Justin Dyer: The Value of “Questions We Can’t Answer”
Higher education must change its attitude toward alumni and higher education donors. They are not cheerleaders or walking checkbooks: They are the guardians of values. They eagerly share the wealth they have earned with the places that have shaped their minds and hearts and the minds and hearts of their children and grandchildren.
Wise institutions know this and ensure that the consciousness of their past remains strong and that the voice of their heritage is heard distinctly on campus. Alumni remain the sons and daughters of their alma mater because they remember the quality of the education they received and the freedom they had to grow and mature. They wish to vouchsafe that experience for future generations. They are an institution’s ballast that helps it to negotiate a true course amidst the turbulence of fashion and fad.
The founding mission of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is to advocate for the college students of our nation to receive the highest quality education at an affordable price. Since 1995, we have helped higher education philanthropists and alumni achieve roles of significance in which they are no longer simply writing blank checks that support an unacceptable status quo, but are agents of positive change and improvement. We are proud to have been partners time and again with alumni and donors in protecting campus freedom of speech and promoting high academic standards. And we will continue to be their allies in such efforts throughout the nation. In keeping with that mission, we inaugurate with this report a series of analytical studies of the opinions of higher education donors. This study focuses on three areas that anecdotal evidence suggests to be of particular relevance to issues confronting Davidson College: freedom of expression, intellectual diversity, and ideological balance. It is our hope that when colleges and universities understand better the hearts, minds, and values of those who so generously support them, they will, in turn, seek out their wisdom and together shape policies that will ensure that American higher education remains the envy of the world.
Michael B. Poliakoff
President, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni
This American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA)/Braun Research, Inc., anonymous survey of 1,114 major donors to Davidson College was conducted by email between September 23 and October 12, 2021. The study was sponsored by Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. Recipients of the survey were donors identified by the college in the 2021 Ne Ultra Society Honor Role publication (email addresses were collected independently). Three hundred and twelve recipients completed the survey for a response rate of 28%. The survey’s margin of error is 4.7% at the 95% level of confidence.1 The ACTA staff thanks Dr. Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College for his kind assistance.
This survey focuses on a universe of major donors, virtually all of whom are also Davidson alumni and whose philanthropy is of high importance to the College. The sample group by nature includes a larger share of alumni donors who graduated before 2000 and who have devoted their giving capacity to Davidson College.
The Chart Pack that accompanies this report contains more detailed results on survey findings.
Davidson’s motto is “Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas”—let learning be cherished where liberty has arisen. Free inquiry is at the heart of the College’s mission to help students develop humane character in preparation for lives of leadership and service.
As Davidson College’s search committee begins its work to identify the school’s 19th president, there is no better time to assess where the College is today and where it wishes to go in the future. The next president of Davidson will set the College’s trajectory for the next decade, guiding the school through what promise to be turbulent waters for small, liberal arts institutions.
The threats to free expression on college campuses that regularly make newspaper headlines have sparked a national conversation about the purpose and values of our nation’s institutions of higher learning. Earlier this month, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled Professor Dorian Abbot’s lecture on the potential for life on other planets because of his views on affirmative action, the backlash from the public was harsh and swift.3 Meanwhile, Robert Zimmer, the president of Professor Abbot’s home institution, the University of Chicago, justifiably won praise in the New York Times for his quick reminder to the campus that the university’s commitment to freedom of expression would most assuredly obtain in protecting this faculty member’s rights.4
Although Davidson College has never made national news for a misstep such as MIT’s, there are too many institutions around the country where, as the old wisdom tells us, pride preceded a fall. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Disinvitation Database chronicles 490 controversies since 20005, and a new repository of academic cancelations has quickly grown to 194 examples.6 Disinvitations and shout-downs send the wrong message to students and faculty. But they are also a public relations nightmare that can negatively affect development efforts and hamper student recruitment. Setting out clear principles and processes in advance—designed to communicate the college’s commitment to free expression to all constituencies—can help prevent such controversies from occurring in the first place (and spare the Davidson community a place in higher education’s Hall of Shame).
The College leadership must take a proactive role to foster such a culture of freedom at Davidson, and that depends on fostering intellectual diversity. National studies reveal that college faculty and administrators are overwhelmingly Left-leaning. A study of faculty voter registration at 40 top universities found registered Democrat-to-registered Republican ratios as high as 60 to 1.7 Another, based on a sample of 8,688 tenure-track, Ph.D.-holding professors from 51 of the top 66 liberal arts colleges, found that “78.2 percent of the academic departments” surveyed “have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.”8 All too often, students studying economics or political science or sociology or any of a great range of academic disciplines never have the opportunity to learn from scholars of conservative and classical liberal persuasions. (A future study to determine where Davidson faculty fall on this spectrum would be illuminating.) Liberal education can only occur in an environment where students are free to express their opinions, explore other viewpoints, and boldly challenge the status quo.
National polls suggest that our country’s colleges and universities have fallen short of these stated ideals. A 2019 ACTA/College Pulse survey of over 2,100 college students found that 61% stop themselves from expressing opinions “on sensitive political topics in class because of concerns [a] professor might disagree with them” at least “occasionally.” Higher numbers report doing so “to avoid offending other students” (85%), and over one-third refrain from expressing views “because of concerns related to [their] college’s speech policies” (38%).9 The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. For example, 48% of students “agree” or “strongly agree” that pressure to conform to political correctness can negatively affect the development of close interpersonal relationships, including 78% of those who identify themselves as strong Republicans.10 Recent analysis by Samuel J. Abrams has shown that the problem is particularly acute at liberal arts colleges, where students tend to be even “more accepting of attempts to silence speech.”12
In her email to alumni on October 19, Davidson College President Carol Quillen referenced the problem of student self-censorship on campus, noting that “an unfettered quest for truth is foundational to any educational institution.” She also relayed the encouraging news that the College will adopt its own formal commitment to free expression.10 There is no room for further delay, and the formal commitment must have the same power and clarity shown in the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression that over 80 institutions have now adopted.
The graduates of the past are a natural corrective to “presentism,” the desire to see and understand all things through the lens of our immediate experience. “Presentism” is not an unreasonable impulse, for it can spur new ways of thinking. But when it is combined with dogmatism, it becomes as anti-intellectual and, ironically, as anti-progressive as any destructive prejudice of the past. A school with the wisdom to engage its graduates builds a community that extends over generations. Alumni are the voice of a college experience that served them well: It is the height of folly for the institution not to hear them out and hear them receptively.
Higher education philanthropists are generally people who have been successful in business, industry, science, technology, law, medicine, media, and government. They hire college graduates, often with particular interest in graduates of an alma mater that they believe provides outstanding preparation. The institution needs their unfiltered voices, directly, in roundtables and on presidential search committees.
Alumni bring another unique characteristic to their engagement with their institutions: They are free. Students fear the ghosting and marginalization that can come from violating campus orthodoxy; at times this can rise to outright harassment from a “bias response team” or some other organized effort to silence unwelcome viewpoints. Faculty live in fear of the disapproval of their colleagues: Taking unpopular positions can mean prejudicial treatment by tenure and promotion committees, isolation from faculty activities, and stalled professional career opportunities. Administrators live in fear of a faculty vote of no confidence if they stand up for principles unpopular on campus. Even board members too often “go along to get along.” Higher education donors, however, do not face these constraints. They may freely voice their conscience, without fear of censure.
The Davidson College donors who answered the anonymous survey conducted by Braun Research, Inc., expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with current trends at the institution.13 A majority, 59%, said that they are “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the direction Davidson College has taken “over the last decade” compared to 38% who said they are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied. Dissatisfied donors placed a particularly high value on free expression and viewpoint diversity; they also perceived an ideological imbalance in Davidson College’s campus culture. Fully 99% of dissatisfied donors said that ideological balance is important, and not one—0% of dissatisfied donors—located Davidson College in the “center” of the ideological spectrum. (98% placed it left of center, 1% placed it right of center, and 1% did not know).
Donors showed remarkable consensus around issues of free speech and strong agreement that the presidential search should reflect these concerns.
In response to the survey item, “Davidson’s next president should make freedom of speech and open, civil discourse on campus a high priority”, there was near-universal agreement, with 94% of donors agreeing that open and civil discourse is a high priority. Indeed, the consensus crosses partisan lines: 91% of liberal donors and 99% of conservative donors believe protecting free speech is a campus imperative.
Respondents also support the principle of political neutrality on the part of the university administration, so essential to creating a truly free and open marketplace of ideas. Sixty-six percent agreed that “Davidson’s next president should not take public positions on controversial social and political issues in messaging to faculty, staff, and students,” and 96% of those surveyed agree that “Davidson’s next president should be respectful of those with different political and ideological positions.” Here, again, differences corresponding to the political ideology of those surveyed were minimal.
Relatedly, when asked about what value respondents place on Davidson’s Faculty being ideologically balanced, three-quarters of alumni donors (76%) hold that professors being ideologically balanced is important. Ideological differences show divergence: 51% of liberals think that faculty balance is important while two-thirds (66%) of centrists want balance and almost all conservatives (97%) feel that balance is important. Attitudes toward trustees look almost identical. More than three-quarters of alumni donors (81%) want the board of trustees to be ideologically balanced. Although the overall vision of the alumni donors seems clear, political divergence is again evident, with significant percentages of liberals (59%), centrists (77%), and almost all conservatives (99%) agreeing that the ideological balance of the board of trustees is important to a degree.
Should a Davidson student fear to disagree publicly with a professor over a controversial topic? Eighty-five percent state that it is rarely or never acceptable. Majorities of liberals (78%) and centrists (76%) believe that fear to express a controversial view in the classroom is rarely or never acceptable, and 96% of conservative respondents believe that students should never fear disagreeing with their professor about a controversial topic.14
Eighty-seven percent of respondents do not think that it is acceptable for Davidson students to fear expressing disagreement with one of their professors about a controversial topic in a written assignment. Eighty percent of liberals and 83% of centrists do not think that fear is acceptable, with the number climbing for conservatives (97%).
Turning to in-class discussion, which may involve disagreeing with one’s peers (and not necessarily the professor directly), 87% of the Davidson sample do not think that current students should fear expressing their views on a controversial topic during an in-class discussion. Some ideological differences are evident, with 80% of liberals and 78% of centrists maintaining that fear is rarely or never acceptable, while 97% of conservatives feel the same way.
As for professors, 88% of the survey respondents stated that it would be rarely or never acceptable for a Davidson faculty member to fear expressing an unpopular ideological opinion in faculty meetings. In this matter, there are notably smaller differences from the mean: 82% of liberals, 81% of centrists, and 99% of conservatives rejected the idea that faculty should fear expressing their ideological views in a faculty meeting setting.
Regarding tenure and promotion, which is a core concern for faculty and an important indicator of academic freedom more generally, 83% of respondents state that it is rarely or never acceptable for a Davidson faculty member to fear negative repercussions respecting promotion and tenure decisions because of their ideological or political views. There is a significant cleavage here: 75% of liberals, 73% of centrists, and 96% of conservatives believe that it is not acceptable to bring politics and ideology into the conversation when tenure is concerned.
It is clear that concerns about the state of freedom of speech on campus are impacting philanthropy. Thirty-seven percent of donors surveyed said that their level of giving had declined or ceased in recent years, and 91% of those whose giving has declined or ceased cited dissatisfaction with Davidson’s direction (41%), dissatisfaction with Davidson’s leadership (38%), or dissatisfaction with specific Davidson policies (12%) as their principal reason.15 The same proportion (37%) increased their giving, with the majority (51%) citing “ability to give” as the reason for the change.
Forty-one percent answered that they expect their level of giving to decline “moderately” (9.3%), “significantly” (9.9%), or cease altogether (21.4%) in the coming years.16 At universities that are reliant on donor support and income from generously funded endowments, alienating benefactors is a threat to the institution.
Dissatisfied Davidson donors were particularly insistent that the college select a president who is committed to freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. Ninety-nine percent of dissatisfied donors agreed that “Davidson’s next president should make freedom of speech and open, civil discourse on campus a high priority”; 93% agreed that “Davidson’s next president should make achieving ideological and political balance at the College a priority—on the Board of Trustees, in the administration, and on the faculty”; and 92.4% agreed that “Davidson’s next president should not take public positions on controversial social and political issues in messaging to faculty, staff, and students.
It is worth repeating that these priorities are widely shared by Davidson donors generally. Ninety-four percent of all donors agreed that Davidson’s next president should “make freedom of speech and open, civil discourse a high priority,” with 72.4% agreeing that the adoption of the Chicago Principles “throughout campus life” is a high priority. Support for prioritizing free speech and civil discourse is as high as support for “slowing down the rate of increase in college costs” (91%) and almost as high as giving “close attention to how well the College is preparing graduates for productive work lives” (95%)—which suggests that the campus climate for free expression is a fundamental concern for Davidson donors (see chart on page eight).
This survey of major donors to Davidson College provides crucial information for the presidential search committee and board of trustees and should help guide the challenging work of selecting Davidson’s next president. It reveals a deep divide within the college community, with a large proportion of benefactors dissatisfied with the direction of their alma mater. Many have cut back their philanthropic support to the college in response, which is a serious threat to the institution.
The survey makes clear that concerns about free expression and political and ideological balance on campus are major reasons for donor disengagement. And donors, as they read the news and look around the nation, are justifiably concerned about the damage that the erosion of freedom of expression causes. The survey also suggests that Davidson’s next president is likely to face challenges in fundraising, and in buttressing support from major donors, if the issues are not addressed. The installation of a new president is an opportunity to rebuild relationships with dissatisfied donors and to strengthen alumni loyalty and engagement. The survey results lead to the conclusion that renewing the college’s commitment to building a free and open marketplace of ideas on campus is the essential first step. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been pleased to contribute to the vision of the presidential search committee with this report and strongly encourages that these findings, unsettling as they may be, be taken to heart.
And, finally, we observe that problems identified in this survey are not confined to Davidson College. Other institutions should take note of these findings and proactively ask if their own practices instill the character and habits that for generations have been the pride and honor of their graduates.
For a more detailed look at the survey findings, click here.
1There is 95% probability that the reported figures reflect the attitudes of the universe of 1,114 donors within a 4.7% margin of error.
2This question allowed respondents to select multiple reasons. Results presented above are for each respondent’s principal reason. Including all reasons given where respondents provided additional answers, 84% of those whose giving declined or ceased cited dissatisfaction with Davidson’s direction, 63% cited dissatisfaction with Davidson’s leadership, and 54% cited dissatisfaction with specific Davidson policies.
3Yascha Mounk, “Why the Latest Campus Cancellation Is Different,” The Atlantic,October 10, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/why-latest-campus-cancellation-different/620352/.
4Michael Powell, “M.I.T.’s Choice of Lecturer Ignited Criticism. So Did Its Decision to Cancel,” New York Times,October 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/20/us/dorian-abbot-mit.html.
5Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Disinvitation Database, last accessed October 28, 2021, https://www.thefire.org/research/disinvitation-database/#home/?view_2_per_page=1000&view_2_page=1.
6David Acevedo, “Tracking Cancel Culture in Higher Education,” National Association of Scholars,October 15, 2021, https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/tracking-cancel-culture-in-higher-education.
7Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein, “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” Econ Journal Watch 13, no. 3 (2016): 422–451.
8Mitchell Langbert, “Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty,” Academic Questions 31 (2018): 186–197, https://tinyurl.com/y5dg3e2k.
9The American Council of Trustees and Alumni and College Pulse, “Campus Speech Poll,” Internal Report, October 2019, 2-4.
11Samuel J. Abrams, “Many Liberal Arts Students Need a Lesson in Free Speech,” Inside Higher Ed, October 28, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/10/28/are-liberal-arts-students-less-supportive-free-speech-opinion.
12President Carol Quillen, “The new year and free speech at Davidson,” email to Davidson College campus, October 19, 2021.
13This anonymous survey of 1,114 major donors to Davidson College was conducted by email between September 23 and October 12, 2021. The independent survey was conducted by Braun Research, Inc., and was sponsored by Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. Recipients of the survey were donors identified by the college in its September 2021 Ne Ultra Society Honor Role publication. Email addresses were obtained independently. Three hundred and twelve recipients completed the survey for a response rate of 28%. The survey’s margin of error is 4.7% at the 95% level of confidence
14Throughout, “liberal” includes respondents who identified as “left of center” and “conservatives” includes respondents who identified as “right of center.”
15This question allowed respondents to select multiple reasons. Results presented above are for each respondent’s principal reason. Including all reasons given where respondents provided additional answers, 84% of those whose giving declined or ceased cited dissatisfaction with Davidson’s direction, 63% cited dissatisfaction with Davidson’s leadership, and 54% cited dissatisfaction with specific Davidson policies.
16Values are occasionally presented to the first decimal to clarify arithmetic and apparent rounding discrepancies.
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