Right-wing money creates a political issue

Published Jul. 26, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

The mainstream media's fascination with so-called political correctness on college campuses is a case study in the use of wealth, power and position to manipulate the marketplace of ideas. Three books _ Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education and Charles Sykes' The Hollow Men _ appeared in 1990 and 1991, all with the same themes. These books were the critical mass that propelled the attack on academia into mainstream media, after which it took on a life of its own.

The books were the culmination of a decade-long campaign by wealthy right-wing activists to convince the media _ and through them the public _ that leftist influence in academia was an ideological crisis comparable to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Mao's Cultural Revolution in China.

The main obstacle to selling this idea was that practically nobody in academia _ neither teachers, administrators nor students _ believed it. The entire controversy seemed to exist only in the minds of wealthy conservatives who, because of their own extreme ideological positions, couldn't carry the burden of proof.

While these individuals lacked academic credibility and couldn't advance their agenda from inside, they had something else: vast amounts of money. With this money, they developed a successful step-by-step strategy for creating an issue where there was none. It worked like this:

Supply the money. Some family foundations, while established for philanthropic purposes, also engage in thinly disguised political advocacy for the far right. These include the $250-million Smith Richardson Foundation, the $200-million Sarah Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation, with $90-million in assets from that family's chemical industry wealth.

Family foundations like these contribute to smaller foundations and institutes that have the more specific focus of opposing alleged leftist influence in academia. These include the Institute for Educational Affairs and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Create a conservative presence on college campuses. The challenge was to create the impression that there was a leftist orthodoxy on college campuses and that there were students and professors struggling valiantly to oppose it. Unfortunately, no such conflict was sufficiently reflected in any real student publications. However, foundation wealth provided a simple answer to that problem: hire students to put out carefully monitored right-wing newspapers and magazines published off-campus and underwrite the cost of publication and distribution.

This effort began in 1980 with the notorious Dartmouth Review, which was the first of at least 53 similar publications. This nationwide project is now coordinated through the Institute for Educational Affairs.

(Conservative student newspapers in Florida include the Independent Perspective at Florida State University and Florida Review at the University of Florida.)

Subsidize books on the subject. To move the crusade from campuses to the mainstream media required producing books which could serve as authoritative treatments of the subject.

Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals was supported by the Olin Foundation and the Institute for Educational Affairs. Kimball edits the neo-conservative magazine New Criterion, which received $100,000 from the Olin Foundation, $100,000 from the Bradley Foundation, and $125,000 from the Scaife Foundation in 1988 through the "Foundation for Cultural Review."

Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education was also financed by the Olin Foundation. D'Souza is virtually a professional anti-academic journalist who has been making a living for years beating the same drum for the same interests.

Charles Sykes, author of The Hollow Men, was paid $30,000 by a group of conservative Dartmouth alumni to write a book about "the triumph of ideology over ideas in American higher education," especially at Dartmouth.

Let the media do the rest. The mainstream media picked up this issue, beginning naturally enough with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 26, 1990, entitled Politically Correct. From there it turned into a feeding frenzy.

Perhaps with public awareness of who is paying to create and hype this non-issue, we may hope that the old reactionaries behind it will _ some day _ be exposed for what they truly are. We might even hope that journalists now will be more careful to protect our national marketplace of ideas from this kind of manipulation.

- Our guest columnist is a professor of political science at Albright College in Reading, Pa.