Harold Laski on Foundations and Universities

The following quotes are from Harold Laski’s important 1930 essay “Foundations, Universities, and Research,” which was published in his book The Dangers of Obedience and Other Essays.

laski dangers of obediance

“The research institutes report to the universities; the universities report to the directors of foundations; the directors of foundations report to their trustees; the trustees seek reports from detached outsiders upon the reports they have received. Conferences are held for the reception of reports; and men are judged by the impression of them the reports convey. Trustees look to university presidents to pick the professors likely to attract endowments from the foundations; university presidents look for professors who can produce the kind of research in which the foundations are interested; professors search for healthy young graduates who can provide the basis for the ultimate generalizations. There are endless committees to coordinate or correlate or integrate. There are new executive positions for men who do not themselves research but judge whether other people are suitable for the task of research. These are formidable people, widely traveled, gracious, but firm in manner, as befits men who have vast benefactions to dispense. There are interim reports, special reports, confidential reports, final reports. There are programs for the development of every theme. There are surveys for the dissection of every problem, industrial, racial, national, international. There are experimental centers, statistical centers, analytical centers. More energy, I venture to believe, has gone this last five years into the systematization of research in this field than in any previous generation of intellectual effort.” (pp.153-4)

“I turn to the second aspect of the problem: the effect of the system upon the universities. Here, the controlling fact is that the great foundations have immense sums to disburse. It is the inevitable result that an energetic university president or an ambitious university teacher should think out his plans in terms of what the foundation is likely to approve. Certain obvious consequences follow. “Dangerous” problems are not likely to be investigated, especially not by “dangerous” men; that would not win the esteem of the trustees who can be counted upon to dislike disturbing themes. I know, for instance, of an important project, brought to a point after long and difficult negotiation, which was killed by a foundation in the belief that its completion would be displeasing to Signor Mussolini. And it must be remembered that the system, as it works, is all to the disadvantage of the scholar whose results, however important, come slowly. The president wants material for a formidable annual report which will obtain a renewal of the grant. Other things being equal, his blessing goes to the members of the staff who can give him material for such a report; and, where vacancies occur, search will be made for men of a similar stamp elsewhere. The personnel where vacancies occur, search will be made for men of a similar stamp elsewhere. The personnel of the university, in a word, comes to be dominated by the “executive” type of professor, who is active in putting its goods into the shop-window. The university with a big grant has its place in the press. The president is marked out as a man able to do things. The enthusiasm for quantity the most insidious of all academic diseases-grows by what it feeds on. Those who cannot aid the development of the new tendencies find themselves without influence and discouraged. Men, only too often, are judged by their output; and, as soon as that point is reached, they spend their time, not in reflection upon ultimate principle, but in the description of social machinery or the collection of “materials. It is the business of a university to breed great scholars; and in such an atmosphere great scholars will hardly be bred.” (pp.163-4)

“Nor is it easy to be satisfied with the position of the foundations themselves. Here, let me’ say at once that some of them are blessed indeed in their personnel; when one thinks of a man like Abraham Flexner, with his insight, his wisdom, his humility, one wonders why, long ago, one of the great universities had not implored him to lend it the aid, as its president, of his creative imagination. But a man like Abraham Flexner is rare indeed among the executives of a foundation. Usually the director gives the impression of considerable complacency and a keen sense of the power at his disposal. He has not often himself engaged in the serious business of research. He has dipped into an immense number of subjects; he is usually captivated by the latest fashion in each. He travels luxuriously, is amply entertained wherever he goes (he has so much to give), and he speaks always to hearers keenly alert to sense the direction of his own interests in order that they may explain that this is the one thing they are anxious to develop in their own university. When you see him at a college, it is like nothing so much as the vision of an important customer in a department store. Deferential salesmen surround him on every hand, anticipating his every wish, alive to the importance of his good opinion, fearful lest he be dissatisfied and go to their rival across the way. The effect on him is to make him feel that he in fact is shaping the future of the social sciences. Only a very big man can do that. From which it follows that he is a very big man.

“He has no desire — let it be admitted in the fullest possible degree — to control the universities he seeks to benefit. The gifts are made; and it is, I believe, only in the most exceptional instances that any conditions of any kind are attached to them. But, with all the good will in the world, he cannot help controlling them. A university principal who wants his institution to expand has no alternative except to see it expand in the directions of which one or other of the foundations happens to approve. There may be doubt, or even dissent among the teachers in the institution, but what possible chance has doubt or dissent against a possible gift of, say, a hundred thousand dollars? And how, conceivably, can the teacher whose work fits in with the scheme of the prospective endowment fail to appear more important in the eyes of the principal or his trustees than the teacher for whose subject, or whose views, the foundation has neither interest nor liking? What possible chance has the teacher of an “unendowed” subject to pull an equal weight in his institution with the teacher of one that is “endowed”? How can he avoid the embarrassment that may come when he is asked, as he has been ‘asked, to put his own work on one side and cooperate in the particular piece of research the foundation has adopted and upon the report about which the standing of his own institution may depend? What are his chances of promotion if he pursues a path of solitary inquiry in a world of colleges competing for the substantial crumbs which fall from the foundation’s table? And, observe, there is not a single point here in which there is the slightest control from, or interference by, the foundation itself. It is merely the fact that a fund is within reach which permeates everything and alters everything. The college develops along the lines the foundation approves. The dependence is merely implicit, but it is in fact quite final. If a foundation is interested in international affairs the college will develop a zeal for its study, or for anthropology, or the negro problem, or questions of population. But it would also, whatever the cost, develop a passion for ballistics or the Bantu languages if these were the subjects upon which the foundation was prepared to smile.

“I remember vividly a summer school in a European city which was visited by the director of an important foundation. Its organizers were hard pressed for funds and hopeful that some manna might fall from the particular heaven in which this director dwelt. I was invited to meet him at dinner, and instructions were offered to me about the kind of reception he was to have. Though none of us felt that what he has written possessed any special importance, we were to treat him as a high authority upon his subject. We were to elicit his frank views about the school, and explain that his hopes and fears coincided with our own. We were to discuss-of course in an impersonal way-the great achievements to the credit of his foundation, and the high influence it had exerted in the promotion of international good will. We were to refer delicately to our sense of the fitness of things which had led a foreign government to decorate him for his services. We were to indicate our faint hope that the light of his countenance might be pleased to shine upon so humble an effort as the summer school. In so delicately perfumed an atmosphere it was indeed comforting to watch the expansion of his personality. I think we almost convinced him that he was a great man; certainly he was pleased to indicate that he believed a distinguished future lay before “some of your group.” Am in me time the school made its formal application, and the appropriate manna fell from heaven.

As a rule, of course, the environment, on both sides, is manipulated with a finesse more exquisitely molded and more subtly staged. But that it is recognized where the real control lies no one who has watched the operation in process can possibly doubt. The man who pays the piper knows perfectly well that he can call the tune. He can shut down, at a moment’s notice, one of the most promising graduate schools in the United States by the simple process of deciding to spend its wonted subsidy in another direction. He can close an activity for which his foundation was famous all over the world, to which, also, men of international reputation have given years of devoted service, merely by deciding that there is not room for its activities in his next year’s budget; and the unfortunate subjects of his decision are without opportunity either of appeal or protest. Those who have access to him among the universities become important merely by the influence they exert. Let him select a scholar to travel among the colleges and report upon the teaching and organization of a particular subject, and the scholar will be received with the same breathless reverence as a Jacobin representative on mission. The foundations do not control, simply because, in the direct and simple sense of the word, there is no need for them to do so. ‘They have only to indicate the immediate direction of their minds for the whole university world to discover that it always meant to gravitate swiftly to that angle of the intellectual compass.


“No one, I suppose, has ever undertaken research, however humble, without feeling that the business of discovering facts is grim and necessary and infinitely laborious. But it is one thing to find them for the purpose of an end beyond themselves, and it is another thing, and a dangerous thing, to elevate the mere process of their discovery into a religious rhapsody. For immediately the second road is followed, a body of vital consequences follows. Immense sums of money become necessary; and the essential factor in the situation becomes the man or the institution with money to give. The laborers in the vineyard set themselves to cultivate his good will. And because scientific “impartiality” is important — for the donors must not be accused of subsidizing a particular point of view the emphasis of research moves away from values and ends to materials and methods.

“The men who used to be architects of ideas and systems become builders’ laborers. They are rated not for what they think and its value, but for how they can organize and its extent. The man who dominates the field is the man who knows how to “run” committees and conferences, who has influence with, and access to, a trustee here and a director there. The governing bodies of universities are naturally impressed by imposing buildings, long lists of publications, reports of committees with high-sounding names; how, for them, shall such activities not be important upon which foundations born of the grim, material success they understand, are prepared to lavish millions? The directors are, content enough, for their esteem is flattered and they have the assurance of innumerable committees that, one day, results of the first importance will be born. And if somewhere a faint doubt obtrudes, a reference to the technic of the natural sciences and the immense results secured there is usually sufficient to stifle skepticism.” (pp.169-76)




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