George Mason University has made the news and likely in a more controversial way than the school would like.

The Associated Press reported recently that a $50 million donation to the university’s law school — the largest in the institution’s history — came with some interesting strings attached.

Specifically, the estate of Allison and Dorothy Rouse required that the $50 million be used to endow “a chair or chairs that will promote the conservative principles of governance, statesmanship, high morals, civil and religious freedom and the study of the United States Constitution.” The key word there is the third “C” word — conservative.

The requirement raises some interesting questions about academic freedom. Conservative readers who are wondering what the problem is might want to re-read that line and substitute “liberal” for “conservative.” Why is the professor who sits in said chair required to promote any specific ideology?

That’s the question that has roiled some. George Mason has become conservatives’ favorite public university in Virginia. George Mason has received more money from the Charles Koch Foundation than any other school in the country. Mason’s law school is now named after the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. The university houses a conservative think tank, the Mercatus Center — and the Koch Foundation has some say in the hiring and firing of professors at the center. George Mason refuses to release some of its donor agreements and now there’s a case before the Virginia Supreme Court over whether it’s required to under the Freedom of Information Act. Naturally, we think such donor agreements should be public, be they liberal, conservative or whatever. People have a right to know what their public universities are agreeing to do in their name.

That’s not why we’re here today, though. The court case will take care of itself. Instead we’re more fascinated by a different question: What constitutes “conservative principles of governance?” We ask this not to be pedantic but to prompt some critical thinking. We may all be able to agree what constitutes “conservative principles” today but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be conservative principles in the future. Over history, some things that were conservative ideas have became liberal ones and vice versa. For instance: Things like integration, women’s suffrage and ending slavery were once liberal ideas, opposed by conservatives. Today those are universal values in the United States.

Likewise, same-sex marriage began as a fringe idea, opposed by many even on the left as well as on the right. Today, it’s the law of the land, thanks to a conservative Supreme Court justice (Anthony Kennedy) who cast the deciding vote on a case where a prominent conservative (former Bush administration solicitor general Ted Olsen) argued the same-sex marriage should be legal because “marriage is a conservative value.” There are still many on the right who disagree, of course, but we now have a Republican congressman from the rural South — Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County — who has officiated a same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage is an idea that moved from left to right, but some ideas have moved from right to left. The health care exchanges that are part of the Affordable Care Act —aka, Obamacare — were an idea originally proposed by a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Barack Obama thought he was being clever by co-opting a conservative idea into his health care plan, but now conservatives don’t like them.

Something like health care policy may seem a more transient— and therefore ideologically malleable — issue than a more fundamental principle, and that’s true. But think of some of those fundamental principles. Take, for instance, the relationship between the federal and state governments — what we might call “state’s rights” for shorthand. Once, that was a conservative argument. Now, we see liberals starting to embrace it — at least as long as President Trump is in office. If someone invented a time machine and delivered to us John Calhoun from fresh from the Nullification Crisis of 1833, he’d be completely baffled by the concept of “sanctuary cities” — and might think that his conservative views had triumphed. Today, of course, it’s those on the left who believe state and local governments should decline to work with federal immigration authorities.

This migration of ideas across the ideological spectrum is one reason why it’s sometimes so hard for us to understand history — because the parties and their positions in the past don’t line up neatly with the ones today. Take the tumultuous election of 1896 which pitted Democrat William Jennings Bryan against Republican William McKinley. Some consider Bryan the first true liberal to be nominated by the Democratic Party but his liberalism only partially resembles today’s. Bryan was virulently anti-immigration; the conservative McKinley ran a campaign that specifically appealed to newly-arrived ethnic groups. Today’s liberals would agree with Bryan on his belief that the federal government should actively intervene in the economy but not his views on immigration; today’s conservatives would identify with McKinley’s pro-business views but his support for immigration would put him very much at odds with Trump. The further we go back in history, the more complicated things become. Today, both liberals and conservatives claim Thomas Jefferson as one of theirs — and both sides have some merit to their claim. Jefferson was skeptical of much religion and critical of big business, positions that would put him left of center today. However, he also believed in a limited federal government, which would put him right of center. Likewise, Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton, now the star of a Broadway musical, can also be claimed by both left and right. Conservatives might like his pro-business outlook; liberals would like his belief in a strong federal government and his early opposition to slavery. But then things flip again: Jefferson wanted to make immigration easier; Hamilton wanted to make it harder. So who’s truly left and right?

The point is: Be careful what you wish for, or what you require in donor agreements. Future conservatives at George Mason might find them teaching something considered liberal today.

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