The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Pyrrhic victory for plutocrats at Yale

Nicholas Brady and Charles Johnson display some poor strategic thinking

Students gather on the Yale University campus under in New Haven, Conn., on Aug. 22. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)
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A major theme of “The Ideas Industry” is that it is difficult for public intellectuals to speak truth to power and next to impossible for public intellectuals to speak truth to money. This is in part because plutocrats tend to fund a lot of the marketplace of ideas, be it in the academy or think tanks or the private sector. It is also because most plutocrats think they must be pretty smart to get so rich, and therefore their ideas have merit.

The problem is that precisely because intellectual institutions need money, its denizens will be reluctant to criticize the funders. This simply inflates the ego of benefactors even more. An absence of criticism can lead them to make less-than-stellar decisions, like investing in Ozy or trying to seize control of an academic program at Yale.

Let us focus on the latter in today’s Spoiler Alerts. Last week, the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler wrote about the resignation of distinguished historian Beverly Gage from running Yale University’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. Gage had been in charge of the program since 2017.

Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy has that name because of who funds it: former U.S. Treasury secretary Nicholas Brady and Charles Johnson, a “mutual fund billionaire and leading Republican donor,” according to Schuessler. The program has attracted the ire of those on the left for some time now. This has mostly to do with the program’s initial management team: historians John Lewis Gaddis, Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy. Hill and Gaddis were supporters, sometimes very vocal supporters, of George W. Bush’s grand strategy.

Under Gage’s leadership, the Grand Strategy program had adopted a more capacious view of the term. According to the Times story, she “expanded the syllabus to include grass-roots social movements, like the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the civil rights movement in the United States.” This is certainly an expansive definition of a highly contested term but certainly not beyond the pale. It is noteworthy that Kennedy and Gaddis offered on-the-record praise of Gage’s stewardship of the program to the Times.

So what happened? According to Schuessler, “an opinion article in The New York Times by another instructor in the program calling Donald Trump a demagogue who threatened the Constitution prompted complaints from Mr. Brady.” Those complaints took the form of phone calls and emails in which Brady complained that “there was no grand strategy in [the op-ed].”

It is worth pausing here and noting that if this was the proximate trigger for Brady’s intervention, then Yale has a massive problem on its hands. Nowhere in the essay or the author description is Yale’s grand strategy program mentioned or referenced. The op-ed in question was fully within the bounds of academic discourse; calling Trump a demagogue seems more conceptually precise than other terms bandied about like, say, “fascist” or “authoritarian.” Why, therefore, would Brady go out of his way to vent about it for anything other than strictly partisan reasons?

Things then went from bad to worse. Brady also said in the email that “this is not what Charlie Johnson and I signed up for.” In phone calls, Brady requested to review course syllabi. Then we get a true sense of what Brady wanted:

In another phone call, on Nov. 13, Professor Gage said, Mr. Brady lamented that the program isn’t “what it was.” When she pressed for specifics, he said she wasn’t teaching Grand Strategy “the way Henry Kissinger would.”
“I said, ‘That’s absolutely right. I am not teaching Grand Strategy the way Henry Kissinger would,’” she said.

As the story makes clear, Yale’s administration sided with Brady, agreeing to the creation of an outside five-member “board of visitors” to consult on appointments. After much back and forth, Yale President Peter Salovey agreed to a board handpicked by the donors, which included — wait for it — Kissinger. According to the Times story, Salovey told Gage to see things “from the university’s perspective,” characterizing the problem not as one of academic freedom but rather donor management. In response, Gage resigned.

This might seem like a victory for Brady and Johnson in getting their way. The thing is, Gage then informed the New York Times what had happened, which led to Schuessler’s story. Which means that everyone in the academy is now fully aware of just how far Yale’s administration is willing to warp academic freedom in the pursuit of donor management. To say this is not a good look for an institution that relies on prestige and recognition would be an understatement.

Yale clearly recognizes the problem. Its administration disputed Gage’s account in their conversations with the Times. Within 24 hours of the story running, however, it was singing a different tune. Salovey issued a statement acknowledging that Gage, “did experience more unsolicited input from donors than faculty members should reasonably be expected to accept.” He also noted he had “heard from many faculty members and alumni” stressing that Yale “must take great care to ensure that gifts we receive do not infringe on the academic freedom of our faculty.”

Salovey closed his letter by promising to “ensure that faculty members are protected from any interference in shaping the curriculum and in setting the course for their research and scholarship. This is your expectation and mine, and it is the expectation of our donors.” Based on Brady and Johnson’s behavior, it sure seems like that last expectation might be misguided!

It is possible that Yale will try to sweep this under the rug, but Gage’s actions have established a clear template for further action should Brady and Johnson attempt to intervene again. Maybe the donors will get their way. In the process, however, they may burn Yale’s reputation for academic freedom to the ground and salt the earth of New Haven. That seems like poor strategy.