Promote Liberty by Reforming Higher Education?

Liberty-minded philanthropists have managed to foster a vibrant network of scholars and organizations engaged in advancing the ideals of a free society. Some donors who have underwritten the liberty movement have also attempted to make colleges and universities across the United States more conducive to the spread of these ideals, but their efforts have been largely unsuccessful, as Lenore T. Ealy explains in “Investing in the Ideas of Liberty: Reflections on the Philanthropic Enterprise in Higher Education,” her cover article in the fall 2012 issue of The Independent Review.

The problem is both institutional and ideological. Federal laws from the Pendleton Act of 1883 to the Higher Education Act of 1965 have diminished the independence of colleges and universities, and made higher education a tool of statecraft. Administrators now worry primarily about accreditation, compliance, and fund-raising. Moreover, despite an increase of freedom-minded scholars, academia itself, Ealy writes, is “still largely dominated by progressive ideology (and worse).” This combination of interests, apathy, and ideology presents a formidable challenge for liberty-minded donors who wish to affect social change by reforming academia.

What’s a classical-liberal philanthropist to do?

Ealy offers three complementary strategies to bypass the obstacles to spreading the ideals of freedom through colleges and universities. The first is to provide scholarships to deserving students—where “deserving” means those who meet the donors’ criteria. The second is to seek new and creative ways to introduce students to classical-liberal ideas directly, rather than indirectly by attempting to reform academia. The third is to foster opportunities for young minds to discuss and debate the ideals of a free society outside of the academy. Regardless of which strategy (or mix of strategies) they pursue, Ealy urges pro-liberty philanthropists to practice what they preach—including by respecting and modeling the principle of self-government and by participating at some level in the enterprise they would support.

Investing in the Ideas of Liberty: Reflections on the Philanthropic Enterprise in Higher Education, by Lenore T. Ealy (The Independent Review, Fall 2012)

The Independent Review (Fall 2012)

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[This post draws from the September 25, 2012, issue of The Lighthouse. To subscribe to this weekly newsletter and other announcements from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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