They still don’t get it. When Lee M. Bass gave Yale University $20 million in 1991 to develop an integrated course of studies in Western civilization, he did not want his money going to support the kind of radical multiculturalism that had become a disfiguring staple at Yale and other American universities in the past couple of decades. When he said “Western civilization” he meant, well, Western civilization. It doesn’t seem that complicated. But apparently it was beyond the ken of those presiding over the future of Yale University. It was announced last month that, after watching Yale dither and equivocate about the disposition of his gift for four years, Mr. Bass had lost patience and asked for his money back. Although clearly stunned by what The Wall Street Journal rightly called this “extraordinary display of backbone,” Yale had no choice but to comply.

The saga of the Bass grant for Western civilization (one of several large grants that the Bass family has made to Yale) is instructive for everyone concerned. For prospective donors, it is a cautionary tale. For recalcitrant university administrators and faculty, it is an object lesson in how not to respond to a major gift. The inspiration for Mr. Bass’s visionary gift was the famous speech that Donald Kagan, the eminent classics professor at Yale who was then Dean of Yale College, gave to incoming freshmen in September 1990. Crying out like a voice in the wilderness, Mr. Kagan called upon the students and faculty of Yale to preserve the traditional focus of liberal-arts education. “It is both right and necessary,” Mr. Kagan said in that speech, “to place Western civilization and the culture to which it has given rise at the center of our studies, and we fail to do so at the peril of our students, our country, and of the hopes for a democratic, liberal society emerging throughout the world today.” Not only had Western civilization “asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting its power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate,” but Western philosophy and religion had also inculcated a habit of self-criticism as well as “a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures.”

Mr. Kagan’s speech made national headlines. As we reported in these pages at the time, Mr. Kagan’s championship of Western civilization sparked angry denunciations from radical elements in the Yale community. The editor of one student newspaper fumed that “taking European culture as the center is not only ridiculous, it is the seed of racism.” Mr. Kagan himself was castigated as “intolerant,” “paternalistic,” “racist.” But Lee Bass, who had been graduated from Yale in 1979, understood the clarion call sounded in Mr. Kagan’s speech. When Benno Schmidt, then the president of Yale, approached Mr. Bass about making a contribution to his alma mater, he responded with his extraordinary gift. Built around a multi-disciplinary, double-credit survey course in Western civilization, the Bass grant was intended to support seven senior and four junior professorships. A university committee, which included Mr. Kagan, was set up to design the course of study, which would chart the course of Western civilization from Mesopotamia through World War II.

As The Wall Street Journal reported last November, what happened next was a quadrille of academic obfuscation and behind-the-scenes politicking. Donald Kagan left the deanship, Benno Schmidt abandoned Yale to make money, and the university’s new president, Richard Levin, announced that there would be no new faculty hired with the Bass money. The committee planning the program in Western civilization disbanded in disarray.

What about that $20 million? Mr. Bass began wondering the same thing. In September 1993, he asked President Levin what progress had been made in instituting the program he had endowed. By November 1994, his impatience was a matter of public record. In an anguished, hand-wringing letter to The Wall Street Journal last December, President Levin complained that the Journal had got him all wrong, that Western civilization was alive and well at Yale, and that he had rejected the proposed design for the Bass program for the “practical, logistical, and nonpolitical reason that it made inefficient use of our faculty resources.” The Bass gift had not been “subverted,” Mr. Levin wrote, no matter what critics said. On the contrary, “the income from Mr. Bass’s generous gift to our endowment has been and will be spent entirely for the purposes specified by the donor.”

Really? To get a sense of what Mr. Levin meant, just consider statements made by Michael Holquist, acting head of the Yale comparative-literature department, who envisioned “fusion” courses that would include “gender studies” and other delicacies on the multiculturalist menu. Literature and history cannot be taught, Mr. Holquist explained, “without reference to O. J. Simpson.” So much for the achievements of Western civilization. Such statements cannot have been reassuring to Mr. Bass. Rather than sit by while his gift was used to undermine the very things he had intended to support, he asked the university to allow him to approve faculty appointments made with his money. Not surprisingly, Yale refused. Mr. Bass then asked for his money back.

The responses to the sorry story of the Bass grant have been instructive. President Levin immediately embarked on a campaign of damage control. In the March 31 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, he is quoted as saying that the “Bass incident has been over-interpreted”—give a raise to the PR man who came up with that!—and that he thinks it is “an aberration rather than a sign of a new trend.” No doubt he fervently hopes so. And then there is his March 23 blandishment “To the Alumni and Alumnae of Yale University,” in which he writes that “it is important to emphasize that implementation of the course was not delayed by political opposition to the course’s content. The study of Western Civilization has always been and will continue to be at the center of a Yale College education, and our faculty’s commitment to the subject remains unshaken.” Yes, of course: the Iliad and O. J. Simpson. And it is odd, isn’t it, that when Donald Kagan said that Yale should focus its energies on Western civilization he was roundly castigated as a reactionary? But then Mr. Kagan was speaking to students, who might be expected to take him seriously, whereas President Levin was merely attempting to smoothe any ruffled feathers that might exist among the university’s largest pool of potential donors.

Of course, The New York Times weighed in with an editorial defending Yale and, by implication, attacking Mr. Bass and his supporters. “No self-respecting educational institution,” the Times intoned in its best moralistic fashion, “can allow an outsider—no matter how well-meaning or generous —to dictate its education priorities.” Donors, the Times continued, should learn that “it is probably a bad idea … to try to use a gift to influence a school’s educational direction,” while “universities must also resist the temptation to solicit and accept gifts from donors with a strong political agenda.” The lesson to be drawn from the Bass case, the Times concluded, is that “it does not pay to pander to a donor’s political quirks.”

Right. Mr. Bass has a “strong political agenda” and exhibits “political quirks” because he wanted to support a program in Western civilization that was not beholden to the politically correct imperatives of contemporary academic orthodoxy. And what of the multiculturalist radicals who opposed Mr. Bass? Somehow, the Times did not get around to objecting to their “strong political agenda” and “political quirks.”

And as for self-respecting educational institutions refusing to allow “outsiders” to “dictate education priorities” and “influence educational direction,” where was The New York Times when we needed it? When Lee Bass makes a gift to help preserve Western civilization against the onslaught of intellectual and moral radicalism, he is attacked for meddling with academic freedom. But what about the activities of such institutions as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation (to name only two of the largest and most influential), which have been blatantly attempting to “dictate” educational priorities and “influence” educational policy for years? In January, Evan Gahr reported on some of their projects in The Wall Street Journal. At the University of Washington, a professor who is the project director of several Ford Foundation grants co-edited a volume entitled Transforming the Curriculum: Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies, part of an effort to “undo the effects of the distortions set in motion 500 years ago when Columbus brought massacre and the most brutal form of slavery known to these shores, all in the interest of spreading ‘Western civilization’ with all its long-lasting assumptions of racial, cultural, and male superiority.” Or what about the $250,000 fellowship program supported by the Rockefeller Foundation for the City University of New York’s Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies? According to Mr. Gahr, that program helped to support “projects on transgender phenomena such as transsexualism or specific cross-gender figures.” Or what about the Ford Foundation’s multi-million-dollar “Campus Diversity Project,” designed to encourage multiculturalism on campuses across the country? Can any more obvious effort to transform educational priorities and “influence” school policies be imagined? Why hasn’t The New York Times stepped in to criticize these endeavors?

Perhaps even more instructive was Andrew Delbanco’s response to the Bass case in a “Comment” for the March 27 issue of The New Yorker. Mr. Delbanco, who teaches at Columbia University, understands why Mr. Bass and his supporters should have been upset by what happened to the Bass grant. Unfortunately, he is himself a perfect embodiment of the kind of institutionalized radicalism that the Bass gift was intended to combat. Mr. Delbanco acknowledges that universities have hitherto been places “where the culture in which alumni prospered has been transmitted to their children.” At the same time, he insists that

universities are meant to foster suspicion toward every untested piety and to raise doubts about every axiom. They are, properly, places of experiment and irreverence; they will never please those who expect them to be mainly curatorial… . [E]specially now, in the national climate of reaction, universities have an obligation to keep alive the spirit of blasphemy that has always been part of the true life of the mind.

Rhetorically, Mr. Delbanco’s gambit here can be very effective. Practically everyone believes that a liberal education, in addition to transmitting a body of knowledge, ought to sharpen a student’s critical faculties. Talk of challenging “untested piety” and making universities “places of experiment” go down very well with the liberal populace of middle-class America. But what about the “suspicion” and “irreverence” that Mr. Delbanco mentions? Are they really “properly” part of a liberal-arts education? And is it really the case that the “the spirit of blasphemy” has “always been part of the true life of the mind”? It would have come as a surprise to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine, to Dante and Milton—indeed to the entire pantheon of great Western thinkers except the handful of radicals who helped create the climate of revolt whose legacy the American university is now struggling with.

Mr. Delbanco, like many others who have rushed in to condemn the Bass gift, would have us believe that the choice facing American higher education is between a mindless conformity and a daring radicalism. In fact, the choice is between the liberal tradition that recognizes the past as the foundation of the present and a rootless intellectual antinomianism. The fate of the Bass grant at Yale rightly worries Mr. Delbanco because it suggests that the “compact between universities and the middle class” in this country is now beginning “to come apart.” What neither he nor the editorial writers for The New York Times seem to understand, however, is that the way to repair that compact is not by launching additional assaults on the foundations of liberal learning but by making new efforts to recapture the ground that has been lost to the irreverent “spirit of blasphemy” that has dominated the academy in this country since the 1960s. In this sense, the loss of the Bass gift was not only a blow to the finances of Yale University but also a warning shot from the gradually regrouping opposition in the culture wars.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 8, on page 1
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