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May 1, 2013

How the Koch Boys Could Save American Higher Education

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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.)



Comments (6)

Th_Ph:

"I am not advocating "Libertarian U." America hardly needs another politicized, indoctrination-minded university."

You're forgetting O'Sullivan's law: Any institution not explicitly conservative will become liberal with the passage of time.

There used to be a balance of thought on campus. Liberals succeeded in making the institution toxic for all who disagreed with them. In any sphere of life, they rinse and repeat.

ME Taylor:

I don't think it's a bad idea for conservatives and libertarians to participate actively in re-shaping higher ed, but compared to the value of their acquiring media outlets to help shape the national discourse, this goal seems positively trivial. So long as the left controls the media and can generate the perception of such a college as being some fringe camp for wingnuts, all such a college would do is become another nice "boutique college" where conservatives can live separately from mainstream culture. Conversely, if conservative and libertarian thinking becomes part of the mainstream culture as a result of a more balanced media, such a college would hardly be necessary, as the natural pressures of the marketplace would produce colleges like the one envisioned.

Absolutely 100% spot on, IMHO. Not only is contemporary education churning out collectivist lemmings by the boatload, but the "graduates" are also bereft of critical thinking skills, innumerate, and utterly lacking in any useful knowledge of history (yes, I'm aware those observations are somewhat redundant).

Balancing the far-left's propaganda would have been great... 15 years ago, and it certainly wouldn't hurt today. But it is no longer the great need of the hour. Today, a critical mass of citizens are simply too dumbed-down to think critically about the issues, even if they're presented with the necessary information.

Also, one can certainly stress an education based on classical liberalism without formally establishing "Libertarian U." Although, as Th_Ph accurately observes, any institution that fails to properly vet the curriculum and those hired to administrate and teach it will find itself transformed into another left-wing activist factory soon enough. This is just as attributable to Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy as anything else.

Most of this sounds quite feasible. One bit, however,seems unlikely: "graduate of the KU School of Education would immediately find work in school districts desperate for smart, demanding, knowledgeable teachers."

That would only be true if there were any school districts willing and able to hire such teachers, over the dead bodies of their unionized current workforce and equally "progressive" school administrators and school board members.

For that reason, donors might also want to support homeschooling and school choice, to create a better market for intellectual diversity.

Rich Rostrom:

What Th_Ph wrote. It would require constant vigilance and interventions to keep such a college from being assimilated into the liberal consensus.

But there's another factor.

The Kochs have a lot of money, but so does the liberal academy.

They have about $80 billion.

This is less than the combined endowments of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford (which are the four largest). The total for the 70 schools with $1 billion or more is $283 billion. The grand total, for all the thousands of colleges in the U.S., is probably over $400 billion.

Besides the endowments, there is the enormous cash stream from tuition, and from state government support.

Even the Kochs don't have that much money.

They could spend all they have and not make a dent.

richard40:

Th_Ph, you are absolutely right. If they want any academic institution to remain over time with any libertarians and conservatives left, then it must have an explicit libertarian/conservative orientation from the start, with an ironclad way to keep radical leftists out. If they do not, the leftists will take it over with time, as they have every previously conservative or bananced college or charity.

Just look at the Ford Foundation, completely leftist, while the Founder, Henry Ford was a conservative free marketeer. Same with the McArthur foundation. You cannot be balanced and fair and evenhanded with the leftists, because they dont beleive in balance, they beleive in absolute power.

And if you balance conservatives and libertarians, that is already enough to include plenty of intellectual debate and diversity, since conservatives and libertarians have many differences, but still have an honest respect for each other, unlike leftists who only respect other leftists.

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