ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Informed Giving 101

July 25, 2005 by ACTA

Writing for City Journal, Heather MacDonald has put together a powerful and important piece on the trials and tribulations of alumni giving. Opening with a cautionary tale about Sidney R. Knafel, a corporate mogul and Harvard alum who also happens to be one of Harvard's most generous--and most misguided--donors, MacDonald explains how easily well-meaning but ultimately ignorant alumni can wind up financing initiatives and agendas that would appall them if they truly understood them. Noting that trustees tend not to be much better informed than alumni, and noting, too, how politically gun-shy and hence paralyzed more savvy trustees often are, MacDonald paints a picture of irresponsible and uninformed governance in which very few people in a position to monitor, challenge, and even alter some of the more suspect trends in higher education--what she terms the "campus follies"--are actually willing and able to do so.

MacDonald's analysis is damning in its wealth of depressing detail. But what makes her article so powerful is the manner in which she moves beyond damning analysis of academe, which has, after all, become so common these days as to risk falling redundantly flat. MacDonald doesn't just outline what's wrong with the present state of alumni naivete and trustee ostrichism, but offers practical examples of how a few genuinely motivated and enterprising donors are ensuring that their money actually does something that they consider to be valuable and worthy:

A few savvy alumni entrepreneurs are already creating a blueprint for breaking the monopoly of the academic Left and bringing traditional scholarship and intellectual diversity back to campus.

The model is as follows: find a tenured professor committed to classical learning. Give him resources to expand his jurisdiction by bringing in new faculty or offering new courses. A tenured prof, it turns out, often has leeway to recruit faculty on a temporary basis and to set them to teaching--as long as the prof is highly respected and has his own pot of money independent of the university budget, and as long as he, not the donor, is the actual and the perceived force behind the new program.

MacDonald goes on to describe Princeton's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Brown's Political Theory Project, and Duke's Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies, noting that at at least two other Ivy League schools, similar programs are stealthily in the works. Each initiative aims to reinvigorate the undergraduate curriculum by diversifying its offerings; more specifically, each program seeks to enable undergraduates to take courses in areas that are at once deeply traditional and increasingly under-represented on campus: the James Madison Project focusses on constitutional law and the nature of freedom; the Political Theory Project sponsors freshman seminars on liberty, democracy, and free-market thought; the Gerst Program offers courses and sponsors conferences on liberty, democracy, and morality.

"Would-be alumni entrepreneurs should seize the moment," MacDonald writes. "The model for starting a revolution has already been forged: fund professors already in place. If you can't find anyone committed to liberal education at your own university, send your money instead to places that are more open to traditional scholarship. The National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have databases of worthy candidates."

Learn about ACTA's resources for alumni donors here.

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