Megadonors Should Fund New Universities

The size and vitriol of the anti-Israel/pro-Hamas rallies on campus has been a game changer. Yes, everyone knew that college students tend to be ill-informed politically, but the seething hatred of Jews and the misinformation -- labeling Israel an apartheid society -- was beyond belief. Obviously, something is terribly wrong with American higher education.

What can be done? Though many prominent donors threaten to close their checkbooks, and top school administrators offer lukewarm apologies, the answer is, sadly: not much. The only solution is to create educational alternatives, a long-term strategy where today’s elite schools fade into obscurity and join the ranks of Transylvania University, a once prestigious university that still exists but is now more closely associated with Dracula than higher education,

The good news is that this mission can be accomplished and all the ingredients -- mainly brains, organizational skill, and money -- exist in abundance. This strategy will not produce overnight change, but it is the only alternative.

The necessary reform is impossible. The hatred of Western Civilization that encourages woke kids to champion homophobic, misogynist militant Islam has entered American higher education’s DNA. And this is in addition to all the nonsense about gender fluidity and Critical Race Theory. No school can screen applicants for gullibility nor impose a litmus test for prospective faculty. Nor would champions of Western Civilization demand schools to return to an era when universities were church-run sanctuaries for doctrinal orthodoxy. Yes, these donations from angry billionaires are large, but funding is also fungible so Middle East billionaires or radical foundations can easily replace the likes of Leslie Wexner or Ron Lauder.

Hope starts by recognizing that many contemporary elite schools began as educational nonentities. The world-famous California Institute of Technology was founded  in 1891 as Throop College, an obscure vocational school, and did not began its march to excellence until later. Throop College shed its name in 1910 and became Cal-Tech in 1920 thanks to the efforts of leading scientists on the faculty, notably Robert A. Millikan and George E. Hale. Only in 1934 it officially joined the ranks of other major American universities.

The University of Chicago exemplifies a similar rags-to-riches tale. It was founded in 1856 by a few Baptist educators with funding from Senator Stephen A, Douglas, a champion of slavery.  The tiny religious school was transformed, however, by John D. Rockefeller’s money and land donated by department store magnate Marshall Field. The new incarnation offered its first class on October 1, 1892, with an enrollment of 594 students. Its growth owed much to its first president, William Rainy Harper, a clergyman and accomplished scholar.

In 1901 John D. Rockefeller also founded what is today Rockefeller University, a world-renowned graduate-student-only research institution in New York City. As of 2022, some 26 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with Rockefeller University plus countless other science luminaries.

Such stories are hardly unusual and many of today’ s most prestigious schools, including Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Duke owe their existence to megadonors. Clearly, universities, like corporations, can be started ground up. Hedge fund operator Ken Griffin has given Harvard $500 million, more than ample to create a first-rate school from scratch.

Nor are the mechanics of university creation especially arduous, since funding already exists together with capable administrators. Tech companies such as Apple and Google came out of virtually nowhere to dominate their industry. This is the “California Garage model” of building academic excellence.

Several real estate websites advertise inexpensive properties that once housed colleges. Many downtown locations are also on the market thanks to ample empty office space. In either case, these newly-founded colleges and universities would follow the venerable European university of providing classroom instruction and almost nothing else. 

Starting fresh minimizes the bureaucratic bloat that now plagues many campuses while simultaneously avoiding the educationally worthless, politically troublesome Diversity Inclusion and Equity (DIE) functionaries. Absent diversity, there will be no more tutors and counselors paid to help challenged students obtain their degree and feel comfortable on campus.  Also eliminated will be “grievance studies” departments whose angry, troublesome graduates are unlikely to be future megadonors.

Equally important, since only essential education is provided, forget about expensive student housing, health care, leisure activities (including sports and concerts) and other educational ephemera that add little to a first-rate education. Ditto for the plethora of school-funded student groups whose purpose is to provide therapeutic outlets for the activism inclined. If students need extra help in specialized fields, there are hundreds of on-line courses from top schools that offer this instruction, often at no cost. The founder can profitably lease university-owned land to businesses to provide these amenities cheaply.  Meanwhile services such as computer networks can be outsourced, and if students want to buy books, they use Amazon or consult Google Scholar for their research. The school can follow the Berea College formula by giving enrollees preference for all campus jobs, a boon for low-income students.

Hiring top faculty will not be a problem.  Follow FDR’s plan for the Manhattan Project: appoint a few top well-connected academics, they in turn will choose accomplished specialists, and their networks will identify the very best disciplinary scholars. No doubt, there will be a rush to join the faculty -- when the tradition-minded  University of Austin was created in November 2021, some 3000 faculty inquired about positions there.  Experts can also be recruited from think tanks and among serious journalists. The lure of teaching at a non-woke school will be enormous.

The aim is not to create a conservative alternative to today’s radical campus. The goal is a school free of ideological proselytizing and wokeness. It is about finding truth, encouraging critical thinking and honest discussion, not substituting one orthodoxy for another.

Advanced graduate education is, of course, more complicated since these can be extremely expensive, and no medium-sized college can offer more than a smattering of limited options. But, from the perspective of creating institutions that escape the madness now infecting so many institutions, providing advanced technical training is of secondary importance. Moreover, we can hope that when a student begins his advanced degree, he is immune to the madness infecting so many undergraduate students. So, undergraduates should avoid Harvard College, but you may want to enroll in one of its graduate programs.

To repeat, no instant cure exists for the political craziness currently infecting existent American higher education. Megadonors may threaten, but university presidents cannot flip a switch and turn it off. It is too deep into the school’s DNA.

This model succeeded in business, and it applies equally to education. Savvy investors did not waste time haranguing IBM to build superior personal computers. Instead, when IBM diddled about, they bet on Apple, H-P and other IBM rivals, and IBM vanished from that marketplace. When a contemporary John D. Rockefellers invests in better and cheaper schools, the bloated academies of Political Correctness will shrivel. The world abounds with giant companies that vanished, and universities likewise can likewise fall into irrelevance.

Image: Cogdogblog

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