Liberal Education

For the Love of Learning: Nonpartisan Advocacy and the Mission of the University

Ours is a hyperpartisan moment. For mission-driven nonpartisan institutions, operating in these times can be particularly challenging. My first board meeting as secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society was held a few weeks after the 2016 elections.1 In crafting my opening remarks, I found myself in an awkward position. On the one hand, I wanted to convey a sense of urgency and the heightened relevance of a venerable American institution that, since its founding in 1776, has stood for the value of knowledge and free inquiry; on the other hand, I did not want to signal that these core commitments were linked to any one political party or to a particular electoral outcome. My solution was to articulate the concept of nonpartisan advocacy as a way of emphasizing that Phi Beta Kappa’s values are to be found beyond the realm of partisan politics and offer possibilities for finding common ground in both nonpartisan and bipartisan work. Nonpartisan advocacy is a concept to which I have continued to return.2

Ten years ago, the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) honored Phi Beta Kappa with the Arts and Sciences Advocacy Award. Then, as now, Phi Beta Kappa’s advocacy for the arts and sciences flowed from the society’s mission: to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to foster freedom of thought, and to recognize academic excellence. The society is not unique in conducting such nonpartisan advocacy. Other recipients of the CCAS Advocacy Award include such nonpartisan institutions as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Each in its own way advocates for the broad societal value of the arts, humanities, and sciences, and each does so in a manner that is not aligned with a politically partisan position. In our current political climate, the idea of nonpartisan advocacy seems oxymoronic. It is not. The value of nonpartisan advocacy for our civil society has perhaps never been greater.

A flourishing state

Nonpartisan advocacy begins not with a party affiliation or platform but with the endorsement of a set of ideals, usually at a relatively high level of abstraction, that are central to the mission of an institution.3 Phi Beta Kappa’s historic commitment to the liberal arts and sciences provides the grounding for such ideals, in turn driving an advocacy agenda. Derived from a long history of commitment to the liberal arts, Phi Beta Kappa’s advocacy work draws upon the conviction that these deep-seated values are relevant to the public good.

Phi Beta Kappa was founded on December 5, 1776, when five undergraduates from the College of William & Mary met in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia. They adopted the Latin name Societas Philosophiae, or Philosophical Society, and a motto in Greek, Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης, from whose initials the society draws its name: ΦΒΚ. We usually translate the motto as “love of learning is the guide of life.” However, in classical Greek, Κυβερνήτης, one of the roots of the English word “governor,” has a marine connotation—thus, “pilot” may be a better translation than “guide.” There is a subtle and significant difference. A guide takes us along a path that already exists; a pilot steers us out into the water where there is no path. Sometimes those waters are choppy and uncertain—as they were in 1776 and in so many ways are today. The founders of Phi Beta Kappa made an astonishing commitment to each other that night: when the waters were choppy, it would be the love of learning—not the crown nor any dogma—that would serve as their pilot.

This process of learning concerns both the inner shifts of vision that produce a meaningful life and the outward-facing process that builds community and brings about change locally, nationally, and globally. Perhaps the best example of the way in which the “love of learning” has directed Phi Beta Kappa toward nonpartisan advocacy is the society’s signature legislative accomplishment—the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

In 1963, Phi Beta Kappa, along with the American Council of Learned Societies and the Council of Graduate Schools in America, cosponsored the establishment of a National Commission on the Humanities, chaired by Brown University President Barnaby Keeney. The commission conducted a study of the “state of the humanities in America,” which concluded that a general emphasis on science threatened the study of the humanities from elementary school through postgraduate education. To address this trend, the commission in 1964 recommended that Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson establish a national humanities foundation. With strong public endorsement from the White House, congressional supporters introduced a bill to implement the commission’s recommendations. Congress ultimately approved the legislation by wide margins and on a bipartisan basis. On September 29, 1965, Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which led to the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.4

The law sets forth the purpose of creating and maintaining national endowments to support the humanities and the arts, demonstrating a nonpartisan commitment to the advancement of the liberal arts not only on campuses but also throughout society. The statute opens with the ringing assertion that the “arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States”5 and proclaims that the purpose of such “scholarly and cultural activity [is] to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”6 Far from advancing a particular political vision of American society, the endowments support work advancing “the nation’s rich cultural heritage and [foster] mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.”7

These words echo those of George Washington’s to Congress nearly two centuries earlier: “The assembly to which I address myself is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.”8

I do not look to the legislation that created the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in nostalgia for a lost world of consensus. Rather, I look to it as a statement of what nonpartisan advocacy in support of the arts, humanities, and sciences can achieve and as an example of concrete legislative action furthering society’s fundamental values.

A public good

A decade and a half later, in 1981, Phi Beta Kappa was among the founding members of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), a nonpartisan advocacy coalition dedicated to advancing the humanities. More recently, over the past two years, Phi Beta Kappa staff and members, along with advocates from the range of institutions that belong to the NHA, successfully worked to prevent the defunding of public support for the humanities and maintain and even increase funding for the National Endowments. These advocacy efforts took the form of in-person meetings with members of Congress and their staffs, as well as written, phone, and electronic communication with congressional offices.9 Rather than marking a reduction, fiscal year 2018 funding for both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities ended up increasing from the prior year. Whereas the Trump administration had aimed to shut down the National Endowments completely, requesting appropriations of only $42.3 million to transition to their closure, the actual appropriation was $152.8 million, the highest level since fiscal year 2014, adjusted for inflation. The appropriations for fiscal year 2019 represented yet another increase, to $155 million, and, in planning the fiscal year 2020 budget, the funding bill proposed by the House Appropriation Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies includes an appropriation of $167.5 million for the National Endowments.

Phi Beta Kappa’s support for the National Endowments stems from its core commitment to the liberal arts in the broadest sense and to the concomitant belief that a broad public engagement with the arts and humanities is a public good, and thus calls for appropriate public expenditure.10 This is neither a liberal nor a conservative commitment, and it is certainly not a partisan commitment to support one political party or another. Indeed, the success of this advocacy is precisely its ability to bridge partisan divides.

The society’s commitment to the liberal arts drives an advocacy agenda that goes beyond support for the endowments. Through its National Arts and Sciences Initiative, Phi Beta Kappa sponsors and facilitates programs and activities, on campuses and in the broader community, that seek to cultivate champions for the arts and sciences and to demonstrate the relevance and vitality of the liberal arts. Such work is itself a powerful form of advocacy for Phi Beta Kappa’s historic values.

The line between nonpartisan and partisan may not always appear easy to draw. Some issues, while not in and of themselves partisan, have been seen to be partisan because of the correlation between positions taken on that issue and political affiliation. Consider, for example, the use of science-based research to provide a factual basis for a policy debate. Since at least the time of Francis Bacon, those engaged in understanding the physical world have used principles of inductive reasoning to produce refutable propositions that might be tested by data and observable phenomena.11 Advocacy on behalf of such research per se ought not to be seen as partisan in any manner. Although any particular policy recommendation drawn from scientific evidence may be partisan, the scientific findings themselves and the methods used to derive these findings are not partisan. This underscores the importance of avoiding political intrusion into the process of evaluating grants to support scientific research.

To determine whether advocacy is nonpartisan, institutions must examine the advocacy’s fundamental source. Does it come from a core apolitical value of the institution? Consider, for example, Phi Beta Kappa’s core value that the liberal arts, in people’s formal educations and throughout their lives, facilitates meaningful and productive lives and thereby produces a public good. A nonprofit may certainly engage in advocacy to advance its values. There are, of course, limits to advocacy by nonprofit organizations when that work is based on a political or ideological program or position. For example, what if an institution sought formally to endorse the platform of a political party or to endorse a particular candidate? Here nonprofit groups would jeopardize their ability to advocate in a nonpolitical manner, to say nothing of their tax-exempt status.12

Underlying values

Colleges and universities, too, must ask if the mission of their institution permits them—and perhaps even encourages them—to engage in some forms of nonpartisan advocacy. Although private and public institutions of higher learning may confront the question differently, the inquiry will be whether an institution’s mission compels not only teaching and scholarship but also advocacy if the values underlying the education and research enterprise themselves are endangered. In its seminal 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the American Association of University Professors articulated three core functions of the university:

  1. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge
  2. To provide general instruction to students
  3. To develop experts for various branches of the public service13

To these we might add the quasi-constitutional role that the university can play in a broad system of checks and balances that goes beyond the branches of government. Colleges and universities, although not mentioned in the US Constitution, play a critical role in a democratic and self-governing society. Sources of authority are meant to be widely distributed in our democratic system, countering the risk of a concentration of power. In this sense, the public good of higher education institutions includes inquiry, scholarship, research, and expertise that check political power.

The advocacy that flows from such an understanding of the mission of the university includes advocacy for academic freedom, advocacy for free inquiry, advocacy for free expression, and advocacy for the liberal arts and sciences as a public good on our campuses and in our communities. Such advocacy can take the form of public programs and writings demonstrating the value of the arts and sciences, or outreach to public officials to urge support for higher education and to argue against interference with academic freedom and expression. Instrumentally, nonpartisan advocacy by the alumni of public colleges and universities may argue for increased state funding for their institutions and for public higher education in general.14

Having concluded the institutions of higher learning may engage in nonpartisan advocacy begs the question as to the extent colleges and universities should be engaged in such advocacy efforts on their campuses, in their communities, and on a national level. To answer this, we must first consider another fundamental and essential question—on whose behalf would the institution be advocating? This in turn brings us to the very nature of our universities.

American colleges and universities have played a singular role in our society. They are the institutions that educate each generation of students so they can lead meaningful, productive, and engaged lives. They have been one of the core engines of social mobility from colonial times, enabling the children of farmers to become professionals and opening a new world of higher education through the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862. From the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, institutions of higher education have enabled children of immigrants to enter the American economy and society. The path was not always a straight one. Women and African Americans were excluded from higher education until Oberlin opened its doors to them in 1833 and Mount Holyoke did so in 1837. In the mid-twentieth century, colleges and universities allowed returning World War II veterans to advance through the visionary GI Bill. In our own time, higher education aspires for students from around the globe and every stratum of American society to obtain an education and thereby claim prerogatives promised by a free society.

In the name of the mission

To advocate on behalf of a college or university is to advocate less on behalf of its stakeholders and more on behalf of its mission. The point was well elucidated two hundred years ago this year in a celebrated Supreme Court opinion, Dartmouth College v. Woodward.15 Although Dartmouth College is more remembered today as the initial case to interpret a fairly technical clause in Article I of the United States Constitution that prohibits a state from passing a law “impairing the obligation of contracts,”16 it is also the case in which Chief Justice John Marshall laid the legal foundation of institutions of higher learning in the new republic. Prior to adjudicating the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s attempt to amend the Dartmouth College charter, the court had to consider the question of legal standing, that is, who may assert this constitutional claim against the State of New Hampshire. Marshall found that the college trustees could assert the claim even though they had “no beneficial interest to be protected.” The standing of the trustees was derived from the charter itself which, Marshall wrote, created an “artificial immortal being,” a thing of “inestimable value.”

The thing that is of inestimable value is, strictly speaking, not the college itself but rather the mission of the college. Although the articulated missions of universities and colleges will vary, most—if not all—involve the pursuit and transmission of knowledge in the belief that the transmission of knowledge creates a public good. Knowledge is pursued both in teaching-centered colleges and in research-based universities, because the knowledge that is sought may be that which is inherited, discovered, created, or even reconsidered and revised. Similarly, both teaching and scholarship transmit knowledge. It is only by speaking in the name of the mission that one speaks in the name of an institution of higher learning, and advocacy on behalf of the institution must be derived from, and promote, this mission.

Marshall’s “thing of inestimable value” was captured by the founders of Phi Beta Kappa, who spoke not just of learning itself but of the love of learning that would be the pilot of their lives. Their words inspired and presaged an understanding of what would become the highest aspirations of the new republic founded contemporaneously with the society. As articulated in the National Endowments legislation, “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”17

Notes

1. The governing board of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is known as the Phi Beta Kappa Senate.

2. This article is based on the author’s lectures presented to the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences on the occasion of receiving the CCAS Arts & Sciences Advocacy Award on November 15, 2018, and to the New American Colleges and Universities on the occasion of receiving the Ernest Boyer Award on January 24, 2019. It is also drawn from materials in Frederick Lawrence, The Rise of Campus Counsel: Higher Education and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

3. This article is concerned with nonpartisan advocacy by nonprofit institutions. Nonpartisan advocacy on behalf of a particular industry, for example, would not be expected to fit the model of advocacy driven by a commitment to a set of ideals at a high level of abstraction.

4. See https://www.neh.gov.

5. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 951.1 (1965).

6. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, § 951.3.

7. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, § 951.6.

8. George Washington, State of the Union Address (address, Philadelphia, PA, December 7, 1796), The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/200398.

9. For the range of means by which advocacy for the arts and sciences may be accomplished, see the Phi Beta Kappa National Arts & Sciences Initiative tool kit, toolkit.pbk.org.

10. For an example, see Paul A. Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” Review of Economics and Statistics 36, no. 4 (November 1954): 387–89.

11. Francis Bacon was the first to formalize the concept of a scientific method in the early seventeenth century, in Novum Organum Scientiarum, itself part of the larger work Instauratio Magna (1620).

12. See “The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations,” irs.gov, accessed June 22, 2019, https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-r....

13. Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, American Association of University Professors, § 3 (1915).

14. For an example, see the advocacy efforts to support public higher education coordinated by the University of Texas at Austin (https://www.texasexes.org/get-involved/advocate-ut) and the Public Higher Education Legislative Advocacy Professionals (https://phelap.wordpress.com/about).

15. Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518, 589 (1819).

16. U.S. Const., art. I, § 10.1.

17. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 951.8 (1965).


Frederick M. Lawrence is secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center. The recipient of the 2019 Ernest L. Boyer Award, given by the New American Colleges & Universities, he delivered the 2019 Boyer Lecture, “To Whom Does the University Belong? The Complex Foundations of Higher Education Institutions,” at AAC&U’s annual meeting. He would like to express his appreciation to Eva Caldera, James Grossman, and Anne Tria Wise for their helpful comments on this article and also to his student Jennifer Prescott, Georgetown University Law Center, class of 2019, for her editorial and research assistance.

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