Big university donors are distorting research agendas

Kenneth Griffin’s $300 million donation to Harvard is unusual in not being tied to pet ideological causes, says Naomi Oreskes  

April 17, 2023
Source: Getty
Kenneth Griffin

A few days ago, I arrived in Los Angeles for a three-month sabbatical from Harvard. I’m renting an apartment in a gorgeous downtown building complete with rooftop pool, hot tub, gym and yoga studio. But across the street is Pershing Plaza, where every night dozens of homeless people sleep rough. In the mornings, my dog is perplexed by the sight of humans, like dogs, peeing on the streets. If she could speak, I imagine her saying: “LA is a rich city, California is a rich state and America is a rich country. Can’t you humans fix this?”

Meanwhile, I read in the Harvard Gazette about the new $300 million (£242 million) gift by hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin to the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which will see its graduate school renamed in his honour. Tax-deductible it may be, but it’s still a generous gift, especially because graduate programmes are often orphans in the philanthropic portfolio. I may even personally benefit if Griffin funds end up supporting graduate students in my department.

The Griffin gift is also laudable for being unrestricted. This distinguishes it from most other philanthropic gifts, whose attached strings tend to support programmes aligned with the wealthy donor’s values and belief system.

In our new book, The Big Myth, Erik Conway and I show how the post-war rise to power and influence of the Chicago School of Economics was in part the product of libertarian philanthropists who funded specific research programmes, hand-picked like-minded researchers, and funded them generously. The likes of George Stigler and Milton Friedman were part of an explicit “Free Market Project” to create a blueprint for “an effective competitive system” of free enterprise (but without competition from colleagues who held opposing views).

One element was called the Antitrust Project, although in reality it was the opposite. Both classical and neoclassical economics saw competition as central to the workings of markets, but members of the Antitrust Project constructed an economic analogy to Darwin’s theory of natural selection to argue that monopolies were the natural outcome of competition in which the “fittest” company survived. Hence, government attempts to break up monopolies were undoing the market’s good work.

The project’s most famous product was Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s failed nominee for the Supreme Court. Bork insisted that what mattered was not competition but price. As long as prices were low, it didn’t matter how they were achieved. This became known as the Consumer Welfare Standard. The term is misleading since prices are not the only thing that matters to consumers, but Bork was a brilliant jurist and his arguments fuelled the case not only for deregulating monopolies, such as airlines and telecommunications, in the 1970s and 1980s, but for undermining antitrust enforcement for more than 40 years.

This contributed to the rise of politically, socially and environmentally damaging monopolies in telecommunications, agriculture, retailing and more. And, in a noxious feedback loop, the concentration of wealth enabled the owners of these monopolies to further influence academia. Law professor Herbert Hovenkamp has recently concluded that what kept the Chicago School alive was less the strength of its arguments and more “the financial support of firms and others who stood to profit from less intervention”.

This is one example among many. Historian Nancy MacLean has documented how the Koch brothers have donated huge sums intended to influence academic programmes in a libertarian direction. This includes nearly $50 million given since 2005 to the George Mason University Foundation, a big slice of which has supported the university’s market-fundamentalist Mercatus Center, infamous among climate scientists for its many years spent denying climate science.

Researchers at Brown University have shown how many universities – Brown included – have accepted fossil fuel money that may be skewing climate research. At Harvard, for many years convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein funded programmes focused on the genetic origins of human behaviour with a creepy eugenic bent. More recently, Bill Gates has funded a climate programme dedicated to advancing geo-engineering.

Some people will agree with the politics and ideologies behind these donations; that is their right. The problem is that philanthropic donations distort the “marketplace” of ideas, because they tilt the agenda of universities towards views and solutions favoured by the wealthy at the expense of open enquiry and a more capacious research agenda that focuses not just on technical and commercial approaches to market failures but also social and political ones.

After all, where is the libertarian billionaire prepared to fund a serious effort to understand and end homelessness? Griffin, a Republican mega-donor, is certainly not that billionaire. Nor is he doing anything for equality in US higher education; as our research also underlined, he is typical of philanthropists in favouring private universities, many of which, like Harvard, are already super-rich (McKenzie Scott’s recent $2.7 billion gift to institutions serving under-represented students was as notable as it was rare).

But if it makes good use of Griffin’s unrestricted donation, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences may at least be able to make some progress towards understanding and addressing the causes of homelessness – and ending the obscenity of people being forced to live like dogs.

Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a visiting fellow at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. Her new book, with Erik M. Conway, is The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, published by Bloomsbury Press.

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Reader's comments (1)

Actually examine the actions and statements of the donor of $300 M for naming rights to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science and argue that the donation does not influence research and teaching, and general orientation equate to a fundamental lack of understanding of the author's declared field of the history of science. This carries no credibility at all


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