Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Foundations and Cultural Imperialism
An Interview with Dennis Buss


by Michael Barker





(Swans - July 12, 2010)   Dennis C. Buss, Emeritus Associate Professor, retired from Rider University (New Jersey) in 2009 where he served as Chair of the Department of Graduate Education. He completed a Doctorate in Education at Rutgers University in 1972. His dissertation was entitled "The Ford Foundation and the Exercise of Power in American Public Education," and this was later formed for a chapter titled "The Ford Foundation in Public Education: Emergent Patterns," which was published in Robert Arnove's edited book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: GK Hall, 1980). Since then Buss has served as a president of the New Jersey Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and was the former editor of their journal. This interview was conducted by e-mail in June 2010.

Michael Barker: Your work on philanthropy was based on your dissertation completed at Rutgers University in 1972: how did your examination committee react to your thesis?

Dennis Buss: The committee reacted favorably to the dissertation. Apart from my advisor (Daniel Tanner), the other three members were not fully aware of the extensive influence the Ford Foundation exerted on education policy. Moreover, they were particularly impressed with my study of how the foundation used the Saturday Review monthly education supplement to advance their (Ford's) educational agenda.

MB: How did you become interested in studying philanthropy?

DB: My interest derived from suggestions made by Daniel Tanner. As I moved closer to the dissertation stage of my doctoral work, he made a strong case for why the activities of philanthropic foundations should be investigated with respect to educational programming and the curriculum. As I learned more and more about this issue, I became convinced that it was a manageable and worthwhile dissertation topic.

MB: Could you please tell me a little about any people and/or groups who helped you propagate the ideas presented in your work? (Here I am thinking of your contribution to Robert Arnove's book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism.)

DB: Apparently Robert had been planning a book on philanthropic foundations and how they influenced public policy in general. He learned of my dissertation and Dave Weischadle's (a fellow student at Rutgers who wrote about the Carnegie Foundation also under the advisement of Dan Tanner) and invited us to contribute chapters to his anthology. He got in touch with me and we discussed his project and I agreed to submit a chapter based on some of the topics I had covered in my dissertation. I think Robert was a bit frustrated that I didn't take a more polemic tone with my contribution but he nevertheless accepted it after some revisions.

MB: As a result of publishing your work did you come across any opposition from the academic and/or philanthropic community? Could you please explain how you dealt with such resistance?

DB: I was not aware of any resistance or opposition to my work on the Ford Foundation. As I recall, I found only one review of Arnove's book and it was largely favorable. In fact, Ford got itself into trouble when it wrote the legislation that enabled the decentralization of the New York City public school system. Congressional hearings revealed that Ford's activities in promoting decentralization were in violation of federal law that prohibited tax-exempt foundations from directly influencing legislation. Diane Ravitch's book, The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 documented Ford's activities in New York and her work, as well as others, received considerable attention at the time. In its own report published in 1972, A Foundation Goes to School, Ford admitted its projects did not have the impact anticipated. Consequently, Ford retreated from being at the forefront of so-called educational "reform." I doubt very much whether my dissertation or the Arnove book had anything to do with this outcome.

MB: How do you now feel about your earlier work on foundations? Do you have any regrets, and if so what do you think you might have changed if you were given the chance?

DB: I should have developed an article based on my findings regarding how Ford used Saturday Review as a vehicle to publicize and promote its educational reform agenda. I don't think educators at the time were fully aware of how the foundation attempted to manipulate public opinion in its favor. Most educators and informed citizens in those years had a relatively favorable view of the foundation's educational work. This, of course, was no accident. Ford embarked on a carefully conceived campaign to develop a positive public image that ultimately made decision-makers more receptive to its educational reform initiatives. For example, although I never pursued it, I became aware that The New York Times never published a critical piece regarding Ford's work until the NYC decentralization debacle occurred. In fact, The Times dutifully reproduced the Ford press releases announcing its new educational programs and placed them in a favorable light often on the front page. In other words, Ford was a master at media manipulation and found two well-respected outlets to promote its causes. Looking back at it, I could have/should have pursued this aspect of my dissertation.

MB: How would you define the concept of power? What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

DB: Regarding power, I used the ideas of Ronald Dahl, David Easton, and Harold Lasswell. Most importantly was the schema developed by Gordon Mackenzie where he delineated the various forms of influence used to control the curriculum. These forms of influence are: advocacy and communication; prestige; competence; money or goods; policy, precedent, and custom; and, cooperation and collaboration. I was able to document how Ford used these forms of influence to implement their programs. I liked Mackenzie's schema, as well as the treatment of power by the others indicated above, because they addressed the problem of power and influence in an objective and descriptive manner. In other words, their work was not couched in terms of some ideological agenda. By simply describing how Ford used various forms of power and influence in educational policy, it became overwhelmingly evident that they were operating as an unaccountable force in democratic decision-making. Interestingly, Diane Ravitch is making this same point again in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, where she is describing how the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations are promoting highly questionable educational "reforms" today.

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

DB: Because the foundations very carefully cultivate an image as quasi-scientific research institutions operating for the public good. Moreover, Americans seem to be fascinated by great wealth and like the idea that billionaires are "giving back" what they took in huge profits. For some strange reason, the media seems to be equally enamored of the prestigious big-money foundations and gives them a free pass especially when it comes to educational reform. Since everyone agrees that the schools are broken, these wonderful foundations seem to be doing something about it -- so the reasoning goes. Well, in what way are they broken and in what way are the "solutions" being promoted by these foundations good for public education? Unfortunately, few people are asking these questions when the mega-foundations are richer than ever, are equally unaccountable as Ford was, and have, perhaps, even more questionable solutions to our school problems.

MB: Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

DB: I must confess that I am unfamiliar with her work. I looked up her book on Amazon and read the cover blurb. I am intrigued and will investigate further.


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Published July 12, 2010