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What you need to know about Princeton’s James Madison Program

Partial View_Louisa Gheorghita.jpg
Bobst Hall: the home of the James Madison Program. 
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

At the first-year activity fair, you may have come across a booth for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (JMP), where fellows advertised the program as an opportunity for those interested in American politics and constitutional thought to hear from a range of perspectives. You may have even read that “it doesn’t matter whether you regard yourself as on the right or left, progressive or conservative, or none of the above,” as the Madison Program’s Undergraduate Fellows Forum application form proclaims. All of this would, quite reasonably, lead you to believe that the James Madison Program is a Princeton program for those across the political spectrum to get involved with political thought on campus. One of us thought so, and joined JMP’s Undergraduate Fellows Forum under this pretense, leading them to be listed as part of the program throughout their Princeton career.

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Over our four years at Princeton, however, we have both come to understand that the Madison Program acts quite differently from how it markets itself. While the Madison Program represents itself as a non-partisan center on campus to engage with “American constitutional law and Western political thought” as Princeton’s center for “American Ideals,” the Madison Program in fact exists to further conservative viewpoints on campus, and in recent years, has increasingly provided a platform to far-right and extremist individuals.

For academic freedom to genuinely exist, groups such as the Madison Program must be honest about the ideas they favor. While we have no say over how the Madison Program operates, we hope to use this platform to alert students to where the Madison Program stands within the marketplace of ideas, a basis on which students can form their own opinions and engage with the program as they wish. The Madison Program has frequently invited speakers and research fellows who are affiliated with the far-right, some of whom have endorsed categorically disproven conspiracy theories, promoted and advanced antidemocratic policies, and espoused shockingly bigoted rhetoric. In addition, the program’s sources of funding suggest a deeper level of connection between the program and organizations around the country working on heavily right-wing and anti-queer policies. Those may very well be relevant factors for individuals evaluating the credibility of the program’s offerings and their desire to engage with it. Students, faculty, and staff should know what they’re buying into.

Professors Eldar Shafir and Uri Hasson recently highlighted the significant problems with the JMP’s decision to invite Ronen Shoval — the founder of an ultranationalist Israeli organization who has previously campaigned to silence academics and even shut down the program in political science at Ben Gurion University — to be a lecturer at Princeton this year. Unfortunately, Shoval is only the most recent in the James Madison Program’s history of repeated invitations to hateful and unreliable visitors.

Notably, in 2022, the James Madison Program hosted Stephen Wolfe, author of “The Case for Christian Nationalism,” as a visiting fellow for the program. In his book, written while he was still a fellow with JMP, Wolfe argues that Christian Nationalism is America’s “way forward.” Wolfe calls for a “Great Renewal” of Christianity in every facet of American life and governance and a return to what he calls “Old America.” He also affirms for his readers that violence would be a “morally permissible” way to create a Christian Nationalist state. According to Bradley Onishi, a faculty member at the University of San Francisco who focuses on tracking white Christian nationalism, Wolfe’s “resonances with Hitler’s view of the nation are uncanny,” specifically in his calls to institute a Christian “head of the people,” his emphasis that nationality can only be rooted in racial identity, and his musings on interracial marriage that “groups have a collective duty to be separate and marry among themselves.”

Further back, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the JMP hired couple Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying as visiting fellows who made headlines for supporting ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19 — which has since been thoroughly discredited — and for denouncing COVID-19 vaccinations. We should be able to trust that our professors and our faculty will listen to the experts, especially when it comes to a national emergency where their own students and peers are in harm’s way. 

In addition, Ronen Shoval is not the first right-wing Israeli to come to Princeton through the JMP. In 2020, the program brought Benjamin Schvarcz on as a postdoctoral research associate, and then in 2021 as a fellow. Schvarcz was hired directly from the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli right-wing think tank credited with driving the judicial reforms in Israel, which have been heralded by many Israelis and policymakers as a threat to democracy

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The James Madison Program’s list of advisors includes extremist individuals as well. Harlan Crow, who was recently found to have given undisclosed donations to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and who owns an extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia, including a signed copy of Mein Kampf, is on the list as a “civic volunteer,” as is his wife Katherine Crow ’89. Crow’s Nazi and Hitler memorabilia, as well as a garden filled with statues of historical dictators and despots, is concerning.

Additionally, the James Madison Program has clear ties to the Witherspoon Institute, located just down the street from Princeton. The James Madison Program advertises seminars and summer programs hosted by the Witherspoon Institute and actively encourages students to attend their programming. The Witherspoon Institute, a right-wing think tank, has a long history of funding research that supports far-right objectives, including the notorious and widely-discredited Regenerus Study arguing against same-sex marriage based on a pseudo-scientific conclusion that children fare worse in queer households. 

We also have to analyze the influence of conservative donors on the JMP. JMP was founded with $525,000 in support from the John M. Olin Foundation, which, as investigative journalist Jane Meyer writes, aimed to “establish conservative cells, or ‘beachheads’ at ‘the most influential schools in order to gain the greatest leverage.’ The formula required subtlety, indirection, and perhaps even some misdirection.” JMP has continued to receive financial support from other partisan institutions.

Over 20 years ago, the conservative nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable advised donors who looked to shift campus to the right to support JMP and copy its model elsewhere.

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“Because the program receives no money from the university and has forgone any part of Princeton’s … endowment, it has avoided entanglement in any ideological strings the university might attach,” the article explained. “At the slightest threat to the program’s integrity, the foundations and philanthropists supporting it can pull their money.” 

It is not conjecture to suggest that these donors’ right-wing ideologies influence the operations of the James Madison Program, including the lectures it hosts, the fellows it hires, and the classes those fellows teach. As Professor Robert George — the director of the program — stated early in the program’s tenure, “You should reject the money if you can’t follow a donor’s intent. You have a moral obligation to follow the donor’s intent.” If the James Madison Program was supposed to achieve a goal other than advancing conservative ideology in academia, its founding donors certainly missed the memo.

We do not object to the James Madison Program merely taking right-wing funding or having conservative-leaning Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellows. But they should be transparent about it. The National Council of Nonprofits states that “a fundamental financial transparency practice is to make it easy for visitors to a nonprofit’s website to find information about the nonprofit's budget-size and its sources of revenue, as well as information about board composition, programs, outcomes/impact, staffing, and donors (protecting the identity of those who wish to remain anonymous).” Transparency on funding is important for non-profits and educational institutions especially because it often signals the organization’s ideological leaning and goals. The Madison Program, meanwhile, provides no information about any donors in any of its annual reports.

A diversity of ideological perspectives is an asset to campus, and our aim is not to undermine that. However, it is essential that when engaging with the James Madison Program, students and faculty know exactly which values the program holds dear in its operation. JMP touts itself as Princeton’s program on “American Ideals and Institutions,” but it is clear they are choosing to platform an extremist, right-wing conception of American ideals.

Rooya Rahin is a senior from Highlands Ranch, Colo. studying politics. She is the emeriti chair of the Editorial Board and Financial Stipend coordinator of the ‘Prince’ and an incoming Princeton MPA student through the SINSI program. She can be reached at rrahin@princeton.edu.

Dylan Shapiro is a senior from Atlanta, Ga. in the School of Public and International Affairs. He is an incoming 1L at Yale Law School and can be reached at dylan.shapiro@princeton.edu.

Correction: The piece has been updated to clarify the political affiliations of Weinstein, Heyer, and Crow.

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