Who Owns the University?

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

The most recent shout-down debacle at Stanford’s law school, one of many such recent sordid episodes, prompts the question: “Who owns our universities?”

The law students who are in residence for three years apparently assume they embody the university. And so, they believe they represent and speak for a score of diverse Stanford interests when they shout down federal Judge Kyle Duncan, as if he were an intruder into their own woke private domain.

After all, Stanford, like most of the Ivy League universities, is a private institution. Are then its board of trustees, its faculty, its students, and its administration de facto overseers and owners?

Not really.

In the case of public institutions of higher learning, there is no controversy: The people own the university and, through their elected representatives, pay for and approve its entire budget. Again, through their selected regents and overseers, the taxpayers adjudicate the laws of these universities.

But private universities, while different, are not really so different.

Take again Stanford as a typical example. It receives about $1.5 billion per year in federal taxpayer grants alone to its various faculty, labs, research centers, and programs.

Its annual budget exceeds $8 billion. If Stanford accepts such huge federal and state direct largess, do the taxpayers who provide it have some say about how and under what conditions their recipients use their money?

Second, the university also has accumulated a $36 billion endowment. At normal annual investment returns, such an enormous fund may earn well over $2 billion a year.  That income is almost all tax-free, based on the principle that Stanford is a nonprofit, apolitical institution.

But is it?

One could imagine what would have happened had, say, a radical abortion proponent been shouted down at Stanford Law School. Further, conceive that conservative law students had called her scum and wished for her daughters to be raped. Envision obscene placards flashing in her face—before she was stopped speaking entirely by a conservative Stanford dean who hijacked her talk and informed the pro-abortion speaker that she more or less asked for such a mob reception. The perpetrators, we know, would have been expelled from the law school within 24 hours, and the dean fired in 12. And, alternately, had the architects of this real, vile demonstration faced an open hearing, where evidence of the event was presented, and had been found guilty of violating university policy and then had been expelled and ostracized from the law school, even after much chest-thumping and performance-art braggadocio, it is unlikely the debacle would be repeated.

Third, the federal government through subsidies and guarantees is liable for over $1.6 trillion in aggregate student loans. Thousands of Stanford undergraduate and graduates are among those indebted and could not attend the university without such taxpayer largess.

To take a hypothetical, if some 16,000 undergraduate and Stanford graduate students carried on average $20,000 in federally backed student loans, the Stanford student community could be carrying a third of a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees.

In other words, the private universities of the United States are really not so private at all. They rely on billions of dollars in federal and state research subsidies and grants; billions of dollars in tax-exempt annual income from their endowments; and hundreds of billions of dollars in federally backed student loans that allow them to charge exorbitant tuition at above the annual inflation rate from leveraged and indebted students.

Given those huge public investments, should not the public have some say in how these universities are run?

After all, Stanford, and thousands of private universities like it, are not Hillsdale College. Hillsdale long ago lost trust in federal and state government due to their efforts to use their partial funding as a means of politically leveraging the college. And therefore, it has refused all public monies ever since.

Left-wing major colleges or universities have not done the same because they rightly assume the federal government shares their commitment to radical progressive change. And thus, Washington gives them free rein to discriminate in admission, housing, and hiring, as well as to suspend constitutional protections for faculty and staff—if in service to progressive-regressive agendas.

But that was then, and this is now. If Stanford’s sordid law school psychodrama taught us anything, it was that the law school mob felt they could threaten, smear, scream, disrupt and shut down a public speaker and do so with complete impunity. And they were right on all counts.

But if the public “owns” much of private universities given the colossal amount of money it provides them, could the public at last insist that all colleges, public and private, simply abide by the laws of the land?

That adherence would mean universities, to continue their taxpayer revenue streams, would pledge not to discriminate in their hiring and admissions on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. That public insistence would prompt revolutionary changes on campus.

Stanford, for example, laudably recently deplored its past antisemitic admissions practices of the 1950s that deliberately restricted the number of Jews who qualified for admission. The university had institutionalized discrimination on the logic it did not want too many Jews on campus, as part of its social engineering to achieve the “correct” student body. Amid its current apologies, Stanford added that in the 1950s it had not been transparent in its warped discriminatory admissions but had either denied or sought to hide its bias.

Amid its apologies for past discrimination, the university has announced that its incoming class of 2026 includes 22 percent described as “white.” Yet that percentage (remember the university, not us, the public, is obsessed with  categorizing people by race), is less than a third of the percentage of so-called whites in the general public.

Has this particular group suddenly suffered collectively an epidemic of low grades, poor test scores (on now optional tests for admission) or poor community service and extracurricular activities?

Would that decline explain why it is so suddenly and vastly “underrepresented”?

Surely a university currently and loudly apologizing for its past ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination against Jews would not simultaneously, but quietly, begin doing nearly the exact thing some 70 years later?

For that matter, since when do universities, public or private, deliberately warp the spirit of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by institutionalizing racially separate graduation ceremonies, racially segregated dorms (“theme houses”), and safe spaces?

All the legalese universities employ to skirt both state law and federal statutes prohibiting segregation and discrimination—and it is a multibillion industry—cannot hide the fact that in many ways campuses are emulating the spirit and practice of the Old Confederacy and postbellum Jim Crow South, according to the infamous “1/16” or  the “one-drop” rule, to adjudicate hiring and admission, and the apartheid practice of directing particular races to “separate but equal” housing.

Should not private universities also pledge to follow the Bill of Rights and provide constitutional protections for its university community?

That would mean if a university could not guarantee the right for invited speakers to finish their lectures without being shouted down, physically intimidated, or met with obscene and pornographic slurs and placards, the university then would be liable to suspension of its federal funds.

Recently, Stanford admitted that it allowed a Stasi-like “snitch” program on campus in which anonymous complainers can lodge complaints against allegedly biased remarks by faculty, staff, or administrators. But is not a hallmark of the U.S. legal system that the accused has a constitutional right to face his accuser?

In fact, most private universities suspend a great number of constitutional protections when its constituents are accused either of sexual harassment or insensitive speech. Students, especially, in campus hearings are not always allowed to meet their accusers, to cross examine accusations and evidence, or to have legal counsel at all times.

Should the taxpayers not insist that campuses ensure their communities the same rights of due process, of protection from double jeopardy, of rules of evidence and cross examination as enjoyed by the general public who funds them?

It is not just the American taxpayer who funds public and even private universities, but alumni and donors as well. The students who shouted down Judge Duncan as “scum” and hoped his daughters were raped are likely at Stanford with at least partial financial support. Many of those endowments are sustained by generous donors. And they too remain a part of the university community, along with faculty, administrators, and various boards of trustees.

The present radicalization of the campus is based on the egotistical assumption that transitory students own colleges. They believe, by their snobbery (one law student yelled at Judge Duncan that the judge couldn’t get into Stanford Law School) and ephemeral presence on a current campus, that they are the one and only “Yale,” or they are the real “Stanford.” Therefore, they believe they have the right to dictate to—or follow the whims of—their equally transitory radical administrators.

But for such a claim of ownership to be true, universities would have to self-fund, to raise all their own research dollars, to provide their own loans to their own students—and then to announce that they have no need of all the generous donors who supplied their wherewithal, and all the vast majority of students who do not disrupt, slur, slander, smear, and resort to violence, but do pay their tuition bills and thereby also help ensure viable universities.

So, who owns American higher education?

Almost everyone who pays for this now peculiar institution—a fact that the current ungracious woke activists who are passing through colleges are too dense in their megalomania to grasp.


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24 thoughts on “Who Owns the University?”

  1. This type of entitlement behavior has been fostered in students, faculty, and administrators from a young age. They are all products of a liberal education system which starts in grade school. Bad behavior is now acceptable on the left because it’s never been dealt with. We have only a few universities, like Hillsdale, that refuse to allow the corrupt support of government entities. Sadly, this limits the places our young people can go for higher education. Yes, we all should be able to have a say in what goes on in these tax-payer funded institutions. Unfortunately, we don’t. Once our taxes are collected, the bureaucracy has taken control. Thank you for the excellent article.

  2. Not only is our government too big and out of control (lawless), many private institutions and businesses/corporations (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are as well. How do we stop this? Not at the ballot box; that route was proven corrupt – But for ballot harvesting, illegal changes by state governors of election voting rules/laws, and ballot tampering at the polls, Trump won – Don’t give me that BS that the election was free and fair and Biden won the popular vote. We faced a similar government/peoples situation circa 1776. Our Founders had a solution: The Declaration of Independence. Corrupt King George III would not concede so the budding Americans fought a revolution and won and made America great, and made it even greater through welcoming legal immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s from England, Ireland, and Europe (not from Africa, Mexico, Central and South America). And, Americans fought to keep America’s nation together beginning in 1861. What are we to do today to bring America back to what the Founders gave us? Fight. The Ballot box is broken. 1776 Redux and 1861 Redux is in order.

    1. I think you are correct, but do we have the will to take the necessary steps? I doubt it.

      BTW, you are 100% correct about the last presidential “election”.

      This country no longer even resembles the country I grew up in, sad to say.

    2. Walter,

      You forgot to mention slavery. It was the fly-in-the-ointment of an otherwise near perfect sociopolitical experiment. The Civil War couldn’t erase the damage caused and, apparently, neither have the victories of the civil rights movement been able to do so.

      The Left wants to destroy our once great nation and remake it into some idealistic utopia sans all of the pathological -isms and -ologies. And it plans to use the iron fist of government to achieve its ends.

    3. Are you willing to fight to the last American? Are you willing to see your hometown look like Bakhmut? Are you personally willing to gun down mothers of 7 children, like the IRA did, for spying on your rebel group? Do you have good taste in Hawaiian shirts? If you can’t answer a sober “yes” or “yes but”, then you’re full of it and need to stay off the net. If you answer “yes,” then may Merrick Garland’s incompetent FBI find you give you a swift and speedy trial.

  3. Robert Humphreys

    Allowing private universities to claim tax-free status is one of the great frauds of all time. How about simply not allowing any (and I mean any) of the so-called “overhead” to be applied to federal research grants? Why zero? We, the taxpayers, have decades of fraudulent takings from grants to receive as a refund, including interest accrued, before we get even. Want more taxpayer funded research grants? Ok, but as we hear regularly from POTUS, “here’s the deal”. Take it or leave it. No negotiation. It’s our money, we want it back.

  4. Excellent article very informative. Thank you for sharing this information with the public. Today’s prestigious universities are no longer prestigious. They’ve become Jim Crow political operative hubs . The taxpayer should not be forced to pay for these institutions which advocate the interests of our citizens.

  5. “The people own the university and, through their elected representatives, pay for and approve its entire budget.”

    Not the case at all!

    At my Huge Land Grant University, the joke for the past 40 years or so has been that we went from “state supported to state assisted, and now we’re state located.”

    About 24 percent of our budget comes from the state.

  6. Automated summary:

    The recent incident at Stanford Law School, where students shouted down a federal judge, prompts the question of who really owns universities, especially private institutions like Stanford. While public universities are owned by the people who pay for them through taxes, private universities like Stanford also receive substantial public funding, through federal grants and state direct largess, among other sources. Additionally, they accumulate large endowments, most of which are tax-free, but which generate significant income. Given these substantial public investments, there is a question whether the public should have more say in how private universities are run, especially when they flout federal and state laws, such as by engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and suspending constitutional protections for faculty and staff in service to progressive agendas.

  7. For those seeking truth , with facts to back it up, Victor Hanson again proves a consistently reliable source—-thank you!

  8. Great piece. As usual.

    So on one side we have a well thought out, sober & logical case for change and on the other side I see a large number of highly emotional fanatics defending the status quo.

    To paraphrase Al Pacino’s great locker room speech in On Any Given Sunday ” in any fight it’s the guy who is willing to die who will win that inch ….” so I am not optimistic that the other side will willingly stand down to a logical argument and legislated solution.

    The forces at play in higher education are a microcosm the forces at play in society since DJT’s election in 2016. One side is largely governed by the rule of law and one side will happily burn it down if they don’t like “it”.

    I wish I could see a positive solution that respected the founding principals, short of a literal call to arms (the 1st founding principal).

  9. Peter Ventrella

    Sad to say that even if laws were passed tying public funding to upholding the laws of the land on campus, the far left would figure out a way to continue pushing this marxist agenda surreptitiously.

    Case in point – Glenn Younkin’s first executive order after being sworn in as governor was to ban Critical Race Theory in public schools. Yet, it has recently been discovered via a leaked memo that the Teachers Union in Virginia has done an end around to continue pushing this agenda in schools despite the Executive Order.

    This will be a long Verdun-like battle to stop the inherently divisive and destructive BLM agenda.

  10. The discrimination contagion has apparently spread to Palo Alto from the East Bay. Last year, Berkeley Law School passed bylaws which forbid any speakers on campus who were considered Zionist or pro-Israel. So that includes Jews, of course. Which is awkward since the dean is Jewish and considers himself a Zionist.

    But silencing speech on college campuses has always been regarded as a form of protest against opinions thought not merely unacceptable, but evil and vile. So These idealistic students think they are striking a righteous blow for the good of humanity. Take the recent trouble on the UC Davis campus, an hour or so northeast of UC Berkeley. A student group had invited conservative podcast host Charlie Kirk to speak on campus. The university’s chancellor, of all people, exhorted the student body to “stop the hate” by disrupting the event which they did but Kirk spoke anyway despite the maelstrom of violence swirling around him. This is a public university almost totally reliant on government funding.

    I remember Trump warned colleges they would lose their funding if they continued to ban or harass speakers and violate the First Amendment. He seemed serious about it but nothing ever came if it to my knowledge. He was probably too distracted by things like the Mueller investigation or one of the Impeachments. The Left is good at keeping their enemies perpetually back on their heels in order to neutralize them.

  11. Victor how could our conservative politicians and pundits have for decades and decades let our universities become increasingly captured by the radical left without loudly and repeatedly sounding the alarm.

    All of the possible means that you suggest in this article as ways to now reign in these woke institutions could have been applied far more easily if done earlier when the “patient” was not on his/her death bed. In the U.S., in 1938 Winston Churchill’s book “While England Slept” was published. We needed something of that sort for our institutions of higher learning as well.

    I hope during one of your podcasts you’ll address this issue of responsible and influential people ignoring the decades long trend of the downgrading of our education from fostering critical thinking to indoctrination. We all know it happened. But how could it happen, with out any serious resistance from the traditionalists in America?

    It as if they did not want to pick a fight about it, ala Neville Chamberlain.

  12. Earlier this month Bishop Robert Barron made a speech at his Alma Mater the University of Notre Dame entitled: “What makes a University Catholic?”. I watched the speech on Youtube and as a parent of a ‘Domer’ who graduates this May I could not be prouder of the intent of the University of Notre Dame if not perfect practice of their stated mission. In the belief of a God beyond being is the practice of civility, justice and search for patterns of ontological meaning in the Universe. So what is a University which stresses atheism and eternal progress other than a pathetic, perpetual, ‘God is Dead’ exercise in iconoclastic destruction of civilization in order to create the new Nietzschean liberated ubermensch?

  13. Well, one thing with 100% certainty, neither the confused ingrate students at Stanford nor
    those students at Evergreen College in the State of Washington are owners.

    Were they expelled permanently from their respective campuses at the first blush of such outrageous and unscholarly-like behavior, the institutions would not have fallen so far in

    They truly fit the original meaning of “sophomore”. Where is Nurse Ratched when we need her?

  14. Build it right from scratch. Hillsdale and Stuyvesant High School are two examples that exist that we should emulate. I say Stuyvesant because it is purely based on a SAT type admissions test – purely. Hillsdale needs to get multiplied. Would the Federal government prevent the proliferation of such schools that would harbor the rejected and dejected talent? We’d at least be fighting for something and not against.

    1. Add Saint Constantine School and College as well as Saint Thomas in CA and MA if you’re religious. There’s also the Torrey Honors College at Biola in Los Angeles. For secular institutions, don’t forget St. John’s two campuses. If you want a proper K-12 religious education in CT, there’s Christian Heritage in Trumbull. All these guys have models that are ready to export and talent that is willing to consult. K-12 religious, you can also look at Trinity in Santa Clarita, CA, and Wilberforce in Princeton, NJ. Stay away from Logos and New Saint Andrews in Moscow, Idaho -they’re a theonomist cult. The University of Dallas has an amazing pilot program for elementary school Latin that’s in Beta. Saint Constantine’s elementary school Greek is also in Beta and it’s amazing too (they teach Arabic in the higher grades as well).

      Btw. Does the title of this post remind anyone else of the Battle of the Bastards? “Who owns the University?” “We do! We do!” “Let’s show them why!” *double envelopment with pikes!*

  15. Hello Professor Hanson,

    We need an equivalent to the sign above Plato’s academy door: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”,
    “Let no-one ignore Arthur Lovejoy’s ‘The Great Chain of Being’ who enter upon the effort to reform the university and attempt to defeat left-liberal (successor) ideology”.

    The parallel to geometry is fitting – Arthur Lovejoy’s classic work also deals with fundamentals. It is at once the study of the history of the idea, that the world is an ordered and intelligible whole, a ‘Great Chain of Being’, that dominated the West for two millennia, and it’s eventual internal critique and collapse, and a revealing of the basic rational terms underlying this history which are forever relevant because they are coincident with reason itself.

    As rational beings we attempt to be a self (i.e., have an identity), we need our identity to be adequate, whole, complete, we also need to know and be known by others, and we need to know ourselves in reference to the larger whole, the common or shared world.

    Our ignorance of these elements of reason is due to them being always our starting point, we think with them and only more rarely about them.

    If we are to avoid being footnotes, or footnotes to footnotes to Plato (1), and repeat and cover the same ground, it is essential to inquire into what is fundamental about us. We need to rely upon the best efforts made to penetrate the features that constitute our being as rational beings.

    To get started I can suggest

  16. Student loans should be funded by the endowments and the endowment trustees should be held to an elevated fiduciary standard to only make sound loans

  17. Bernie Milligan

    The Woke left is institutionalizing apartheid, aimed at oppressing whites, in our campuses and society in general. Curiously, progressive whites are eagerly subscribing to their eventual doom.

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