The Political Theory Project: thinking uncomfortable thoughts

Thursday, October 30, 2008

To the Editor:

The Herald recently criticized the Political Theory Project for accepting donations from a conservative group and a libertarian group. The editors proposed that the Project (and presumably the University as a whole) refuse any donations from groups with an “intellectual agenda,” since only by doing so can we remain intellectually pristine.

With respect to the Political Theory Project, the editors’ criticism is puzzling on its face. The largest new donor to the Project this year is a self-described “committed Democrat” (a full list of the Project’s donors is posted on our Web site, and has been for several years). On the editors’ theory, in which ideological direction is the Project in danger of truckling: conservative, liberal or libertarian? (These are three very different views, by the way). In any case, donors to the Project, no matter what their political orientation, have absolutely no role in the Project’s substantive decisions. The Project’s postdoctoral fellows are selected by Brown faculty; the topics and speakers at our Janus Lectures are chosen by the Project’s student group, the Janus Forum. The Project’s complete autonomy regarding all such choices is non-negotiable. (Indeed, two years ago the Project returned a check to a group that sought, howsoever gently, to recommend speakers.)

Of course, in one important sense the Project is not insulated from the evaluations of outsiders: Brown is a private university, so supporters can walk away if they don’t like the choices we make. Regrettably, this sometimes happens. Last year, a Florida alum was so unhappy that the Project’s student group included Ambassador John Bolton in a Janus event about the United Nations that he decided not to contribute to the Project. Another alum, with a different temperament, expressed outrage that the Project brought the feminist Catharine MacKinnon to campus. But we refuse to be pressured in any one ideological direction. To ideologues of all stripes, I suppose, the Political Theory Project is an equal opportunity disappointer.

More generally, I disagree with the editors’ proposal that the University refuse donations from people with a political agenda. Unless one invokes an exceptionally narrow view of the “political,” this would lead to lots of dilemmas (Should Brown accept money from Jane Fonda? How about the Ford Foundation? What about the donor who designates her gift to financial aid because she thinks education is a social justice issue?). A better approach is the one that I understand Brown actually to take: We accept designated contributions to University-identified priorities only on the condition that there be no strings attached.

I do not mean to underestimate the moral dilemmas of fundraising. Infamously, it’s not always easy to say what counts as a string (if a swimmy alum offers $10 million for a new pool but not for a new library, but the library is a higher priority than the pool, is that a string?). There is a deeper sense in which I agree with the spirit of the editors’ argument, if not the argument they actually penned. A campus group that works with explosive political topics, as the Political Theory Project does, has a special obligation a) to insulate its decisions from outsiders and b) to seek funding from as broad and diverse a group of donors as possible. With advice from Brown’s Development Office, and with guidance from administrators, faculty and students, the Project is working hard to meet these obligations. As the founding director of the Political Theory Project, I welcome your advice, suggestions and, yes, your donations too.

John TomasiAssociate Professor of Political ScienceDirector, Political Theory ProjectOct. 29