New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education / Philanthropy and Inequality

Conservative Philanthropy’s War Against Race and Gender Studies in U.S. Higher Education

Editors’ Note: Introducing her 2013 article, “Movement Conservatism and the Attack on Ethnic Studies,” published in Race, Ethnicity and Education, Donna J. Nicol argues that conservative philanthropy during the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s targeted ethnic and gender studies because these disciplines called into question who had the right to determine what constitutes U.S. values and specifically provided a critique of traditional politics, culture, and social affairs.

In White Money/Black Power (2006), Africana Studies scholar Noliwe Rooks notes that the Ford Foundation’s president McGeorge Bundy agreed to finance minority and women’s fellowships to help curtail Black student activism in the 1960’s. This request for financial support came from U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, Rooks says. The Ford Foundation encouraged campus leaders to give into Black student demands for the creation of a Black Studies program to keep these students so pre-occupied with academics that they would not be lured into more radical politics like that of the Black Panther Party or Students for a Democratic Society. The Ford Foundation dominated charitable giving of higher education programs for nearly four decades before a new form of conservative investment began again in earnest in the 1970’s with the creation of the Heritage Foundation.

Complementing Rooks’ examination of the role of philanthropic organizations in shaping higher education during the second half of the 20th century, though taking a particular focus on the role of conservative philanthropies and conservative think tanks such as Heritage, my 2013 article, “Movement Conservatism and the Attack on Ethnic Studies,” describes a modern articulation of conservative philanthropy known as “movement conservatism.”

By conservative philanthropy, I mean philanthropic support by business and political leaders or organizations holding in common one or more of these values: (1) a belief in laissez-faire capitalism, (2) a belief in traditionalism, which is an ideology that advocates for maintenance of the social order through religion and patriotism that often translates into a belief in the submission of women and separation and subordination of the races and (3) a strong support for anti-communism, even going as far as supporting “pre-emptive war” as a means of curtailing the spread of communism.

Movement conservatism seeks to preserve the economic social order by funneling millions of dollars into U.S. colleges and universities to respond to critics of the free enterprise system. With the aid of financial support from various conservative foundations, think tanks, and public policy institutes in the U.S., movement conservatism ushered in a new era of conservative social action in the second half of the twentieth century.

Fueled by receipt of a confidential memo written by Lewis F. Powell in 1971, who was then Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, claiming that there was a broad attack on the free market system, business executives such as Adolph Coors felt encouraged to use charitable giving to take action against the attack which Powell says was happening in four key areas of U.S. society: higher education, the media, politics, and the courts. Coors, for example, provided $250,000 in seed money for the creation of the Heritage Foundation which became the main conservative think tank and funding intermediary to date.

In this memo, Powell charged that social sciences faculty, in particular, were highly critical of the capitalist system and he called upon U.S. Chamber of Commerce members to assist in establishing a staff of pro-enterprise system scholars and speakers to: (1) evaluate social science textbooks; (2) demand balance in the hiring of new faculty; (3) build relationships with graduate schools of business through offering internships and career placement; and (4) insist upon equal time on the college speaking circuit to challenge the attack on the enterprise system.  William E. Simon, former Treasury Secretary under Nixon and Ford echoed Powell’s calls for greater involvement of U.S. business leaders in financing and shaping higher education when he encouraged, “Funds generated by business…must rush by the multimillions to the aid of liberty…to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty.” (Simon, 1979, p. 230). Simon was very active during this period of movement conservatism, having served as president for the John Olin Foundation, co-founder of the Madison Center for Educational Affairs and serving on the boards of the Heritage and John Templeton Foundations and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Similar to Powell’s critique of social science faculty, William Bennett, who served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later as Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, published a report in 1984, entitled To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, where he claimed that, ‘The humanities, and particularly the study of Western civilization, have lost their central place in the undergraduate curriculum’ (Bennett 1984, 1). Bennett charged that sixties radicals were threatening a precious U.S. heritage in the name of a more inclusive curriculum as these ‘radicals’ were now deeply entrenched in the nation’s colleges and universities as humanities faculty. This report, along with Bennett’s critique of Stanford University’s decision to add more works from women and people of color into a Western Civilization course required for all freshmen students, launched the Academic Culture Wars in 1985.

For nearly a decade after Powell’s call was made, dozens of conservative philanthropic organizations such as the Coors, Scaife, Olin and Bradley Foundation have committed philanthropic support to conservative educational initiatives such as high stakes testing, charter schools, the repeal of affirmative action laws, and the elimination of ethnic and gender studies programs through the U.S. Academic Culture Wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

During the Culture Wars, I contend that movement conservatives targeted ethnic and gender studies because these disciplines called into question who had the right to determine what constitutes U.S. values and specifically provided a critique of traditional politics, culture and social affairs. Reiterating Powell’s claim that the free enterprise system was under attack, think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and academic reform organizations such as the National Association of Scholars feared fields that were established during the Student Movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s such as Black studies and women’s studies relied on cultural relativism in their critique of capitalism and the existing social order.

At the height of the Culture Wars, conservative academic associations targeted ethnic and women’s studies. Utilizing the more than $20 million dollars in annual support from philanthropic organizations, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the Madison Center for Educational Affairs (MCEA), the Collegiate Network, and the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA) took aim at scholars and scholarship based in ethnic and women’s studies. David Callahan says in “Liberal Policy’s Weak Foundation” that, “By strategically leveraging their resources, conservative foundations have engineered the rise of a right wing intelligentsia that has come to wield enormous influence in national policy debates.” Organizations such as NAS with an operating budget of over $1.05 million dollars in 1994 focused criticisms of ethnic studies and women’s studies through their quarterly journal, Academic Questions. For example, NAS member Thomas Short claimed that “Black studies seemed a small exception to the principle that the curriculum should not be determined by political objectives; but before we knew it, feminism was also establishing its claim to be part of the curriculum, and then to all of it.” (Short, 1988, 8). Short went a step further to suggest that ‘inferior works’ by minority and women authors were replacing the ‘great books,’ by noting: “There is a familiar charge that the traditional curriculum unjustly neglects the contributions of women, black Americans and other ethnic groups. This charge is much weakened by the current celebration of inferior works chosen simply on the basis of the race and sex of the authors.” (Short 1988, 10).

According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the conservative monies given to higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s were targeted and multi-dimensional. The NCRP reported that from 1992-1994, twelve of these conservative philanthropic foundations provided over $88.9 million dollars in grant monies to individual scholars, research institutes, academic study programs and public policy centers with the aim to support and extend the theoretical and philosophical basis for free market economics and limited government.

A secondary goal of this conservative investment was to establish a network of faculty, students, alumni and trustees who would oppose progressive curricula such as women’s and ethnic studies. To achieve this particular goal, members of this network of academic conservatives launched an attack on ‘liberal’ higher education commonly known as the academic Culture Wars, claiming liberalism eroded academic standards and denied conservative faculty and students their right to academic freedom. Movement conservatives believed that U.S. higher education faced the erosion of standards and the silencing of dissent by liberal faculty and administrators, which necessitated changes in U.S. higher education policy regarding admissions, curricular decisions and faculty hiring by these conservative donors.

In a 1994 report on the political correctness (or PC) debates which were at the center of the Culture Wars, the National Council for Research on Women found that media coverage of these debates (which were largely funded by conservative foundations, think tanks and academic reform organizations) exploded from 101 articles in newspapers and journals in 1988 to over 3,989 articles in 1991. The PC conspiracy provided an irresistible opportunity for the print media to attract more readers with sensationalized headlines, graphics, and stories that play on the deepest fears of white, middle-class Americans. Books and editorials about the “malaise of American liberal arts education” by conservative scholars such as Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball were funded by conservative foundations such as the John Olin and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations, which were providing the intellectual basis for the Culture Wars.

From 1988 through 2005, for example, the NAS received over $10 million dollars in grants from different conservative philanthropies, most notably the Olin, Bradley, Scaife, Coors and Smith Richardson foundations to support a wide range of programs (Foundation Center 1984–2005). The NAS, in turn, used these grants to fund conservative student newspapers such as the Dartmouth Review, internships to train conservative student activists, established endowed fellowships for conservative scholars, and financed conservative educational policy institutes such as the Madison Center for Educational Achievement (MCEA). The National Center for Public Policy Research, using donations and grants from various conservative foundations and corporations including the Carthage, Castlerock, Scaife and Earhart foundations and ExxonMobil, created an African American conservative speakers’ bureau called Project 21 in 1992. Several members of Project 21, including economist Thomas Sowell, author Shelby Steele and conservative businessman and University of California regent Ward Connerly, were particularly outspoken against ethnic and gender studies and affirmative action during the Culture Wars with Steele going on the record to claim that ethnic studies was a sundry manifestation of the liberal welfare state (Steele, 1992, 2).

Education policy scholar Joel Spring refers to the establishment of webs of interlocking conservative foundations and think tanks and the subsequent dissemination of the research supported by these organizations as ‘the trickle-down theory of ideas’ (Spring 2002). This theory holds that in trying to save the country from liberal scholars who have been the intellectual architects of a ‘suicidal’ course of an expanding welfare state, conservatives needed to identify and train a group of intellectuals that would promote a general understanding of the importance of the free market (Spring 2002). Thus, projects funded by conservative foundations such as conservative speakers’ bureaus and internships to train conservative activists worked as a counter-argument against critics of the free enterprise system. In the case of ethnic and gender studies, these initiatives affected the very survival of these disciplines in the academy by using race and gender based rhetoric to an unsuspecting public, who most likely viewed the Culture Wars as a simple ideological debate rather than a calculated, concerted effort on the part of movement conservatives to dismantle and rid the academy of academic fields that critiqued the existing social order.

As a result of this heightened public attention to issues involving hate speech on campus, sexual harassment cases, curricular reform and race and gender debates in the classroom, ethnic and gender studies programs experienced public and institutional backlash ranging from letter writing campaigns against proposed invited speakers to the loss of institutional support for new faculty hires. During this period, several feminist scholars had their cars vandalized and received hate mail as was the case with feminist religious studies scholar Jane Schaberg at the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1993. Conservative lawmakers and university trustees asked the University of California at Santa Cruz to revoke a $75,000 award to activist-scholar Angela Davis after it was decided that the fall-out from Davis’ past was too much to bear. California state senator Bill Leonard even likened Davis to a “leftist equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan.” Ethnic studies faculty experienced similar backlash as gender studies faculty and often had to deal with students’ accusation of “reverse racism” through teaching evaluations and student complaints. Ward Connerly even called for an end to cultural graduation celebrations because they “promoted the balkanization of the nation” following his successful campaign to pass Proposition 209 in California, which ended race and gender based preferences in state hiring, contracting and state university admissions in 1996.  To fund this anti-affirmative action consulting work, Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute received more than that $2.1 million in contributions from the Bradley, Olin and Scaife foundations.

In blunting the effects of the Culture Wars backlash, ethnic and gender studies programs at research institutions such as the University of Wisconsin were able to fare better than their comprehensive university counterparts such as California State Universities. For example, at the University of Wisconsin, the local chapter of the National Association of Scholars made occasional calls to university administrators calling for the dismantling of the African American Studies program but the success of this program in securing research grants and having the support of powerful administrators such as University of Wisconsin Chancellor Donna Shalala shielded the program from too much intrusion from external forces. On the other hand, at comprehensive universities such as the California State Universities, ethnic and women’s studies programs had to work to get diversity requirements on the state ballot as a way to meet enrollment standards particularly after the Culture Wars backlash led to a decrease in student enrollment at places such as California State University Northridge. In some comprehensive universities, ethnic and gender studies programs were prohibited from hiring additional faculty until the controversy of the Culture Wars died down or the academic rigor and viability of these fields could be proven. At California State University Fullerton, a former provost proposed collapsing ethnic studies and women’s studies together under one department as a punitive measure for declining student enrollments during this period.  We see that institutional type played a significant role in how ethnic and gender studies programs were able to manage to stay afloat during this very contentious period.

Generally, the ability to resist encroachment by outside groups was directly tied to an institution’s research endowment, donor base, and powerful administrators and trustees, making comprehensive state universities particularly vulnerable to these external forces. Ethnic and gender studies programs were more likely to experience budgetary and personnel cuts at comprehensive universities because there is a commonly held belief that these programs are not useful to students since many of these universities were established through statutory provisions to prepare the next generation of teachers. Movement conservatives believe that discussions of what they deem ‘identity politics’ has no place in the K-12 classroom and therefore have no place in the university. Even if these conservative foundations and the groups they financed were unable to totally get rid of ethnic and gender studies programs, they were able to cast enough doubt about the utility of multicultural education in U.S. colleges and universities.

Today, as universities move rapidly toward even greater corporatization, it is important to look at the historical precedents which gave us this trend.  The corporate university has been over a century in the making with women and people of color feeling the effects most acutely as they pursued an education as a means of invoking their rights as citizens and as they sought inclusion in the university curriculum. I am not sure what the remedy to all of this should be, but failure to understand how conservative philanthropy worked to limit and control educational access for women and people of color has made it possible for the corporatization of the university to flourish. We can ill-afford to assume that movement conservatives are simply ignorant racists and sexists who are unable to galvanize a movement. As conservative political philosopher Robert Weaver once wrote in 1948, “Ideas Have Consequences.” And movement conservatives—from Lynde and Harry Bradley to the Koch brothers—were encouraged by Lewis F. Powell and other influential conservative thinkers to embrace the strategy that to legitimize your ideas, you fund it with your own cash.

-Donna J. Nicol

Donna J. Nicol is an Associate Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills.  Her research focuses on African American educational history and the politics of ethnic and gender studies curriculum. She is currently working on a book-length project which examines an understudied but important area in the history of U.S. higher education – the role that race and gender play in the exercise of university trustee power. You can follow her work at


Bennett, William, J. 1984. To Reclaim A Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bennett, William J. 1992. The Devaluing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Callahan, David. 1995. “Liberal Policy’s Weak Foundation.” The Nation.

Clark, Veve, Shirley N. Garner, Margaret Higonnet, and Ketu Katrak. 1996. Antifeminism in the Academy. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Kristol, Irving. 1991. “The Tragedy of Multiculturalism.” Wall Street Journal: A10.

Nicol, Donna, J. (2013): Movement conservatism and the attack on ethnic studies, Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI:10.1080/13613324.2013.792794

National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. 1997. Moving a National Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations. Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Powell, Lewis F. 1971. Powell Memorandum: The Attack on the Free Enterprise System. Book 1: Powell Papers. Lexington, VA: Washington and Lee University School of Law.

Rooks, Noliwe. 2007. White Money/Black Power: African American Studies and the Crises of Race in Higher Education. Beacon Press.

Schultz, Debra L. 1993. To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the “Political Correctness” Debates in Higher Education. New York: National Council for Research on Women.

Short, Thomas. 1988. “Diversity and Breaking the disciplines: Two new assaults on the curriculum.” Academic Questions 1 (3): 6–29.

Simon, William. 1979. A Time for Truth. New York: Berkley Publishing Company.

Spring, Joel. 2002. Political Agendas for Education: From the Religious Right to the Green Party. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erbaum Associates.

Steele, Shelby. 1992. “The New Segregation.” Imprimus, August, 21, 1–4.

Weaver, Richard M. 1948/1984. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2 thoughts on “Conservative Philanthropy’s War Against Race and Gender Studies in U.S. Higher Education

  1. Professor Nicol and other historians of philanthropy would do a better job of critiquing conservative foundations and the program officers who work for them if they would abandon martial metaphors in describing what these foundations do. The program officers are not generals, they do not wage war, and they do not have battles. They do what their liberal counterparts do: they support scholars and nonprofits. Using martial metaphors distorts what conservative foundations do and weakens criticisms of them.

    Lynde Bradley died in 1942 and Harry Bradley died in 1965. How could they be influenced by a report Lewis Powell wrote in 1971?


    • Thank you Martin for you comment. However, I must point out that my use of the term “war” comes directly from that which these conservative foundations funded – The Academic Culture Wars. But more importantly, many conservative politicians and pundits used the language of “war” to describe this ideological battle in US higher education, religion, politics and so forth. Pat Buchanan often said that conservatives were in a “Culture War for the Soul of America” and Newt Gingrich used and continues to use such metaphors to this day. Likewise, Lewis F. Powell utilized similar “marital metaphors” in his memo including words like attack, assault, extremists, etc. Conservatives used the language of war to express the urgency by which they needed to act so my use of the term “war” comes from their own popular lexicon.

      Program officers at conservative foundations have political agendas just as ones at liberal foundations do. Likewise, they are guided by boards of directors who tell them which projects to target often to align their political beliefs. So yes, Harry Bradley died in 1965 but the Bradley Foundation was committed to conservative principles and funding very specific educational policies influenced by the recommendations of Powell, Simon, Bennett and others. For example, Bradley Foundation funded several a school choice/voucher projects in Wisconsin around the same time that William Bennett was promoting school choice as the Reagan administration’s Mandate for Change Education Policy Proposal. Bennett also received $75,000 through his Empower America think tank which promoted school choice. So yes, program officers can wage “ideological wars.” Finally, I never suggested that liberal foundations were without political motivations for the projects they fund. In fact, my opening paragraph describes how the “liberal” Ford Foundation’s funding of Black and women’s studies was not to advance this field or for altruism; they literally fund Black and women’s studies programs as a political favor to the Johnson administration to quell social unrest in the streets.

      The main point I’m hoping readers get from my article is that race and gender studies programs experienced a great deal of negative public opinion and material consequences as a result of these concerted, strategic organizing efforts or ideological “wars” that were made real through the use of conservative philanthropy.

      –Donna J. Nicol


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