Separation of School and State
June 15, 2011
During my last semester of law school, we read an interesting case for Corporations class, A. P. Smith Mfg. Co. vs. Barlow, 13 N.J. 145, 98 A.2d 581. In this 1953 decision by the New Jersey supreme court, the question (basically) was whether the corporation was allowed to donate money to charity, or whether donating would be an illegal waste of the shareholders’ money. I won’t bore you with the legal details (the court found that the corporation was allowed to make such donations), but listen to some of the testimony in the case:
The company had a factory in East Orange, New Jersey, and “contributed regularly to the local community chest and on occasions to Upsala College in East Orange and Newark University, now part of Rutgers, the State University.” In 1951, the corporation also gave $1,500 to Princeton University (page 147).
The president of the company himself testified that such contributions are not only good for the recipients, but also good for the donor, the corporation—that they are “a sound investment”—because they give the company a good reputation, because the company can later hire well-educated graduates of those universities, and because the public expects corporations to spend some of their money on philanthropy.
That all sounds good, but I was especially interested in this part of the testimony (page 148):
Mr. Irving S. Olds, former chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation, pointed out that corporations have a self-interest in the maintenance of liberal education as the bulwark of good government. He stated that “Capitalism and free enterprise owe their survival in no small degree to the existence of our private, independent universities” and that if American business does not aid in their maintenance it is not “properly protecting the long-range interest of its stockholders, its employees and its customers.” Similarly, Dr. Harold W. Dodds, President of Princeton University, suggested that if private institutions of higher learning were replaced by governmental institutions our society would be vastly different and private enterprise in other fields would fade out rather promptly. Further on he stated that “democratic society will not long endure if it does not nourish within itself strong centers of non-governmental fountains of knowledge, opinions of all sorts not governmentally or politically originated. If the time comes when all these centers are absorbed into government, then freedom as we know it, I submit, is at an end.”
The objecting stockholders have not disputed any of the foregoing testimony nor the showing of great need by Princeton and other private institutions of higher learning and the important public service being rendered by them for democratic government and industry alike.
Now, I can hear another one of my professors in the back of my head saying that we should always ask who the speaker is, when he was speaking, and why. This case comes from the 1950s, during the Cold War, and no doubt that goes a long way toward explaining what these witnesses said. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s not as if all other ages had been prejudiced and ignorant, and our own age impartial and clear-sighted; it’s not as if everything said in a particular era in the past were therefore presumptively false, while everything said in our (also particular) era is true. It’s logically equally possible that the Cold War gave Americans real and urgent reasons to think clearly and deeply about liberty, government, and the relationship between them, and that we have since lazily largely forgotten about all that.
I think those leaders’ testimony was remarkably insightful and far-sighted. I agree: Universities (and, ideally, all schools) should be independent of the government.
In fact, I think our society should have as many independent centers of power as possible, the better to check each other, and especially to check the government. Even more fundamentally, at least for universities, to the extent that the government controls or funds them, we can’t expect them to pursue the truth faithfully, wherever it leads them; instead, to that extent, they will tend to serve their master, the state.
You may be asking what that means concretely: What would the universities discover or say that they won’t today, because they’re beholden to the state? Well, the single biggest thing is the question of the size of government itself: How big is big enough? How high should taxes and spending be? Is this or that thing better accomplished by private actors or by the government?
In our universities today, the answer given is usually in favor of the government. Empirically, the professors are overwhelmingly big-government liberals. For an illustrative concrete example, read about John Lott’s astonishing experience with academia and politics in Montana in the introduction to Freedomnomics.
In short, those corporate philanthropists and academics were right. They did what they could in their time to keep universities independent and our liberal democracy strong, but in our time, to some extent, we have let their dire prediction come to pass: We let “non-governmental fountains of knowledge, opinions of all sorts not governmentally or politically originated” be increasingly “absorbed into government”, and as a result, we do indeed have less freedom.
So much the better for government, perhaps, but so much the worse for us.