Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Three Cheers for the Center for Higher Education Excellence

By Richard Vedder

There was a great story in the Wall Street Journal recently about the Center for Higher Education Excellence, headed by our good friend Fred Fransen. In the interest of full disclosure, CCAP has received some grant money from CHEE, and I have worked closely with them on a couple of matters of mutual interest.

CHEE is not your ordinary charity. It is interested in seeing that philanthropic donations are well spent, and serve the interests of their donors. It is concerned about schools that take people's money and then spend it in ways different from that intended by donors. The huge pile of Robertson money at Princeton is the best example, with the family heirs arguing tht Princeton has directed vast resources to be spent in a fashion inconsistent with the wishes of the donor. Fred and his associates are helping wealthy donors reach iron-clad agreements with universities that prevent the money from being used for purposes other than intended.

I had a personal brush with this problem a few years ago. The Center for the Study of American Business (CSAB) at Washington University in St. Louis, run by Murray Weidenbaum, was a great free market think tank, and I had visited there as a professor and served on its advisory board. Murray decided to retire, so they renamed the center after Weidenbaum -- but then moved it considerably away from the orientation that Weidenbaum had given it and that donors expected. Foundations like the John M. Olin Foundation had donated millions to Wash U to support the free market research of CSAB, only to see the money diverted, I suspect, to fund its new orientation.

The AAUP has expressed concerns about groups like CHEE impeding academic freedom. In their view apparently, universities should be able to do whatever they want with money given them and any constraints are restrictions on academic freedom. Balderdash. What about the freedom of donors to use funds in a manner of their choosing? This notion that contractural arrangements can be broken to serve faculty interests is one reason why the proportion of alums contributing to colleges is in decline, as it well should be. The irony of it is that many of these privately funded efforts are designed to reduce the stifling intellectual conformity of many universities, and to introduce true diversity --intellectual diversity -- into the university community. We welcome CHEE to the community of those interested in true reform of the academy.

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