A look at the conservative origins of the UNC Board of Governors’ “model” for a new academic center

If your interest was piqued by the UNC Board of Governors’ reception of Professor Robert George last week – and their affection for his conservative James Madison program at Princeton – you may want to read up on the program, its funders and the movement to create more conservative centers across the country.

A good place to start: “How Right Wing Billionaires Infiltrated Higher Education” from the Chronicle of Higher Education last year.

The piece, by Jane Mayer, takes a long look at the James M. Olin, whose funding got the Madison program off the ground:

“Through these carefully curated programs, the foundation trained the next generation of conservatives, whom Joyce likened to “a wine collection” that would grow more valuable as its members aged, increasing in stature and power. The foundation kept track of those who passed through Huntington’s Olin program, proudly noting that many went into public service and academia.

Between 1990 and 2001, 56 of the 88 Olin fellows at the Harvard program continued on to teach at the University of Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Penn, and Yale. Many others became public figures in government, think tanks, and the media.

In all, by the time it closed its doors in 2005, the Olin foundation had supported 11 separate programs at Harvard, burnishing the foundation’s name and ideas and proving that even the best­ endowed American university would allow an outside ideological group to build “beachheads,” so long as the project was properly packaged and funded.

On top of these programs, the foundation doled out $8 million to more than a hundred John M. Olin faculty fellows. These funds enabled scores of young academics to take the time needed to do research and write in order to further their careers. The roster of recipients includes John Yoo, the legal scholar who went on to become the author of the George W. Bush administration’s controversial “torture memo” legalizing the American government’s
brutalization of terror suspects.

Without the rigorous peer ­review standards required by prestigious academic publications, the Olin foundation was able to inject into the mainstream a number of works whose scholarship was debatable at best. For example, Olin­ foundation funds enabled John R. Lott Jr., then an Olin fellow at the University of Chicago, to write his influential book More Guns, Less Crime. In the work, Lott argued that more guns actually reduce crime and that the legalization of concealed weapons would make citizens safer.

Politicians advocating weaker gun­ control laws frequently cited Lott’s findings. But according to Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight, Lott’s scholarship was suspect.

Winkler wrote that “Lott’s claimed source for this information was ‘national surveys,’” which under questioning he revised to just one survey that he and research assistants had conducted. When asked to provide the data, Winkler recounts, Lott said he had lost it in a computer crash.

Asked for any evidence of the survey, writes Winkler, “Lott said he had no such evidence.” (Proving that the recipients of Olin funds weren’t ideologically monolithic, Winkler, too, had received funds from the foundation.)

Another Olin ­funded book that made headlines and ended in accusations of intellectual dishonesty was David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, to which the foundation gave a small research stipend. In the book, Brock defended the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas by accusing Hill of fabricating her sworn testimony against him during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Later, though, Brock recanted, admitting that he had been wrong. He apologized for the book and said that he had been deceived by conservative sources who had misled him.

Still, the combined impact of the Olin grantees was “a triumph,” according to Miller. Writing in 2003, he enthused that “a small handful of foundations have essentially provided the conservative movement with its venture capital.”

He noted that in contrast to the days when Lionel Trilling had declared conservatism over, “conservative ideas are in broad circulation, and many believe they are now ascendant.”

He added, “If the conservative intellectual movement were a Nascar race, and if the scholars and organizations who compose it were drivers zippping around a race track, virtually all of their vehicles would sport an Olin bumper sticker.”


The piece is well worth a read for those curious about the origins of the program the UNC Board of Governors now considers a model for a future UNC center and the movement of which it is part.

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