By Robert Weissberg
Charles and David Koch are reportedly interested in buying the Tribune Company's eight newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. According to The New York Times, this is less about making a profit than acquiring a platform to extol the brothers' laissez-faire ideas. Current estimates put the price tag at about $623 million (privately owned Koch Industries have annual revenues of about $115 billion).
Leaving aside the obvious arguments about buying dinosaurs and whether the brothers could ideologically re-shape these papers, let me suggest a better investment--establish an undergraduate college heavy on the humanities and social sciences (including economics) that recruits only top students. (David Koch took a step in this academic direction in 2007 when he gave $100 million to MIT for the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research). In a nutshell, it's better to create an elite alternative to today's left-leaning academy than to exercise the owner's droit de seigneur to write weekly op-eds on the evils of Washington's regulation. The Koch boys surely must appreciate how innovation can destroy the old economic order and higher education is no exception. Moreover, creating a college via a 501(c)(3) foundation would provide huge tax savings, perhaps even making the enterprise "free."
I am not advocating "Libertarian U." America hardly needs another politicized, indoctrination-minded university. Rather, and perfectly consistent with libertarian values, today's higher education could benefit from a top-notch undergraduate-oriented college unfettered by political orthodoxies, a true marketplace of ideas where, at least in principle, the brothers' cherished laissez-faire could get clobbered. Surely Charles and David will agree--no ideological litmus tests, and may the best ideas win.
From Harvard and Stanford to Koch
Many of today's great universities owe their existence to a single Great Benefactor. John Harvard's deathbed bequest created Harvard University. There's Peter Cooper and Cooper Union; Duke's Washington Duke; Cornell's Ezra Cornell; Johns Hopkins of Johns Hopkins; Leland Stanford of Stanford and Cornelius Vanderbilt of Vanderbilt among many others. And let's not forget John D. Rockefeller who in 1890 with the American Baptist Education Society founded the University of Chicago (Marshall Field of department store fame donated the land).
If the Koch brothers feel a bit shy, they can just transform an existing school, for example, make Hillsdale College into Hillsdale University. Humble origins can be overcome--today's research-driven Carnegie Mellon University began as Carnegie Technical Schools, offering only vocational training for Pittsburgh's poor.
Starting fresh totally solves innumerable problems. No more futile calls for universities to hire a few token conservatives or trying to slim down over-stuffed bureaucracies that add nothing of intellectual value. Nor will conservative donors fret about administrators misallocating their gifts (recall the Robertson Foundation suit at Princeton and Yale returning the Bass family's $20 million gift). In an instant, intellectual life would be cured of obsessing over race, class and gender. The Kochs would also have the opportunity to re-think tenure and instructional options. To prevent ideological nonsense from creeping back in, all syllabi and reading lists will be posted online, a boon for parents, future enrollees, trustees and donors.
Buying an Abandoned Campus
The financial start-up costs would be relatively low, especially with a focus on the humanities, the social sciences and economics/business. Nor is there anything mysterious about building a university from scratch, and there are also abandoned campuses that can be bought cheap. Begin by hiring a few top administrators competent to recruit department chairs. In an instant, all the PC corruption, everything from the mindless group-identity and feel-good majors to expensive remediation centers would be gone. Assuming ample salaries and perks plus genuine academic freedom, our new university -- let's just call it Koch University or KU -- would be flooded with resumes. For many leading academics, the prospect of intellectual freedom and escape from PC orthodoxy would be irresistible. Free at last!
The Koch brothers might especially welcome job applications from distinguished researchers currently at CATO, Heritage or Reason who abandoned the university's version of life-of-the-mind when they realized that their political views made them academically unhirable. KU would also be remarkably cheap. Traditional European universities would be the model: a bare-bones administration with no athletic programs, no student services, no housing and dining, and no counseling. Craig's List will replace overpaid Deans of Student Services. Moreover, look to 158-year-old Berea College: KU would hire students to mow the lawn, pick up trash, or better yet, students would start small business (Berea does not charge tuition). Money would also be saved by eschewing uneconomic professional schools like music and architecture. Further, permit students to fulfill some requirements by enrolling in free online courses at top schools elsewhere. Reading assignments could be accessed on tablets or iPhones or printed off on high-speech cheap printers (no more college bookstores).
We Need a Good Education School
But, if there is one cost-effective way of altering today's political culture, it would be to establish a pre-eminent School of Education. It is in K-12 that the real long-term harm occurs, so that by the time a student arrives on campus, the intellectual damage may be irreversible. Even if their brains have yet to be corrupted, many lack the basic skills (and work ethic) necessary for higher education. So many classes are in fact remedial. I strongly suspect that graduate of the KU School of Education would immediately find work in school districts desperate for smart, demanding, knowledgeable teachers. To paraphrase Cato (Cato the Elder, 234-149 BC, not today's Koch-funded CATO), Columbia Teachers College must be destroyed.
Equally important, education professors at KU can develop new PC-free curricula, write no-nonsense K-12 textbooks and conduct honest research on how to reach youngsters who seem impervious to education. Out goes multiculturalism, in goes intellectual rigor and hard work. If there is one part of today's dreary educational landscape that desperately needs change, it is in schools of education and changes here cost but a pittance compared to subsidizing The Chicago Tribune.
KU is an easily copied template and it is conceivable that some of today's elite lefty schools will follow KU's lead to hold market share. This is especially true when KU students pay a tiny fraction of what it costs to attend Swarthmore or Oberlin and receive a superior education, to boot. Philanthropists like Bill Gates could probably set up half a dozen and, rest assured, unlike most of the schemes advanced by today's education-minded foundations, they would succeed (the Gates Foundation once spent $2.1 billion in a failed effort to boost academic achievement by converting big high schools into multiple smaller ones).This business model also avoids all the pitfalls of for-profit schools while students will graduate largely debt-free and highly employable.
Thousands of smart youngsters will receive an intellectually first-rate education from intellectually accomplished professors who put truth above ideology, and at a fraction of the tuition charged by ideologically soaked small liberal arts college. As this model spreads it is easy to envision tens of thousands, perhaps more, of these well-informed, clear-thinking young men and women moving up to positions of power. This would truly be revolutionary, and good business, too.
(Photo: Charles and David Koch. Credit: Forbes.)