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27 September 2007

TO MY FELLOW SENATORS:

ON THE CAPITALIST ACADEMY/FUND

Belden Fields

I think that even with the hard work that Nick Burbules has done on the proposal, we are still giving away far too much in terms of academic integrity if the proposal goes through as it is now conceived.

1.  It is a politically one-sided attempt to use economic power to influence the curriculum.

 Conservatives are usually eager to urge jurists to go to the intent of the framers or legislators when interpreting the application of a law.  I strongly urge you to read carefully the attached Guest Commentary in the News-Gazette of 3/4/07 by Mr. Tim O’Laughlin, one of the framers of the proposal to create and Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government.  It clearly reveals the kind of political crusade that is in the mind of the framers of this proposal.  Note O’Laughlin’s gloating over how people with his views have completely overturned Harvard’s curriculum, including getting rid of English 101, “Postmodern Moonshine” in his sarcastic words.  But the commitment to its wide-ranging curricular ambition is also contained in the mission statement that I downloaded from its website on 9/25.

“To advance the purpose of the Academy Fund, university professors will be involved in the full scope of activities—teaching, research, and the development of curricula leading to the establishment of majors, minors and other academic credentials.  The Academy Fund will offer support for relevant economic and business courses in other disciplines including classic or contemporary literature, political science, philosophy and history that relate to the intent of the Academy Fund….the Academy Fund’s emphasis on free market capitalism, individual freedom and responsibility, limited government and the philosophical traditions on which these are based will promote student leadership, initiative and creativity.”  In addition, the mission statement proposes to influence  curriculum development and teaching in education and journalism.

2.  The U of I will be but a beachhead in this effort.

As a reinforcing precedent, the Chancellor has referred to two private universities that have such conservative initiatives.  Private universities can have any orientation, including religious, that they want to. While this specific “Academy Fund” is locally initiated, it is clear from the writings of the founders that it is to serve as a pilot program to exert economic power over public universities across the United States.  Once on the ground, this “Academy” and others like it would likely receive a huge influx of funds from such right-wing funding sources as the Olin and Scaife Foundations.  This would become one of the most attractive “buys” in a newly conceived academic market place where the new commodity would be curricula in public universities. The University of Illinois has not only a responsibility to itself to resist such intrusion, but also to other public universities that would become more vulnerable because WE will have set the precedent in public higher education.

3.  It is based on the false premise that they are the largely excluded minority from the campus. 

Thus, the section on “Activities of the Academy Fund” in their brochure in the website begins: “The Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund will encourage intellectual diversity and civil debate by opening discourse to a greater range of perspectives.”

However, the Department of Economics, which had a great diversity of views on the place of markets relative to the state’s role when I took part of my minor LAS requirements in that department in the late 1950s, has become much more homogeneous in terms of their views of markets, monetarism, and the government’s role in the economy, The proponents of the Academy should be very pleased by this shift.   The Department of Finance, and the College of Business as a whole, is certainly teaching the kinds of things that the donors contend is absent from the discourse on this campus.  The College of Engineering is very much invested in entrepreneurial  relations with the private sector, and professors in the college spin off their own private enterprises.  The  College of Agriculture is closely tied in with the private agricultural sector including the  Farm Bureau Federation. In the College of Law, the Law and Economics school of thinking that privileges corporate interests is very well represented. New hires over the last two years have especially tilted the college in that direction. Even the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, the foundation of which was greatly aided by the state and local AFL-CIO’s, is turning out mainly graduate students who wind up working in personnel departments on the side of management.  The Research Park offers corporations a place and cooperative relations with academics on our campus.  The university is going to privatize the development of Orchard Downs.  How can all of this possibly be interpreted as an exclusion of capitalist viewpoints and interests?

The desire is thus not an attempt to fill a lack, but, quite the contrary, an attempt at a more totalizing ideological hegemony of the campus.  While the rhetoric is toned down, the already quoted curricular ambitions in the current brochure are consistent with Mr. O’Laughlin’s more truculently expressed intentions in the News-Gazette.

4.  The ideology is also quite specific.

They claim that their theoretical inspiration is Friedrich von Hayek who in volume 2 of his tome, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (itself entitled The Mirage of Social Justice),  denies the validity of the very concept of social justice.  For Hayek, the social good is achieved only by individuals making rational self-interested economic choices, not by governments trying to remedy market effects or trying to control corporate power.  Monopolies are signs of economic efficiency.  Governments trying to pursue social justice or advance economic or social rights only disrupt that efficiency.  Thus those see a moral or efficiency problem in severe economic inequalities, those arguing that governments should use fiscal policies (e.g., progressive taxation) to reduce economic inequality and poverty, those supporting government measures to bring about universal health care, or those taking seriously the economic and social rights stipulated in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, are beyond the ideological pale and ineligible for any of the resources offered by this Fund.

5.  Power driven hegemony or intellectual challenge?

 Rather than accepting such a blatant attempt to propagate a specific political and economic viewpoint, would it not be more academically respectable to insist that the Fund be devoted simply to the relationship between economy and government and open it up to the diversity that the funders claim is missing.  Indeed, that diversity is already here at the university; where it is missing is in the funders’ own proposal. Approaching this as I am suggesting would open up opportunities to people with varying views of that relationship and a number of other important related issues--such as how we should think about economic rights, the status and rights of the corporation as a legal person, the effect of free markets nationally and internationally, the meanings of the “right to work” and the “right of workers to organize,” how to morally assess inequalities, etc.  We could set up fora and symposia on these issues where students, faculty, and community people could be exposed to serious debates and probing analyses across disciplinary lines. 

At the Annual Faculty Meeting on September 24, the Chancellor put two ideas in one utterance:  “No one will be hired on political grounds… [and] …those who have supplied the resources are entitled to determine where the resources will go.”  If the Fund operates according to the stated mission of the Fund, people will have to be hired on political grounds.  They might be very good scholars, and I am confident that the Chancellor and his Advisory Committee would insist on that, but they will have to meet a political litmus test as well.  Therein lies the rub.  That is a huge, and to my knowledge unprecedented, leap in how we operate. If we insisted on using the Fund as I have suggested, to truly further diverse  exchanges on these major issues, the funders might decide to withdraw their offer of funds because it would not have the same ideological propagating force.  That would  indeed be their right.  But accepting a political litmus test in recruitment of faculty, curricular decisions, and foundation grants is, in my view, infinitely more damaging to us and other public universities in this country than giving up the proffered money.

I hope that my fellow senators will join me urging the President and Chancellor to explain the problem to the funders and urge them to lower the transformational expectations in their public statement and brochure and to do away with the ideological strings attached to their offer.