Western civilization has been good to Texas billionaire Lee Bass, so it was only natural he should try to repay it, but he's still trying to figure out how. Four years ago, Bass, now 38, donated $20 million to his alma mater, Yale, to endow an intensive, yearlong undergraduate course in the great civilization that gave the world Saint Paul, Shakespeare, Descartes and Thomas Jefferson. (Along the way it produced Bass's own great-uncle, the legendary Texas oilman Sid Richardson, whose estate was the foundation for the almost $6 billion fortune Bass shares with his three older brothers, all Yale graduates.) But last week, with the program still not underway and Yale balking at his demand to approve faculty members hired under it, Bass asked for, and got, his money back.
It was not entirely surprising that Bass's decision to retract the gift was announced first on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. ""Western civilization'' is a loaded term these days, the rallying cry for opponents of multiculturalism. The course Bass hoped to fund, which would have been open to all sophomores but not required, was partly the brainchild of Donald Kagan, a formidable conservative scholar who was dean of Yale College in 1991 and is now Bass Professor of History and Classics and Western Civilization at Yale. Light and Truth, a right-wing student periodical, has suggested that radical faculty members and administrators, embarrassed at the thought of giving such prominence to such a retrograde academic conceit as Western civilization, hoped to hijack Bass's money for more fashionable subjects such as lesbian studies. Yale officials -- pointing out that all the topics that would be covered in the proposed program are already taught in various undergraduate courses at Yale -- deny that anything of the sort could have happened. The reclusive Bass, who didn't even attend the original press conference announcing the gift, was reported ""on vacation'' last week and could not be reached for comment.
It was a notable embarrassment for Yale, which is in the middle of a five-year, $1.5 billion fund-raising drive, particularly since the story broke the same day that Harvard received a gift of $70.5 million from financier John L. Loeb. (The Bass family has given Yale more than $60 million since 1990.) The university's defense is that it wasn't being duplicitous, just bumbling. In 1992 Yale president Benno Schmidt resigned, and the university was without a permanent leader for a year until Richard Levin was chosen. ""This was a very chaotic time at Yale,'' admits John Lee, a fellow of the university's governing body, the Yale Corporation. ""We didn't do a very good job [of setting up the Bass program]. We're not proud of the way we administered it.''
But Levin apparently did have reservations about the program. After rejecting one outline of the proposed course, he authorized a committee to look at other ways to use the money -- reportedly without mentioning it to Bass. When news of that broke in Light and Truth, Bass reiterated that he wanted the money used precisely as specified, and he added a new demand to approve the teachers assigned to the course. Yale predictably refused to give an outsider veto power over its faculty. Yale's president Levin, Light and Truth editor Patrick Collins said, would rather be ""loved by the left wing of his faculty than by his alumni donors.''
But that's a charge that's been made against Yale presidents for more than 40 years, at least since the publication of ""God and Man at Yale'' by then-angry young man William F. Buckley Jr. in 1951. Last week, by coincidence, a group called the National Alumni Forum announced a campaign to encourage graduates to tie their gifts to specific purposes, or else withhold them altogether. When Buckley wrote his book, the danger came from ""secular humanism''; today it's ""multiculturalism.'' But somehow, year after year these left-wing faculty members produce students who go on to become conservative billionaire investors -- even without benefit of a course in ""Western civilization.''