An Ivory Tower of Our Own

Frederick M. Hess & Brendan Bell

Current Issue

It is commonly observed that politics is downstream from culture. That's certainly true when it comes to movies, music, television, and literature. But perhaps no cultural institution has more impact on politics than higher education. After all, colleges and universities are in the business of shaping public discourse. They help determine what knowledge is pursued, legitimize bodies of thought, provide a platform for cultural criticism, shape literary canons, develop policy agendas, and hold a privileged place in the public square. It can be tempting to mock academe's navel-gazing and ideological pretensions, but the organizing principles of today's culture clashes — including the left's embrace of "gender fluidity," "cultural appropriation," and "white privilege" — originated in the academy and migrated outwards. The consequences have been profound.

American society, politics, and culture would be healthier if colleges and universities instead enabled a robust dialogue that reflected competing views and values. Lamentably, that is decidedly not the case today — though it may be true that most universities have long fallen short on this score. Sixty years ago, for instance, history departments were dominated by scholars of military history and great men, with little room for scholars of social movements, race, or gender. Now, the situation has utterly flipped; the American Historical Association reports that, by 2015, classes on women and gender had become the most popular subfield in history, with offerings up almost 800% since 1975. Meanwhile, course listings in economic, intellectual, and diplomatic history were reduced by more than half.

Just as the academic monoculture of the 1950s was a problem, so is today's — and the problem is getting worse. In 1989, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, liberal faculty outnumbered conservative faculty by two to one. Twenty-five years later, that gap had expanded to a remarkable five to one. In the social sciences and the humanities — the fields where ideology matters most in determining the questions asked, research pursued, and topics deemed important — the disparity is starker still. In their 2016 book, Passing on the Right, professors Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn note that self-identified conservatives make up only about 10% of social-science faculty and perhaps half that share among humanities scholars. These disparities affect who gets hired at colleges and universities, who enjoys the platform provided by prestigious institutions, what gets researched, and what gets taught.

In response, some academics and advocates have admirably pushed back, launching speaker series, skirmishing over campus speech codes, and suing and shaming in response to especially egregious cases of institutional bias. There are organizations like FIRE and the Heterodox Academy which have called out and challenged the ideological tilt in higher education. Such efforts are important and praiseworthy. There have also been vital efforts to erect campus centers that challenge orthodoxy, as with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

While wholly welcome and sorely needed, these hubs are hamstrung by the reality that they operate as isolated outposts within largely uninviting institutions. As such, they provide perches for individual scholars and offer a redoubt of atypical thought, but they lack the infrastructure, critical mass, or organizational muscle to do much more than that.

What is needed, then, is a place where serious scholars can have the space to pursue questions and subjects that don't fit the progressive orthodoxy at today's most prestigious institutions of higher learning. We need an incubator where promising young intellectuals could pursue their research without being forced to conform to the prevailing ideology, and where they can find the scaffolding — employment, funding, networks, and publication outlets — to enable them to achieve independent viability. What is needed is an ivory tower of our own.

GATEKEEPERS

Though there is no doubt that conservative thought is unwelcome in the academy, it is a mistake to imagine this is the product of a concerted, organized effort to expunge it. The issue is not one of conspiracy but a matter of rhythms, routines, and behaviors that add up to what those on the left might, in another context, term "implicit bias" or "progressive privilege." It is also crucial to recognize that the purge of conservative scholarship doesn't mean there are no conservative scholars. There are, of course, those right-leaning scholars who are accomplished enough and have survived long enough that they eventually become valuable tokens for their universities (and a magnet for research funds). But their ranks are so thinned that the occasional conservative scholar becomes something of a curiosity.

Purposefully or not, the academic ecosystem habitually thins the ranks of aspiring conservative scholars as a matter of course. The result is that the vast bulk of right-leaning or right-adjacent thinkers typically exit the academy before they have a chance to reach professional viability or find themselves steered away from eyebrow-raising lines of inquiry. Meanwhile, those who have no strong ideological predispositions nonetheless absorb the language, expectations, rhythms, and rules of the monoculture.

The mechanisms are by now familiar. Around 15 years ago, Princeton's Robert George explained the consequence of the left's ideological hegemony and how it stymies the emergence of conservative academics:

Here's what I'm thinking when an outstanding kid comes in. If the kid applies to one of the top graduate schools, he's likely to be not admitted. Say he gets past that first screen. He's going to face pressure to conform, or he'll be the victim of discrimination. It's a lot harder to hide then than it was as an undergrad. But say he gets through. He's going to run into intense discrimination trying to find a job. But say he lands a tenure-track job. He'll run into even more intense discrimination because the establishment gets more concerned the closer you get to the golden ring.

Put simply, there is a series of gates through which those who inhabit universities must pass: admission to graduate school, finding a mentor, forging relationships with peers, assembling a dissertation committee, seeking letters of recommendation, applying for postdoctoral fellowships or positions, pursuing research funding and journal publication, seeking tenure, and so on. At every one of these stages, academe selects against those inclined to ask "irrelevant" questions or test "problematic" hypotheses — creating a Darwinian process that's brutally effective at weeding out those inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don't comport with regnant mores.

Crucially, much of the bias in today's academy is driven by inertia as much as ideology. It's striking to observe how many otherwise-apolitical graduate students and junior faculty unthinkingly absorb the language and assumptions of the left simply as a practical accommodation — because it helps them get along, get papers accepted, and find respect among their peers. In an alternative milieu, many might grow to academic maturity with a more iconoclastic mindset.

When it comes to addressing the lockstep ideology of colleges as teaching institutions — with millions of students taught across thousands of campuses — there's no realistic alternative to campus-by-campus efforts to challenge agenda-fueled course offerings, syllabi, and instructor perspectives. However, when it comes to universities as engines of culture — producing research, legitimizing lines of inquiry, and spawning future scholars — there is another, more promising, path. Given the outsized impact of pedigreed scholarship, and the paucity of academic pipelines on the right, even a single, exceptional university may have the ability to play a catalytic role. That makes intuitive sense when one recognizes that just a few universities inhabit a dramatically outsized cultural role. A 2015 analysis published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that just a quarter of universities produce about 80% of tenure-track faculty in the U.S. Just eight institutions accounted for half of all history professors.

Research-oriented colleges and universities are such powerful engines of culture due to a handful of intertwined advantages: Their work enjoys a unique stamp of legitimacy; they create extended, intergenerational communities; and they benefit from a web of public subsidies. They are especially well-suited to allow communities of scholars to pursue sustained bodies of work, even amidst shifts in external funding and public opinion. And they create a talent pipeline, with doctoral students going on to become the next generation of scholars.

The result is a humming, subsidized engine of culture creation. The U.S. government, for instance, spends more than $900 million each year subsidizing graduate students through a variety of programs, in addition to funding a wealth of university-based research. Each year, the National Science Foundation alone awards 2,000 research fellowships worth up to $46,000 per student in taxpayer support. In 2016, the five schools with the most NSF doctoral students were UC Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Michigan, MIT, and Harvard. Graduates of this small circle of universities go on to populate faculties across the land, setting research agendas, deciding who gets published and hired, and mentoring the next generation of students.

PHILANTHROPIST FOUNDERS

The most holistic response to the current state of affairs is one that has drawn remarkably little interest in recent years: namely, the founding of new research institutions whose mission is to provide an unapologetically hospitable environment for scholarship that is marginalized in academe today. Given the left-leaning center of gravity at today's research universities, the marginal impact of even a single university charged with such a mission could be outsized in the academy, popular culture, and public discourse — and the impact of multiple such institutions could be enormous.

The power of universities to serve as influential patrons of knowledge, research, and culture is what spurred an earlier generation of funders to invest in building new colleges and universities. And they enjoyed some remarkable success. In his will, entrepreneur and investor Johns Hopkins left $7 million ($160 million today) to found a hospital and a university; upon the university's opening in 1876, the school's first president explicitly described its aim as "the encouragement of research." Today, Johns Hopkins University annually spends more than $2 billion on research, more than any other American university. In 1885, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford donated $25 million ($480 million today) to finance the launch of Stanford University, seeking to create an institution that would marry the liberal arts with a commitment to technology and engineering. Standard Oil founder John Rockefeller, Sr., contributed over $35 million (more than $900 million today) over the course of his life to create and sustain the University of Chicago, an institution designed to couple an undergraduate liberal-arts college with a German-style graduate research university. The result enjoyed remarkable success, with a dozen University of Chicago faculty and alumni claiming Nobel Prizes in the institution's first 60 years.

Indeed, for much of American history, the creation of prominent new colleges and universities was routine. Between 1820 and 1899, 672 new institutions were established, 573 of them private — an average of more than a half-dozen private institutions each year. The second half of the 19th century represents an extraordinary high-water mark, with private philanthropy founding 11 universities today ranked among the nation's top 20. While new colleges continued to be created in the 20th century, most were public-access institutions, for-profit enterprises, or small colleges.      

In short, philanthropists launching new colleges and universities — even nationally significant research institutions — is neither unprecedented nor radical. Today, however, funders have seemingly concluded that it's foolish to build from scratch when there are so many fine institutions already. Thus, existing higher-education institutions rake in the largesse. Industry sources estimate that about $44 billion was donated to higher education in 2017 alone. The top 20 fundraising institutions raised more than $12 billion. For donors seeking to fund cancer research or new data-information labs, such an approach makes good sense, especially when they're comfortable with the sensibilities of the 21st-century academy.

What makes less sense is that much of this giving is done by donors who are concerned about culture and policy, and who nevertheless write large checks to institutions where their views and values are marginalized or even held in contempt. Why haven't those conservative donors looked to create new institutions? A half-century ago, in Philanthropy in the Shaping of American Higher Education, Merle Curti and Roderick Nash surmised that philanthropists thought "their immense financial resources gave them the power to effect changes in existing colleges" — rendering new institutions "unnecessary." The proliferation of campus fundraising professionals and alumni networks meant established institutions grew increasingly adept at cultivating donors. And, in Philanthropy and American Higher Education, historians John Thelin and Richard Trollinger note that major foundations came to favor a systemic approach to supporting broad social agendas, at the expense of investments in "a single magnificent campus."

While practical enough, such explanations are far more compelling for those on the left than for deep-pocketed conservative and libertarian philanthropists. After all, however much saturation there may be in the college market, it's ludicrous to suggest that there are plenty of major universities hospitable to conservative thought. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to think of a single such institution in contemporary America. That is why launching even one such new institution — where conservatives were welcome, where conservative priors were seen as worthy of exploration and articulation, and where a coterie of talented, well-trained scholars could form a scholarly community — could have an outsized effect. Gifted scholars of competing views would be welcome, but the board, leadership, and culture would unabashedly reflect a distinctive sense of mission.    

Even one such institution would permit the formation of academic departments where a critical mass of accomplished faculty could support one another, collaborate, mentor junior colleagues, and show students a different kind of intellectual community. Junior faculty and postdoctoral students would have a prestigious institution at which they could pursue controversial questions, seek grants, and establish a record of publication — providing an opportunity to build their bona fides. Talented graduate students could select an elite institution where they could receive the training and support to tackle politically charged questions at odds with academic convention.

Of course, none of this would matter if the institution were not a serious research university. An entity seen as a third-rate enterprise would add little value. This raises an obvious question: Is it possible to create a university that would be seen as elite and influential — analogous to, say, Duke or Cornell — in a reasonable amount of time, say, in the span of a generation or less?

It has been done before. New York University, for instance, essentially started anew, making a push in the 1980s to reinvent itself as an elite university. As recently as 1984, the New York Times has noted, NYU was "regarded as a safety school" for local high schoolers, drawing more than 80% of its students from New York City. NYU proceeded to raise $1 billion to rebuild the university and poach scholars from Ivy League institutions. Within a decade, NYU had remade itself into a brand-name university. 

Washington University in St. Louis, to take another example, was once an unknown commuter school. In 2003, the New York Times observed, "Less than 30 years ago, Washington University was so obscure that the trustees decided to stick 'in St. Louis' at the end of its name, exasperated by the perennial question 'So, where are you guys anyway? Seattle or D.C.?'" Disciplined leadership and an aggressive series of capital campaigns allowed Wash U. to add 165 endowed professorships in 2004 and finance myriad new research initiatives. By 2003, the Times noted, "[T]he former 'streetcar college,' as it once called itself, [had] pierced the Top 10 circle of U.S. News & World Report rankings...humbling several Ivy League institutions along the way, including Brown, Cornell and Columbia."

More recently still, the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, a state-funded venture, has provided medical centers at Texas universities with around $2.15 billion to attract faculty from around the country and expand the universities' research capabilities. This funding allowed schools including Baylor, Rice, and the University of Texas to recruit over 80 top cancer-research scientists from across the nation. The effort required providing labs, new facilities, equipment, and substantial staffs. The recruits included more than a dozen scientists poached from Harvard, and a number of others from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and MIT.

New elite institutions have also been made from whole cloth in recent years. In 1997, the Franklin W. Olin Foundation gave $200 million to start the Olin College of Engineering. Olin enrolled its first class in 2001. Admission to Olin is highly selective; the school today attracts students who might otherwise have attended MIT or Caltech. By 2013, Olin was sending 41% of its graduates on to graduate school — with 65% attending a top-10 engineering program.

Similarly, hedge-fund manager and progressive icon George Soros founded Central European University — a graduate-level, English-language institution currently based in Budapest — which offers degrees in social sciences, law, and public policy, among other disciplines. Since 1991, Soros has donated at least $450 million to an endowment that now totals $610 million. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings place CEU among the world's top 100 universities for politics and international studies.

Universities have indeed succeeded in transforming themselves from local, mid-level institutions into top-tier research institutions, sometimes in as little as a decade — and the cost of doing so has generally been less than a billion dollars. There is good reason to think that a greenfield institution, oriented by a clear mission, supported by the requisite funding, and guided by the right leadership could grow into a prominent and culture-shaping force in less than two decades.

BUILDING AN INCUBATOR 

Before launching into the details of what such an ambitious project would require, it's important to offer one disclaimer. Much discussion of higher education, reasonably enough, focuses on college costs and job skills. Ensuing proposals for online instruction, micro-credentials, and cost controls have proliferated and have much to recommend them. However, such reforms are not intended to address the culture question, the pipeline problem, or the reality that research universities today are, almost uniformly, a publicly subsidized, wholly owned subsidiary of the political left. So, for present purposes, we'll set them aside.

Our goal is to establish a self-sustaining university where, to paraphrase the mission of Brandeis University, the intellectual right — in all its myriad diversity and disagreement — can be "a host at last." While the institution should be oriented by an intellectual mission rather than an ideological agenda, its board, leadership, bylaws, culture, and norms should be constructed so as to be unapologetically hospitable to right-leaning views and values that are marginalized across most of academe. Hiring, staffing, and recruiting should favor scholars looking to pursue rigorous, important work that challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.

To be clear, the university would embrace unfettered academic freedom in accord with the highest principles of free inquiry. Unlike many of today's institutions, it would not kowtow to demands for speech codes and "safe spaces" or to the political enthusiasms of the moment, left or right. Indeed, it will be guided by the passionate commitment to academic freedom enunciated in Yale's famed 1974 "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale" (more commonly known as the Woodward Report):

The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.

The aim is to create an incubator — not a sanctuary. Talented graduate students and junior faculty who might be marginalized elsewhere would have an opportunity to find accomplished senior colleagues eager and able to mentor them — allowing them to develop the kind of body of work that would give them a meaningful shot at success anywhere in academe. The goal is to spawn scholars and public thinkers equipped to thrive in other academic institutions and to contribute to the public discourse.

Since the institution is intended to be primarily a cultural enterprise, it will be oriented by an emphasis on social sciences, humanities, and professional schools. One crucial upside to this approach is that it avoids the extraordinary costs associated with operating university hospitals, health-care complexes, and expansive laboratories. Along with a commitment to a relatively lean operational model, this makes the operation markedly cheaper than it might otherwise be. 

The project requires attracting a critical mass of elite faculty while taking care to ensure that programs and departments offer copious room for young talent, creating a culture where emerging scholars are mentored and cultivated even as they tackle questions typically verboten. It will provide a platform where heterodox graduate students can get trained and get the opportunity to build enough of a track record that they have a fighting chance to get established as a credible voice and a funding-worthy scholar. And it will begin to provide the infrastructure of conferences, journals, and awards that are often denied to those pursuing certain kinds of questions, thus giving them a chance to grow in their fields.

The primary aim is to incubate scholarly talent and scholarship with an eye toward influencing the larger culture; that mission must shape decisions around things like campus size, enrollment, and staffing. A traditional campus provides valuable infrastructure for this work — including conferences, awards, new scholarly publications and outlets, postdoctoral positions, and more. In light of the mission, an undergraduate college of 4,200 is appropriate. The institution would also enroll a graduate-school population of 2,400 in the social sciences, humanities, and professional schools. For comparison's sake, Claremont Graduate University, which focuses primarily on social sciences and business, enrolls about 2,000.

With an eye to cultivating an intimate, mentor-driven culture, faculty size should reflect that found at today's elite universities. Harvard, Vanderbilt, Cornell, and Georgetown, for instance, have student-faculty ratios that range from 6:1 to 11:1. For this venture, given 4,200 undergraduates, maintaining a similar ratio implies a full-time faculty of about 500.

THE PRICE TAG

Significant funds will be required for the physical plant, faculty, staff, students, and operating costs. While a sizable endowment is essential to making this work, the revenue generated by tuition dollars and research support will play a critical role in making this feasible.

Given that the goal is not to provide online learning or to build a think tank, but to provide the requisite physical and social infrastructure for an academic community, it's appropriate to start with the physical plant. Based on relevant comparisons, the institution would require 400 to 500 acres. Princeton University's main campus, for example, inhabits 500 acres. (Dartmouth, for comparison's sake, rests on 270.) The institution should be located where it is proximate to a major metropolitan area, has access to a major international airport, has room to grow, and is in a hospitable cultural milieu. Given those factors, it makes sense to acquire land on the periphery of a metropolitan center like Houston, Denver, Phoenix, or Atlanta. Commercial real-estate parcels of 250 to 500 acres, zoned and eligible for this kind of use, can be procured an hour or less from Houston, for instance, for around $10 million.

The major start-up costs are those related to land preparation and construction. Preparing the land for use by providing for electricity, sewage, roads, and the like carries a price tag of about $40 million. For comparison's sake, a similarly envisioned planned community (including a university) called Cordova Hills, estimates that similar preparation for 1.9 million square feet of building space on its 224-acre campus outside Sacramento, California, will cost $18 million.

With a projected total student population of 6,600, the campus needs four million square feet of building space. For comparison, Brown University utilizes a bit less than six million square feet for about 10,000 students. Industry publication College Construction Report notes that the median construction cost for university buildings ranges from $166 to $650 per square foot depending on intended use, with medical and science buildings being the most expensive. Given the lack of a hospital or medical school, it makes sense to price construction at $350 per square foot. For four million square feet, that estimate yields a projected cost of $1.4 billion. Using industry standards, the estimated cost of temporary space for students and faculty during the campus's first five years, as permanent facilities are erected, would be $55 million.

All told, the cost of land acquisition, construction, and temporary space would total roughly $1.5 billion.

The next major expense entails hiring faculty and staff. The faculty makeup would reflect the institution's core focus on the social sciences, humanities, and professional schools, with only a complementary role for the hard sciences. The entire faculty would number about 500.

The university's core would be the departments of economics, history, government, and sociology — which would all offer both undergraduate and Ph.D. programs — as well as graduate schools of business, law, public policy, and education. Each of these units would be budgeted for 40 tenure-track faculty slots. The model would be to staff each unit with roughly one-third full professors (with five of those being endowed chairs), one-third associate professors, and one-third assistant professors. Department faculties of this size are not out of line with the norm for elite research institutions — for comparison's sake, Cornell and Duke have 30 to 40 tenure and tenure-track faculty in departments like history and government — although the professional schools would be on the smaller side.

In the humanities, the departments of English, philosophy, religious studies, foreign languages, and psychology would all offer undergraduate and Ph.D. programs. Each would be allocated an average of 25 tenure-track faculty (again adopting the one-third, one-third, one-third staffing model, with three endowed chairs per department). The size of these departments would be generally in line with peer departments at elite research institutions.

When it comes to the sciences, the departments of biology, chemistry, engineering, math and statistics, and physics would each offer undergraduate and small graduate programs. These departments would each be allocated 15 tenure-track faculty and a single endowed chair. Such staffing would give these departments a footprint somewhat smaller than that of similarly sized elite research institutions.

Recruiting faculty would entail thinking strategically about the compensation required to attract scholars — especially those with safe, prestigious alternatives. Nationally, in 2017, average salaries for full professors at research institutions were $152,000; for associate professors, $98,000; and for junior faculty, $85,000. In seeking to develop the kind of talent-rich university that can rapidly take its place among more-established peers, there's value in offering generous salaries to help convince top-shelf scholars to take a chance on a new endeavor. Consequently, we project salaries that outstrip what even elite institutions are offering. Endowed chairs would pay an average of $300,000, other full professorships $240,000, associate professorships $160,000, and assistant professorships $120,000. These salaries would surpass average pay at even the highest-ranked institutions. All these figures are averages; obviously, given that legal scholars or economists cost more than English professors, for instance, there would be substantial variation in these figures.

A handful of esteemed scholars with endowed chairs would anchor the departments, lend prestige, and mentor colleagues. All told, the suggested 57 endowed positions would require about $17 million in salary. Including industry-standard health-care and retirement benefits, the annual cost of endowed faculty would be around $22 million. (An initial endowment of $536 million would cover this outlay in perpetuity.) Salaries for the other 438 faculty positions would total $80 million; aggregate compensation, including benefits, would be $103 million per year. 

Creating a new institution provides opportunities to sidestep the dubious outlays and swollen staffs that are so familiar in higher education today. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, boasts a Division of Equity and Inclusion that grew from three employees to 150 between 2009 and 2014, requiring an annual budget of $20 million. In examining the national data on administrative positions provided by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, we determined that a professional staff of 160 non-faculty positions is appropriate — a figure about half that of peer institutions. For instance, instead of having, as Cornell does, a "Vice President for Financial Affairs," an "Executive Vice Provost for Administration and Finance," an "Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer," a "Vice President for Budget and Planning" and a "Chief Investment Officer," we take a page from less bloated organizations and propose to make due with a Vice President for Financial Affairs and a CFO. (To be clear, the 160 professional staff do not include the "support" staff who typically work at an hourly rate in janitorial services, maintenance, and so forth. Their ranks are accounted for below, under operational costs.) 

Departments, graduate programs, and faculty also require administrative and secretarial support, in addition to the campus-wide professionals. While the need for such staff will vary widely across units, a realistic projection is an average of $500,000 per department or professional school for staff salaries and benefits. Using industry data, the cost of salaries and benefits for 250 administrative and professional staff would be $30 million annually.

All told, salaries and benefits for all non-endowed positions, including both faculty and staff, would amount to $133 million. The total cost of endowed positions would be an additional $22 million a year.

Recruiting students would be a challenge, at least initially, and it would take time for a new entrant to compete effectively with established, elite institutions. But, for planning purposes, it's useful to explore what costs and revenues will look like at scale — while budgeting additional support to help carry the institution through the early years as it gets up to speed.

The College Board reports that average sticker-price tuition plus room and board for undergraduates at all private colleges was $47,490 in 2017, and $26,730 after discounts were applied. We used the discounted $26,730 figure to project tuition (as that provides the most credible estimate of anticipated revenue). Across 4,200 undergraduates, that amounts to revenue of $112 million per year. 

We also anticipate 2,400 graduate students: 900 pursuing Ph.D.s or master's degrees in the arts and sciences, 450 in the law school, 450 in the business school, 300 in the school of education, and 300 in the school of public policy. The presumption is that all 600 doctoral students would receive full-tuition waivers (with 300 tuition-paying master's candidates), with one-third of doctoral students receiving an annual stipend of $30,000. Meanwhile, average tuition for top-ranked professional schools is about $60,000 for law, $70,000 for business, $45,000 for public policy, and $40,000 for education. Across graduate programs and professional schools, the average discount from sticker price is 20%. Given that, we project graduate tuition at 80% of the reported rate, and then further provide for scholarships amounting to one-fourth of the anticipated cost. Leading research institutions provide graduate housing at rates ranging from $8,000 to $16,000 per academic year, so we project graduate housing and board charges of $12,000 per student. After accounting for scholarships and stipends, estimated graduate-school revenue is $78 million annually.

Given the emphasis on cultivating a pipeline of young scholars and giving those scholars the opportunity to pursue sidelined avenues of inquiry, a substantial postdoctoral research program is crucial. A robust program would provide 35 such fellowships each year, paying an average of $50,000 in salary to each fellow (and another $15,000 in benefits). Both the compensation and the total number of postdoctoral fellows are on the high side, in accord with the larger mission. For instance, comparable postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University are $42,000 per year at the Belfer Center for Science and International Studies. The projected total cost of these 35 research fellowships is about $2 million.

In sum, undergraduate tuition revenue would amount to $112 million annually, while graduate programs would add another $78 million. Annual costs for postdoctoral programs would subtract $2 million, yielding net revenue of $188 million.

Beyond the physical plant, staff, and student aid, there is obviously a raft of conventional operational costs involved in running a campus. Researchers at the American Institutes for Research report that, at private, four-year research institutions, spending per student for auxiliary services — including the cost of dormitories, dining facilities, parking and transportation, and the like — tends to hover between $2,800, at the 25th percentile, to $9,300, at the 75th percentile. Presuming operations on the leaner side of that ledger, we estimate an annual per-student cost of $5,000. This amounts to $33 million per year for an enrollment of 6,600. 

The same analysis concluded that student services (like career counseling, student organizations, and intramural athletics) at private four-year institutions cost nearly $4,000 per student. AIR notes that close to 70% of this cost consists of salaries and benefits for professional staff, which have been separately accounted for above. That means additional costs of $1,200 per student, yielding an estimated annual cost of $8 million. Academic support and conferences (libraries, technology services, academic conference programming, and the like) cost around $7,000 per student, or $2,100 after accounting for staffing costs. For 6,600 students, that adds another $14 million annually.

Based on industry standards, we project maintenance costs (including custodial services, landscaping, and building maintenance) at $5 per square foot of building space. For four million square feet, this amounts to $20 million annually. The typical university spends $2.10 per square foot on utilities, amounting to another $8 million per year.

There will also be a need for resources to financially support research and convenings, both to kick-start scholarship and because some envisioned lines of inquiry may not find favor with more traditional sources of external support. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that elite institutions like Duke University, Northwestern, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Chicago spent $5 to $9 million in university funds in 2016 to support social-science and humanities research, over and above funds gleaned from external sources. Given the importance of this investment and the expense of starting from scratch, we more than double the high end of that range to a projected $20 million per year. This all adds up to $103 million in assorted annual operational costs.

Thus, projected costs include the one-time, $1.5 billion expense of procuring land and building the physical plant, in addition to the recurring costs of salary and benefits for both faculty and administration, requiring $133 million a year after separately accounting for the cost of endowed faculty, and assorted operational costs of $103 million.

Offsetting some of those costs is tuition revenue, which would eventually include undergraduate tuition and fees of $112 million and graduate-school tuition and fees of $76 million, after accounting for financial support, including scholarships, discounts, stipends, and postdoctoral fellowships. Of course, while the expectation is that revenues would be augmented over time by federal and private research funding (including overhead support), alumni giving, philanthropy, and other sources — these projections rely upon none of that. For our purposes here, all of those funds are treated as found money.

In sum, projected annual operational costs are $236 million, and revenues are $188 million, yielding a shortfall of $48 million per year. Paying out at 4%, an endowment of $1.2 billion would cover the shortfall. That means, all in, it would cost $1.5 billion to design and construct the campus, $198 million to subsidize operational shortfalls during the first five years while student enrollment reaches capacity, $536 million to fund the endowed chairs, and an endowment of $1.2 billion to cover anticipated operational shortfalls.

In other words, it would cost roughly $3.4 billion to build an ivory tower of our own and keep it operating in perpetuity. And, given that there are a wealth of unexploited efficiencies in higher education when it comes to operations, benefits, staffing, and so on, it's not unreasonable to imagine that figure might be further reduced by 20% or more, to something south of $3 billion.  

TAKING THE LEAP 

The question is not whether an elite research university could be created from scratch. There are certainly philanthropists and foundations with the means to make a gift large enough to move such a venture from far-fetched to feasible. And other universities have established themselves among the elite within a generation. But should it be done? This is a hugely expensive proposition. And it would not be a substitute for efforts to challenge speech codes, nurture campus intellectual diversity, establish outposts of conservative thought, or otherwise reform higher education. Rather, it would be a complement and, perhaps, a crucial accelerant to those efforts.

Given all that, some may wonder whether it would be cheaper and easier to accomplish all this by simply reforming a research university, starting with a shift in the makeup or mindset of the board of trustees. Indeed, it absolutely would. The problem is that, even after such a shift, the leadership would have to confront hostile, entrenched, tenured faculty; alter the routines of staff steeped in a familiar culture; combat existing funder commitments; challenge alumni expectations; and otherwise seek to reverse the direction of a massive, bureaucratic enterprise. For all its headaches and attendant expense, a greenfield venture holds out the promise of being a better bet. 

That said, we cannot guarantee that the institution would not eventually become part of the problem. After all, the harsh truth of "O'Sullivan's Law" — that "all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing" — is hard to ignore. And yet, we have some confidence that a university deliberately founded with a clear mission can cultivate an identity, culture, and alumni base that will prove self-reinforcing, even if only out of self-interest — since it will provide a marked means of differentiation and, hence, a competitive advantage amidst the cluttered landscape of higher education.

Keep in mind that there are more than a few apolitical scholars or disenchanted liberals who quietly wish to challenge prevailing dogmas, and they might be more likely to do so if they felt confident there was a desirable home where they could freely and confidently pursue such work. Indeed, the chance to tackle questions typically regarded as verboten could be a powerful lure for a swath of scholars who otherwise feel constrained by regnant conventions. Vital, as well, is the ability of such an institution to serve as a national academic epicenter capable of housing journals, offering academic honors, and hosting scholarly convenings in a manner that think tanks and foundations generally cannot. 

Finally, some may worry that this venture would serve to further ghettoize conservative academics. Such concerns, while reasonable enough, fail to fully account for how the academy works — and how much of the bias against conservatives is the result of hiring and evaluation systems that value prior employment, evidence of accomplishment, honors, and records of publication. Because there is no current launch pad for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or junior faculty inclined to challenge the monoculture, they have trouble building significant bodies of work and are frequently steered by advisors into safer lines of inquiry. The opportunity is to dramatically increase the shrunken number of conservative or conservative-adjacent scholars in academe by simply giving them the chance to develop the credentials, profiles, and bodies of work that will permit them to make it past the hurdles that derail so many.

After all, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and publications like National Review — created in direct response to liberal monocultures in their respective fields — have not served as ghettoes of conservative thought; rather, they have cultivated and promoted intellectuals who have proven instrumental to its growth and success. Within the span of two decades, this venture has the promise of a similarly catalytic impact — in a venue and manner that may well prove even more vital to the nation's intellectual well-being and cultural health.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brendan Bell is program manager of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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