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Bass, Yale, and Western Civ.
In the ideological battle sparked by the return of the $20 million given to Yale by Lee Bass ’79 for the study of Western Civilization, many of the facts quickly receded. One of the reasons is that the incident inflamed the passions of a deeper debate in the nation at large over what higher education is for.

April 17, 1991, was a heady day for Benno C. Schmidt Jr. and Donald Kagan. Beaming triumphantly at a news conference, then-President Schmidt and Kagan, who was dean of Yale College, announced some spectacular news: Lee Bass ’79 would be giving Yale $20 million. It was an unusual gift for the University, not only because of its size, but because of the specificity of its academic purpose: the study of Western Civilization. Schmidt hailed the gift as “one of the largest and most inspired ever received by Yale.” Kagan, who had prompted the donation with a speech on the importance of placing Western studies at the center of a liberal arts education, called the Bass gesture a “splendid contribution to the future excellence of Yale College and the University.”

But four years later, Yale’s new President, Richard C. Levin, found himself giving Bass his money back. The amount is the largest ever returned to a donor by an institution of higher learning, and its loss has provoked widespread alumni rancor, raising questions about the nature of Yale’s undergraduate curriculum and underscoring the hazards of accepting gifts with special conditions. Particularly troubling to administrators is that the matter has tarnished the image of Levin, who had been riding a wave of enormous good will since taking office two years ago.

Outside the University, the episode rapidly became an academic cause célèbre and set press pundits opining on how Yale could have let such a major donation get away. According to some, the University had capitulated to advocates of “multiculturalism,” while others claimed it had stood its ground on a matter of academic integrity. The Boston Globe called the incident a “sorry tale of incompetence and failure of communication,” and the New York Post termed Yale’s handling of the matter “disgraceful and indefensible.” At the other end of the spectrum, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that “Yale University officials are to be commended for returning a $20 million gift that, in the end, contained too many strings,” while the New York Times concluded that “it does not pay to pander to a donor’s political quirks in the hope of finding a way around his intent.”

Although essentially an academic matter, the Bass story instantly became a potent symbol of something much larger. Like “affirmative action,” the terms “Western Civilization” and “multiculturalism” have in recent years been freighted with significance well beyond their original definitions. Indeed, for many, they have become code words for a national debate that is pitting “angry white males” (dead or otherwise) against homosexuals, feminists, and minorities; tradition against innovation; exclusion against inclusion; and elitism against populism. “Unfortunately for Yale,” says John Hoy, executive director of the New England Board of Higher Education, “this issue got caught in a relatively steamy national debate. Somehow the merit and effectiveness of liberal philosophical and social thought got boiled down to this gift.” The syndicated columnist George Will may have identified the main reason for the outpouring of attention to the matter when, speaking on the ABC news program This Week With David Brinkley, he concluded that the Bass debate was “a fundamental part of the cultural war.”

Regardless of what really fed the media frenzy, Yale administrators and trustees spent months striving mightily to stanch the flow of negative publicity. Joseph Gall '48, '52PhD, a member of the Yale Corporation, felt compelled to declare publicly that he had “complete confidence” in President Levin and his fellow administrators, adding that there was “no hint” of anything amiss or unbalanced about Yale’s undergraduate curriculum. Another defender is Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures who had been assigned one of the chairs to be endowed by the Bass gift. He termed Levin’s decision to return the money “wise and courageous.” But despite these public declarations of confidence, University leaders say privately that, with their five-year, $1.5 billion capital fund drive just past the halfway mark, the Bass episode couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The details of what actually happened to the Bass grant are still a matter of considerable debate, primarily because a number of the principal players will not discuss it. Former President Schmidt did not respond to several telephone messages requesting an interview for this article, and Professor Kagan refused to comment for publication. Lee Bass, who, like the rest of his family, avoids the press (he did not attend the news conference at which the gift was announced), also declined requests to be interviewed. He did, however, provide a glimpse into his thinking on the matter when, in response to a written request for an interview, he wrote to this magazine: “I choose to remain silent so as to not heap further embarrassment upon my Alma Mater by airing its dirty laundry publicly.”

Despite the inaccessibility of so many participants, several administrators and faculty members close to the affair have provided pieces of the puzzle. What emerges from their accounts is a saga of a well-intentioned but poorly conceived plan that fell victim to a volatile mixture of personalities, bad timing, disorganization, and miscommunication—“an administrative chain reaction,” in the words of one faculty member, or, as Corporation member John Lee Jr. '58E, '59MEng, put it, a “very poor handoff of the ball.” Contrary to the assertions of many critics, however, the facts as they are now known do not support claims that the gift was willfully derailed by academic ideologues.

One thing on which everyone agrees is that the origins of the Bass grant lay in an address Donald Kagan gave to incoming freshmen in the fall of 1990 (and which was published in the November 1990 issue of this magazine). “It is both right and necessary to place Western Civilization and the culture to which it has given rise at the center of our studies,” Kagan said. “We fail to do so at the peril of our students, our country, and of the hopes for a democratic, liberal society emerging throughout the world today.”

At the time, the public debate about the direction of higher education—in such books as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals—was in full swing, and President Schmidt was reportedly so impressed by Kagan’s remarks that he approached Lee Bass about supporting a program based on the dean’s vision of resisting what many saw as a disturbing national trend away from the academic basics. The 34-year-old Bass, the youngest member of the billionaire Bass family from Fort Worth, Texas, had been expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and two of his older brothers, each of whom had given $20 million to Yale (for a molecular biology center, a center for biospheric studies, and to strengthen the teaching of humanities). Bass evidently considered the Schmidt-Kagan proposal an appropriate vehicle.

According to John Fuquay, a business reporter at the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Bass and his wife, Ramona, are generous, but unusually private, figures. One of the couple’s favorite projects is the Fort Worth Zoo, which was in financial straits until they bailed it out and agreed to underwrite its future operations. Bass, who has served on the Texas Wildlife Commission, has also spent millions of dollars revitalizing a section of downtown Fort Worth known as Sun Dance Square, and he is a regular contributor to the political campaigns of state and local Republican candidates.

The Bass empire was founded by Lee’s great uncle Sid Richardson, a wildcatter who struck it rich in the oil fields of West Texas. According to Fuquay, Bass and his three brothers inherited $2.8 million each from Richardson. In the mid-1980s, they made two enormously successful investments, first in Texaco and then in Disney. These moves made them billionaires and enabled them to pursue the philanthropic activities for which they are best known at Yale. When Lee’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, marking it with the first of the family’s $20 million gifts to the University, Perry Bass ’37 declared, ”It’s easier to make money than to spend it wisely.”

Those words must since have been haunting all the parties involved in what happened after President Schmidt met with Lee Bass to discuss the possibility of another gift. At the time, Yale already offered more than 100 separate courses dealing with various aspects of Western studies, and was arguably one of the best places in the country for such scholarship. But Schmidt and Bass, with counsel from Kagan, hoped to create a more comprehensive program, weaving together various components of Western Civilization from ancient times forward to create a double-credit sophomore seminar course. The plan included $14 million to endow chairs for seven senior professors who were already members of the Yale faculty but would be designated Bass Professors. A key element in this strategy was to remove their salaries from the budget of the University, thus helping to reduce its operating deficit (a common practice at Yale). Four assistant professors were also expected to teach in the program, but whether these positions would be filled by existing faculty or through additional hiring was not specified.

According to Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs Terry Holcombe, 80 percent of the money Yale receives from donors comes in the form of restricted gifts, meaning that they are earmarked for specific purposes. Therefore, while the Bass gift was more complicated than most, Holcombe says it was not unique. The document spelling out the donor’s expectations for the money (the “deed of gift”) remains confidential, but Holcombe confirmed that it was not specific about the four assistant professors. “Nobody at Yale saw that as a problem,” he said.

Soon after the deal was struck with Bass, Schmidt appointed a committee to work out the details. The panel, headed by Kagan, determined that the assistant professors should be “incremental” after all, meaning that they would be added to the existing faculty. But while Bass had allocated money for this purpose, the cost-cutting strategy Schmidt had already initiated to “restructure” the faculty of arts and sciences resulted in an effective freeze on hiring. Controversy over this plan contributed to Kagan’s resignation as dean of the College, and later to Schmidt’s abrupt departure as President (Yale Alumni Magazine, Oct. '92). And, having embarked on an austerity program, many faculty members and administrators felt that hiring additional teachers would send a conflicting message, especially since the new staff would be dedicated to only one academic area.

Implementation of the Bass course hit another snag when, in the wake of Schmidt’s resignation, history professor Howard Lamar was named Acting President. Lamar says that during his one-year term, discussions continued about how to launch the Bass program, but that progress was delayed because all the money hadn’t yet arrived. Lamar also says he felt that it would have been inappropriate for a transitional administration to put forward a major new program with such long-term implications. Recalling a meeting with Perry Bass to take receipt of the rest of the money, Lamar says, “My recollection is that he was very flexible, very gracious, and very excited about giving the money. It was an extraordinarily positive situation—but remember, I was dealing with the father, not the son.”

When Levin became President in 1993, he came to share the view of many administrators that the original program would prove an inefficient use of faculty resources. The problem, as Levin saw it, was that by transferring senior professors from their regular lecture courses to seminars, the program would actually reduce the number of Yale students who would be exposed to Western studies. Moreover, as an economist striving to further reduce Yale’s deficit, Levin felt that the program’s junior faculty—like the seven senior professors—should be selected from those already on the payroll. As had Lamar and then-provost Judith Rodin (who is now president of the University of Pennsylvania), Levin argued against hiring the four new assistant professors and, in the wake of Kagan’s resignation, appointed another committee to come up with a revised version of the original course that would make what he considered better use of the faculty expected to teach it. The head of the new committee was Richard Brodhead, who had succeeded Kagan as dean of the College. “The committee’s charge was to develop some proposals to take to Mr. Bass that would augment Yale’s Western Civilization curriculum,” Levin says. “At no time did we ever contemplate using the money for something other than Western Civilization.”

Looking back, Levin and others acknowledge that Yale erred in not communicating more regularly with Bass in the early stages. However, given the Bass family’s active involvement with Yale (Lee’s older brother, Sid, was a member of the Yale Corporation), administrators may have assumed that Lee was being kept apprised, albeit informally, of what was happening—or not happening—with his money. Moreover, Levin was heavily occupied in the early months of his presidency restoring confidence to a campus rocked by the restructuring controversy and Schmidt’s unexpected departure. Whatever the level of communication among the parties, some sources suggest that, with the resignations of Schmidt as President and Kagan as dean, Bass had already begun to fear for the stewardship of his money.

In December 1994, a fledgling publication called Light and Truth emerged with its own interpretation of events. Its first issue featured a cover story written by Pat Collins '96, claiming that Levin had decided to “kill the original program” and that a number of faculty had even “tried to have the funds redirected to their own projects or departments.” Says Collins now: “I guess the administration figured they'd never be called on what was really going on. But what they failed to understand was that Bass was really involved with the program, and was very excited about it.”

Although Light and Truth bills itself as a “news journal for the Yale community” that is written “primarily by Yale students,” it is not entirely a home-grown publication. It is funded by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc., a conservative organization based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, that is also active at Duke, Stanford, Converse, Vassar, and Washington and Lee. The aim of its efforts, according to ISI vice president Chris Long, is to “break the monopoly of information the alumni offices and publications and the university public relations offices put out to alumni.” In addition to Light and Truth, ISI’s activities at Yale include support for the Conservative Forum, which is “devoted to promoting the consideration of currently underrepresented—but historically important—policies and viewpoints, and the classical ideal of the University as a place for the pursuit of truth and understanding.”

Long says his organization is seeking “a nonpoliticized understanding of the ideals that have furthered a free society throughout Western civilization in general and America in particular.” The tendency of multiculturalists to reexamine traditional historical interpretations is a frequent target of his organization, but Long insists that “we’re not for whitewashing Western civilization. Certainly there was slavery and colonialism, but they were done away with, and that’s an important part of Western culture, too.” The institute’s objection to multiculturalism, he says, is that it’s not what it seems. “ISI is very much in favor of studying other cultures, but multiculturalism isn’t about that,” he says. “It’s about promoting interest-group politics” through course offerings that amount to “Oprah Winfreyization.”

According to Long, ISI spent roughly $75,000 at Yale this year, but did not edit or otherwise seek to influence Collins’s story. Long dismissed as “mere coincidence” the fact that Collins studied at the National Journalism Center, a Washington, D.C.-based training program for journalists that is run by an ISI trustee. When asked about a Newsweek article claiming that Bass was in close contact with ISI when Levin was negotiating with him on possible ways to salvage the program, Long refused to comment. He did say, however, that the Institute had targeted about 5,000 Yale alumni, including Bass, to receive copies of the magazine containing Collins’s article. Since then, Long claims, the Institute has received more than $200,000 from Yale alumni who say they had originally intended to give the money to Yale, but because of the Bass incident, changed their minds.

The story of the Bass gift attracted interest outside of Yale when the Light and Truth story was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, which ran an editorial last November 25 savaging the University for giving in to “political interest groups” and “faculty ideologues.”

Levin, who had already planned a trip to Texas to meet with other alumni, quickly added a visit with Bass to the schedule. Although the President tried to reassure Bass that the original goals of the gift would be met and eventually agreed that the four assistant professors would be hired after all, even that concession proved insufficient. To Levin’s surprise, Bass at this point upped the ante by insisting that he be granted approval of the professors who would be teaching the course. That was a condition some suggest Bass must have known could not be met—and may have been added to simultaneously extricate himself from his commitment and give Yale a way out.

An eleventh-hour round of meetings was nevertheless held at Yale in a final effort to save the grant. Some other members of the Bass family reportedly sought to intervene on the University’s behalf, as did Lloyd Cutler '36, '39LLB, a former White House counsel to U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, the Yale Corporation had voted unanimously to return the money if no accommodation could be reached, but top Yale administrators were still hopeful. Then, on March 14, the Wall Street Journal announced in another editorial that Bass was taking his money back. This had not yet happened (in fact, the Yale team was planning to meet that very afternoon for a final try at retooling the program to Bass’s satisfaction), but the Journal editorial effectively ended any chance of saving the grant. There has been speculation since then that the newspaper could not have written what it did without Bass’s advance knowledge, and that the donor may actually have avoided Yale’s belated attempts to contact him. In a statement issued the day the Journal piece appeared, Bass said that “the University’s reluctance to enter into such an agreement [on faculty approval] led to our mutual decision that the gift should be returned.” In his own statement, President Levin said that “it is unfortunate but inevitable that friends must disagree from time to time.”

Many at Yale have attributed the collapse of the Bass grant to the fact that the University underwent convulsive leadership changes during the time between the original commitment and the final resolution. Indeed, Yale had seen three Presidents, three provosts, and three College deans in the space of four years. “That’s no excuse,” says Levin now. “There’s no question that had I appreciated how important speedy implementation of the program was to Mr. Bass, I would have made it happen. I should have pursued it more diligently.”

While Pat Collins remains pleased with his publication’s role in the affair, he says he was surprised by the final outcome. “I guess I’d always figured something would be worked out and the money would be saved,” he says. “But it’s tough. We’re just journalists. My article didn’t cause this situation; we weren’t the ones who deceived Bass.”

After the Bass drama had played itself out to its disappointing conclusion and the University’s explanation of events was made public, a Hartford Courant editorial expressed the views of many when it declared: “It offends common sense to say that opposition from faculty members hostile to focusing on Western Civilization was not a factor.” It is not hard to see how such an opinion could be reached. The program did provoke the ire of some multiculturalists when it was unveiled in 1991. For instance, Sara Suleri Goodyear, a professor of English, had this reaction: “Western Civilization? Why not a chair for colonialism, slavery, empire, and poverty?” Meanwhile, Geoffrey Parker, a history professor, was quoted as saying, “The major export of Western Civilization is violence.” As recently as January of this year, the Yale Daily News was reporting that “a proposal to create a year-long elective in Western Civilization has met with strident faculty opposition.” Meanwhile, the New York Times wrote, “Liberals had criticized the restrictions placed on the donation, arguing that the money could be better spent on courses with a multicultural perspective.”

Given such comments, it would be hard not to conclude that ideology had played a role in the program’s demise. Yet even Yale’s most vocal multiculturalists say they know of no organized lobbying effort to persuade Levin to block the course for ideological reasons. “Nobody brought any pressure to radicalize this thing,” says Michael Holquist, a prominent professor of comparative literature, “and even if somebody did, anyone who knows Rick Levin knows that he doesn’t collapse under pressure from anybody.” Holquist says there was some initial concern that the course proposed by Bass might be too similar to other programs already offered at Yale, but he added that those reservations were allayed when Levin took office. “That’s the kind of confidence everyone has in Rick and his team,” Holquist says. “We became more prepared to go along with it.”

Tripp Professor of Humanities Peter Brooks, another outspoken multiculturalist, says that while he did express some initial opposition to the Bass program, it wasn’t because it focused on Western studies. His main concern, he says, was that the course had been conceived behind closed doors by Schmidt and Kagan, both of whom had angered many members of the faculty because of their restructuring plans (Yale Alumni Magazine, May 1992) and what was widely thought to be their autocratic management style. Indeed, Kagan himself once declared that “there are places in this University where a motion to wish me a happy birthday would get a close vote.”

Recalling this climate of personal animosity and a widespread feeling that the Bass program was being forced upon the faculty as a way to usurp its authority, Brooks expressed a common faculty view when he said, “The program seemed more like a platform for propagandizing than something that responded to curricular needs. I did think the whole thing needed much more thought. But this contention that Yale is dominated by a multiculturalist agenda is just plain wrong. It’s not part of the ethos of the place.” Adds Levin: “It mystifies me. Constituencies out there believe universities are undermining Western traditions and values and have seized on this to draw inferences that simply are not warranted.”

Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead concurs. “Yale’s curriculum is unmatched in the breadth and depth of its coverage of the many subjects of Western Civilization,” he says. Two programs Brodhead and others frequently cite as evidence are Directed Studies, a highly selective program for freshmen centered on seminars tracing the literature, politics, history, and philosophy of the West, and the Humanities Major, a multidisciplinary program focusing on the evolution of Western culture. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Steven Smith, a professor of political science and the director of special programs in the humanities, wrote that Directed Studies and the Humanities Major both “put the values and texts of the Western tradition at the very core of their curricula.” Brodhead goes so far as to say that if Yale’s undergraduate curriculum has a weakness, it’s in its multicultural course offerings. But he is quick to add that he doesn’t think the two—multiculturalism and Western Civilization—should be mutually exclusive. “I hope never to encourage parochialism of any sort,” he says. “We need to aspire to a mental cosmopolitanism.” [See his “An Anatomy of Multiculturalism,” in the April 1994 Yale Alumni Magazine.]

Steven Friedenberg '95, a former editor-in-chief of the Yale Herald, an undergraduate publication, says that while there has been some lobbying by student special-interest groups to alter the curriculum (Asian students want an Asian Studies major, for example), most undergraduates are comfortable with the existing balance between Western studies and multicultural offerings. “There are definitely some conservative student groups that might be outraged by some courses,” he said, “but for the average Yale student, there are definitely enough courses in Western studies.”

In fact, the current guide to the Yale College curriculum suggests that, while it has expanded its reach in recent years, it has hardly abandoned its traditional focus. While there is a course on lesbian and gay theater and performance, there are many more on Shakespeare. Among the listings is “Feminist Perspectives on Literature,” but so is a course entitled, “The Western Literary Tradition,” and while “African American History: From Emancipation to the Present” appears on the list, so does “Themes in 19th-Century European Cultural Criticism.”

In 1990, the Modern Language Association of America conducted a survey of the English curricula offered at a random sample of two- and four-year English departments, concluding that “innovation accounts for a relatively small portion of any course syllabus” and that there appears to be substantial agreement about what authors should be taught. MLA Executive Director Phyllis Franklin says that the list of authors studied at Yale falls well within the mainstream. “Conservatives tend to see change where it hasn’t happened,” she says. “In fact, the changes have been relatively minor and in keeping with normal curricular trends.”

However, when it comes to the critical and potentially costly matter of alumni relations, perception can often overwhelm reality—and in recent months the perception has lingered among some alumni that Levin, in league with the multiculturalists, sabotaged the Bass program. Scores of angry letters from alumni were arriving regularly in the weeks after the story broke. “It is with a heavy heart when I say that, at present, Yale University is cowardly, adrift, and desperately in need of leadership,” wrote D. J. Keblish '88 in a letter to this magazine. Others, like C. G. Arnold '48, wrote to say that they would be withholding their contributions as a result of the Bass affair. “Apparently, with Donald Kagan’s resignation, Yale lost its last anchor to windward, and now drifts happily along in the 'port side' currents of political correctness,” he wrote.

Alumni in the national media joined the chorus. Writing in the New York Observer, columnist Michael Thomas '58 declared: “I would hesitate at throwing as much as a nickel in the direction of what used to be perceived as a seat of learning but which now appears instead to be the seat of a bottomless toilet. Yale has declared itself intellectually and morally all but bankrupt.”

Terry Holcombe of the development office is not taking such sentiments lightly. “It’s certainly been an issue for alumni, there’s no question about that,” he says. “We’ve had a few letters along the lines of ‘If you don’t need $20 million, then you don’t need my modest gift.’” But Holcombe says alumni giving is actually 5 percent ahead of where it was last year. Another encouraging sign, he says, is that the capital fund drive has raised 73 percent of its goal in only 59 percent of the allotted time.

As heartening as this may be, administrators know that they cannot be complacent. “Any time you make a big mistake, as Yale clearly did, there are lessons to be learned,” Levin says. As a direct result of the Bass episode, several measures are being implemented to guard against misunderstandings with future donors. One is the creation of an internal committee composed of representatives from the provost’s office, as well as from the finance, facilities, and development offices. The group is charged with improving contact with donors, and monitoring the implementation of all gifts. Second, monthly meetings will be held with the provost to review the status of gifts. Finally, noting that some alumni feel frustrated that their concerns are not being heard, Holcombe says University officials are looking at ways to improve communication with the administration.

Holcombe says he knows it will take time for the wounds caused by this issue to heal, but he says he is confident that, in time, they will. “Bart Giamatti had a saying, ‘Alumni don’t like not liking Yale,’ and I think that’s true,” he says. “The alumni are a supportive part of the place, so eventually they’ll return to the fold and life will go on.”

In the meantime, some with long memories have noted that charges that Yale is run by a cabal of wild-eyed liberals are not new. In 1903, many alumni were outraged when Yale abandoned its requirement for the study of Greek. The demise of compulsory chapel in 1926 struck some as a sure sign of moral collapse. In 1951, an undergraduate named William F. Buckley (who went on to become the first president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) created a sensation with his book, God and Man at Yale, in which he lamented the threat to traditional values posed by secular humanists. And in the late 1960s, many alumni were angered by what they considered President Kingman Brewster’s coddling of students protesting the Vietnam War and by his decision to admit women to Yale College.

Yale has weathered these upheavals, arguably even benefitting from them. What makes the Bass affair different is that its impact is so quantifiable: It cost Yale $20 million—at least. Yet, a more pernicious legacy could well be a climate of suspicion that appears to be flourishing elsewhere between different factions of the academic community and between academe and society at large.

Those seeking further insight into this phenomenon might be interested in a course currently being offered at Yale entitled, “Subversion and Counter-Subversion in American History.” According to the catalog, the course poses such questions as: “What produces conspiracy theories and witch hunts? How can an open democratic society protect its security without sacrificing its most basic values? And is there a ‘paranoid style’ that is peculiarly part of the American national character?”  the end


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