A Traitor to My Class?

I do not give to Princeton, where I went to college.

Last Friday evening I had dinner with three close friends who among them have four Ivy League degrees, including ones from Harvard and Yale. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that I don’t give to my alma mater and added that the institutions that we graduated from have so much money that they are accountable to no one but themselves. None of my friends took issue with my comment – which is interesting, because all four of us have long made philanthropic commitments important parts of our lives.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton have endowments that total about $80 billion between them. In the case of Princeton, which unlike the other two doesn’t have law, business and medical schools, its endowment is about $3 million per undergraduate. That’s an awful lot of money, and any of us would have been justified in simply asserting that our colleges don’t have appropriate levels of need relative to other possible beneficiaries of whatever we feel comfortable giving, but my broader point was that these institutions are so rich as to be accountable to no one. They are becoming culturally inbred and self-consciously apart from the society that nurtured them.

Left unstated, but I think well understood by my friends, was the premise that the liberal arts faculties of these schools have taken conformity to the “progressive” worldview to the point of oppressiveness – and have coalesced around an institutional elitism that is deeply unattractive.

Elitism is not the same thing as meritocracy, but the two are often conflated.

There can be no doubt that Ivy League schools have, over the centuries, fostered meritorious advancements in many fields, as evidenced by the nearly innumerable Nobel prizes that their graduates and professors have won. There can also be no quibbling with the fact that – using some of their vast endowments for scholarships – they have welcomed many who couldn’t otherwise have afforded to attend. So in some respects, they have given life to America’s meritocratic ethos.

The elitism to which I refer is an attitude that is closely related to what Friedrich Hayek described as the “fatal conceit”: the idea that well-educated, well-intentioned central planners should make decisions for all. As such, elitism is a cousin to the ideologies of socialist central planners, theocrats, tyrants and dirigistes everywhere. What such elitism is not is consistent with the Enlightenment worldview embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; those foundational documents of our society maximally empowered us to make decisions for ourselves, limiting the role of the state in our lives.

Today, our most prestigious universities – or at least their liberal arts and law faculties – seem to act like full-time lobbyists for an ever-expanding government. Not coincidentally, their faculties consist virtually exclusively of Democrats. With, for example, 98% of political contributions of the faculty at Harvard Law going to Democrats (http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/98-harvard-law-faculty-political-donations-go-democrats_935575.html#.VUN9cBNmZ28.twitter ), it has been cleverly said that they believe in diversity of everything but thought.

Only a Mao or a Kim Jong Il could not be embarrassed by such ideological conformity; I’m not ok with it. Not even close.

The government feeds these institutions via student loans and research grants; it regulates them through Department of Education “guidance” on such matters as ethnic diversity, curricula and theoretically internal disciplinary procedures, and it rewards their graduates (and others, to be fair) with student loan forgiveness (https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation ) for those who pursue “public service” in a manner that, the government can safely assume, advances the “progressive” agenda.

The Ivy League and our government seem to have formed a mutual benefit society; they scratch each other’s backs with money, employment opportunities and, above all, a shared perspective that they should be making decisions for all of us.

Maybe, in retrospect, my dinner-party observation that Harvard, Yale and Princeton are accountable to no one was mistaken: maybe they answer only to those who have an interest in the federal government’s power becoming ever-greater. Who they do not listen to are social conservatives, libertarians like me or others who, along with social conservatives and libertarians, constitute roughly half the voting public.

So, for all the fact that I loved my undergraduate years, and my ready acknowledgement that the credential provided by my particular sheepskin undoubtedly helped my professional advancement, I can’t feel comfortable supporting “my” school.


M.H. Johnston

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