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Philanthropy: Its Power and Impact


Where is the government in America?

Power and influence exist not only in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, or in political parties or government agencies, or in various business and lobbying interest groups, or in corporations whose decisions regarding the location of offices and factories, investment, hiring, and production levels, and the products to be produced or the services offered go a long way in shaping the economy.

Power also resides in partisan think tanks such as the Brookings Institutions, the Center for American Progress, and the Century Foundation on the liberal left, as well as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the Cato, Hudson, Manhattan, and American Enterprise Institutes on the right, which serve as the intellectual infrastructure that provides political parties with their legislative strategies, policy proposals and talking points in an ideological war of ideas.

Advocacy groups and NGOs affiliated with political parties (such as MoveOn.org or NARAL) are also involved in power structures, as is the politically affiliated media: not just Fox News or MSNBC or talk radio or small political magazines and websites, but The New York Times, Wall Street Journaland Washington Post.

All of these centers of power operate, as the late great political historian Alan Brinkley put it, “with excellent coordination and discipline.”

To understand power in the United States, it is essential to think, as historical sociologist and political scientist Ted Skotspohl persuasively argues, about the polity, the vast network of institutions that exist outside of government but play a crucial role in shaping policy, priorities, coalitions, discourse and public debate. Even if on the surface Skotpol’s political approach sounds like another term for pluralism, it is not. He is much more attentive to the dynamics of power and influence.

Among the truly distinctive features of the American government is the role and influence of the core funds. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist (for an example, see Rene A. Wormser’s 1958 volume Foundations: Their Power and Influence) to recognize the strong presence of these charities.

Here’s one example: In his magisterial biography of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, James H. Jones examines in great detail how funding from the Rockefeller Foundation influenced academic research through heavy support from the National Research Council and how it set the agenda for sex research through funding for the Committee on the Study of Sex .

Unfortunately, historical research on the influence and impact of foundations remains fragmented, despite the valiant efforts of scholars such as the late Peter Dobkin Hall, one of the giants in the study of American philanthropy and nonprofit history, who played a leading role in the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and of Voluntary Action, the Yale Program on Nonprofit Organizations, and Harvard’s Hauser Institute for Civil Society until his death in 2015.

Now, in his fascinating study of the origins of the American higher education reform movement, Other public collegesEthan W. Rees, who teaches educational leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno, examines the early 1920s in detail.thousand century Rockefeller and Carnegie efforts to rationalize American higher education and the backlash caused by these initiatives.

Just as banker JP Morgan sought to rationalize the American economy, reduce competition, and stabilize profits through a process of consolidation, creating industrial giants such as General Electric, US Steel, and International Harvester, reorganizing the nation’s railroad system, and insisting that companies adopt modern approaches to organizational management, foundations founded by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie sought to restructure, rationalize, and professionalize American higher education and transform it into a holistic system. Indeed, as Rees points out, the reorganization of higher education was one of their top priorities, predating later health and poverty initiatives.

Using the power of the purse, the Carnegie Endowment has helped standardize the student experience and faculty workload around the credit hour. In exchange for funding teacher pensions, the foundation required the institutions it supports to require entering students to complete a high school preparatory program and force the institutions to adopt a 4-year course of study for graduation. In addition, the Foundation supported a certification system that determined which institutions met minimum quality standards.

Standardization and social efficiency were key parts of the foundation’s vision; so was another defining feature of the new industrial order, the differentiation of functions. To reduce redundancy, “academic engineers” (as Rhys calls the reformers) wanted institutions with fewer resources to disappear or become vocational or industrial institutions, regular colleges, or junior colleges.

Among the book’s many strengths is its stark rejection of teleology. Far from being an inevitable byproduct of impersonal economic, bureaucratic, and organizational forces, the modernization of the American higher education system was the product of previously hidden politics that led to an uneasy compromise between a founding vision—a highly hierarchical system headed by about 100 elite institutions—and a pluralistic, decentralized ideal, without central supervision or coordination.

Today’s higher education ecosystem combines elements of both visions. It is highly stratified in terms of prestige, wealth and student qualifications. But the landscape is also very accessible to those who can pay the price, and very diverse in terms of institutional size, mission, geography, and resources. It also consists of many organizations: the Association of American Universities (for large research universities), the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and many others.

Notably, the results in university education differed sharply from what happened in law and medical education, which the funders also sought to reform, and where their efforts to standardize curricula and eliminate supposedly weak institutions proved far more successful. The Flexner Report of 1910, prepared with the support of the Carnegie Endowment, not only led to the elimination of private medical schools, which taught many women and African Americans, but also placed the study of the medical and biological sciences at the core of the medical school curriculum. , by teaching the art of medical practice.

Somewhat similar developments occurred in legal education, when reformers succeeded in eliminating not only many of their own schools that served as “ethnic lawyers,” but also the old practice of reading and studying law.

Rather than training lawyers to practice law, the reformed law schools were more like liberal arts colleges than graduate schools that actually trained engineers and architects to practice their profession.

As an astute legal commentator under the pseudonym Unemployed Northeastern observed in an email, “it’s all too possible to graduate [from law school] without drafting, editing, arguing, or even SEEING any legal documents. Or step into the courtroom. Or knowing how to file things well enough to be able to step foot in a courtroom. Or a conversation with a client. Or learning how to properly handle client money (almost certainly the #1 thing that gets lawyers in disciplinary trouble). Or have an internship/internship/co-op/field experience worth a damn. Or write any work outside of the final exams.”

Rhys’s book is both an impressive historical work, based on extensive archival research, and a treatise for our time, offering a highly critical view of the power and influence of the foundation, which in the first third of the 20th century.thousand century, as a rule, was very elitist and class.

My own experience with foundations has been quite positive. It is certainly true that many large foundations have embraced “strategic philanthropy.” This is an approach where the foundation staff sets the agenda and publishes an open call for proposals or invites predetermined schools to apply. Does this approach prescribe? yes. But in my opinion, it produced more significant results than a less focused approach.

Indeed, many of the most exciting and impactful innovations in higher education, such as CUNY’s ASAP and TOP (Transfer Opportunity Project) initiatives, would not exist without philanthropic support.

I’ve been particularly impressed by smaller foundations that punch well above their weight class, such as Arnold Ventures and its evidence-based giving strategy, and especially the Teagle Foundation to advance the humanities. Their imprimatur makes all the difference in the world in trying to leverage institutional resources.

A provost once told me, “If a project is worth it, someone else should pay for it.” Wise words. The real test of an innovation’s value, its scalability and replicability is whether a foundation is willing to invest in it.

I was fortunate enough to receive just such investments at crucial moments in my own career: y Digital history a site used by tens of thousands of individual IP addresses each week that has received support from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Or two projects funded by the Teagle Foundation: the College of Psychological Science and Student Learning at Columbia University and a series of virtual tours at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley that allowed students to explore diseases and medical conditions tested on the MCAT through five lenses: the patient experience , biomedical sciences, socioeconomic issues, medical history, and interprofessional care. Support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute helped create an integrated, competency-aligned biomedical course at UTRGV.

Money is power, and power can certainly be used for good or evil. I look at the history that Rhys has so masterfully reconstructed, and my reaction is somewhat different from his. Whatever mistakes and misjudgments foundations have made in the past, I am convinced that these institutions are among the best partners educational innovators can find.

I strongly encourage you to reach out to foundation staff and find out what they think are the biggest challenges facing higher education and the kinds of solutions their foundations are funding. The job of program managers is to survey the landscape, identify the most innovative and effective practices, and apply them at scale.

A strong case can be made that fundamentals are real, if unsung, engines of academic innovation. While some of their initiatives have failed or proved misguided, the fact remains that foundations that support higher education are the risk-takers, visionaries, and allies that colleges and universities need if we are to solve the problem of we face: How to give all students the same educational opportunities that those who attend the most selective institutions with rich resources or who go to an honors college feel are right.

Stephen Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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