” A similar problem plagues my undergraduate college, Bowdoin.
The absence of my meager donations won’t matter to the colleges I attended, each of which has billions of dollars in endowment money. But big alumni donors at some leading universities are using their influence to improve free thought and inquiry on college campuses.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on alumni from major universities who are holding back on giving large donations due to frustration over campus culture and policies. For example, Cornell alumnus Carl Neuss withheld his seven-figure donation and helped to create the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, while MIT alumnus, Tom Hafer, withheld his donation and helped to launch the MIT Free Speech Alliance after MIT disinvited a University of Chicago geophysicist who is critical of campus “diversity and inclusion” practices. FEE Hazlitt Fellow Brett Cooper wrote last summer about other alumni organizations that are pushing back against current campus policies.
According to the Journal: “Universities around the country have fired or demoted politically outspoken professors on the right and disinvited conservative speakers who criticize things like the push toward diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Other professors, such as Portland State’s Peter Boghossian, quit over their university’s policies and climate that they have found to be repressive of intellectual inquiry. “But brick by brick, the university has made this kind of intellectual exploration impossible,” wrote Boghossian in September. “It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.”
He continued: “Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.”
At this end-of-year giving time, alumni donors big and small can speak out against creeping campus illiberalism and put our money where our mouth is. We can support the organizations and institutions that value and promote individual rights and free expression, and avoid supporting those that don’t.
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She is also an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry’s research interests include homeschooling and alternatives to school, self-directed learning, education entrepreneurship, parent empowerment, school choice, and family and child policy. Her articles have appeared at The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, NPR, Education Next, Reason Magazine, City Journal, and Entrepreneur, among others. She has a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Bowdoin College. Kerry lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.
Photo “Statue of John Harvard, seen at Harvard Yard” by Harvard University CC BY-SA 2.0.