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Friday, February 15, 2013

Furman University: A Beachhead for Truth-Seeking

Two North Carolina retirees foster the creation of a model program at Furman University.

Campus (Furman Mall fountains), Furman University
Campus (Furman Mall fountains), Furman University

From The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
By Jane S. Shaw

What can be done about the ideological tilt at colleges and universities?  At times, it seems as though the Ivory Tower will be forever lost in a fog of political correctness and collectivist dogma.

Yet there have been some positive developments. A number of donors—individuals and organizations—are finding that they can make a difference in the fight to restore objective analysis and the search for truth. Through their efforts, small islands of intellectual rigor and appreciation of the foundations of Western civilization in our universities are popping up, even in bastions of rigid anti-Western thought.

Most are modest, sometimes mere “programs,” some involving just a professor or two. Typically, outside funding enables a professor to teach a course in, say, the roots of liberal democracy. Or a series of speakers fosters ideas neglected on the campus, such as the history of economic thought. Such programs can cost as little as $20,000 a year, or they can involve millions.

The programs have names like the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke, and the Tocqueville Program at Furman University.

The Tocqueville Program, which has been in operation for about seven years, illustrates how two individuals, a North Carolina husband and wife who have education “in their bones,” can help a program that elevates often neglected but crucial topics.

Furman is a respected liberal arts college in Greenville, South Carolina, with an undergraduate enrollment of about 2500. Affiliated early on with the Southern Baptist Convention, it separated from the convention in 1992. Like many small, once-religious colleges cut off from their moorings, it maintains a traditional aura while also advancing trendy ideas such as sustainability.

Enter the MacNeils, who helped two professors find the funds to give greater attention to classical political philosophy. The Tocqueville Program provides for a speakers’ series and a seminar each year in political thought, with the specific topic changing each year.

Naming the program for Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French author, reflects a desire to inform students today about the relevance of traditional political philosophy. Benjamin Storey, one of the two directors, says that studying Tocqueville helps today’s students acquire “both an understanding of the distinctive principles of modern liberal democracy, as well as an appreciation of the enduring questions addressed by the broader Western tradition.”

The current theme is based on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, his masterpiece of analysis (and 1835 best-seller). The program, however, does not focus on Tocqueville alone; the first year’s project applied traditional political philosophy to a modern issue, biotechnology.

This venture wasn’t the MacNeils’ first attempt at raising the intellectual discourse on college campuses through service, philanthropy, and fund-raising. Until 2001, they spent their professional lives in Wisconsin, where Ginny MacNeil served on the University of Wisconsin’s board of regents and her husband, Sandy, was involved in a variety of businesses and philanthropic endeavors. They moved to North Carolina “for an adventure,” Ginny says, and they settled in a small town near Hendersonville.

The MacNeils had come up against the forces of political correctness in one of their attempts to help restore traditional scholarship in academia. They are reluctant to discuss the matter out of loyalty to their alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and to their former home state. But others have told the story.

Before his death, Stephen Ambrose, the famous historian and specialist in World War II, began providing funds to create a chair to honor his University of Wisconsin professor William Hesseltine. Actually placing someone in the chair took years. Many liberals consider the specific topic of the chair, military history, to be illegitimate, and because of their objections, it was difficult to persuade UW-Madison to find a professor.

Thus, it was a process with many stops and starts. The process concluded with the appointment of an ethnohistorian whose best-known research is in the Black Hawk War, probably not what Ambrose was thinking of.

Once in North Carolina, the MacNeils still wanted to help foster quality education but weren’t sure how. Then they read an article in the Weekly Standard, “The Left University,” by James Piereson, which traces the ideological history of today’s university. Piereson explains how nineteenth-century theorists in the university “laid the intellectual groundwork for political Progressives”; then, in the 1960s this progressive university was swept by “radical preoccupations with cultural change” and became “the left university.”

Surprisingly, Piereson ended his article on a positive note. He referred to a growing movement to change the university—not by making the left university the right university (which would be impossible, anyway) but by restoring the “search for truth, and respect for the heritage of free institutions.” Among the efforts mentioned were Madison Program at Princeton, the Gerst Program at Duke, and the Political Theory Project at Brown. Such centers, he wrote, “represent just the leading edge of a growing movement to challenge the practices of the left university.”

“That inspired us,” says Ginny MacNeil, “It was almost like a gift from God.”

They set about to find a smaller, nearby university with professors who shared their interests in objectivity and traditional education. They discovered Furman, where two political science professors, Benjamin Storey and Aristide Tessitore, wanted to help their students delve more deeply into political thought. And the Tocqueville Program was born.

The MacNeils became tireless fund-raisers for their new collaboration with Storey and Tessitore. The MacNeils explicitly promised the university that they would not “poach” on the university’s fund-raising, and they found enthusiastic donors outside the university’s normal base of funds. Today, the program has funding from several foundations and has become so valuable to the university that the university itself is using it as a fund-raising tool. Sandy MacNeil has written the program into his will.

Meanwhile, Ben Storey says that the classes are always filled to capacity, and graduates of the program have gone on to places such as Baylor University, Boston College, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the American Enterprise Institute.

In sum, to create a center “dedicated to the study of political liberty and the history of free institutions” you need two things: committed professors and energetic donors. Today, Furman University has both. Perhaps tomorrow, others will emulate the example of the MacNeils and, together, revitalize academia.

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