Campus Centers Sowing the Seeds of Important Ideas

Ashley Thorne

As American higher education in recent decades has sought to rid itself of traditional ideas, those ideas have found their way back to college campuses, though in a different form. It’s rather like blowing the seeds off a dandelion – they scatter, but then they take root in new places. With the loss of core curricula in the university and the rise of identity studies, teaching on Western civilization, American civics, free enterprise, and the Great Books have been relegated to the margins of the course catalog.

But there are still serious students, faculty members, and citizens with zeal for these subjects, and many have found homes at campus centers dedicated to such teaching. These centers offer special courses, speakers, and fellowships that otherwise might not exist at that college. Most importantly, they seek to model the features that ought to be intrinsic to the academy – openness to multiple arguments, civil debate, appreciation of history, and love of learning.

NAS’s founding president Stephen Balch was instrumental in setting up a number of these centers, working with NAS faculty members and interested donors. On our website, NAS provides a list of over 50 centers, with descriptions of each one.

Recently Jay Schalin at the Pope Center published a report on the activities and status of such campus programs. His paper, “Renewal in the University,” discusses the difficulties that these programs face from being unfairly labeled as conservative political groups. He wrote, “In 2008, an article appeared in the New York Times describing the new centers as conservative ‘beachheads,’ a militaristic term suggestive of invasion and conquest.” One result of that Times article was the firing of NAS board member Rob Koons from the presidency of the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas.

Other campus centers have also faced criticism. The Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI) at Hamilton College was given a historic $3.6 million gift for history professor Robert Paquette and two other professors to direct it. The faculty of the College, however, tried to take control of the center, and the Institute decided to move off campus. The Hamilton Institute is thriving, and several recent graduates who participated in the program came to the New York City event launching Schalin’s report. One student attested that he had come to Hamilton as a “typical liberal student” and that he was grateful for what he learned at AHI, which was where he said most of his education took place.

At Princeton University, the James Madison Program, led by professor of jurisprudence Robert P. George, sets the example of how successful a program like this can be. As Schalin points out, its health derives from several factors, including its direct ties to the Princeton political science department, its friendly debates between George and Cornel West, and the popularity of George himself.

The greatest challenge facing campus centers today is sustainability – keeping the enterprise going when it’s time for the founding leader to step down. Like dandelions, the centers may change form or disappear for a season, but the ideas will have taken root, and they have proven to be enduring.


Image: Fox 5 San Diego

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