Authored by: William F. Buckley, Jr.

Reviewed by: Kevin Miller

Number of Pages: 240

Keyword: Higher Education, Alumni, Trustees, Students, Faculty, Academic Freedom, Endowment, Stewardship, Competing Stewardships

The Essence of the Book:

By all accounts, William F. Buckley, Jr. was one of the personalities—if not the leading personality—that forged, nurtured, and led the American political conservative movement of the latter half of the 20th century.

Buckley was astonishingly productive throughout his long career: founding and editing National Review, the witty and engaging magazine of conservative opinion; hosting one of the longest-lasting, first-class TV programs, Firing Line, where he interviewed and bantered with highly entertaining and knowledgeable guests of all political persuasions; authoring a nationally-syndicated newspaper column and many books, both fiction and nonfiction; and acting as a leading thinker and articulate spokesman for political conservatives for over fifty years.

To watch Buckley speak was a marvelous experience—he was a debater of national and international acclaim even as a college student. To read Buckley was an unadulterated pleasure—he was a wordsmith extraordinaire.

Many have wanted to emulate Buckley, but no one has ever come close…or ever will—he was truly an American original in a time when many were declared “American originals.”

This brief bio sets the context for Buckley’s first publication: he burst into the American public’s consciousness at age 24 when he authored God and Man at Yale. The book’s purpose was to critique the approach to higher education being taken by his own alma mater, Yale College.

Buckley’s book was published first in 1951, then republished in 1977 with a fresh introduction by the author.

Whitestone Commentary:

In the 1950s, Yale was perceived to be just as elite as it is widely perceived today, probably even more so. And Buckley confronted Yale with regard to his view of the “proper” classroom deliverables by its administration and faculty, and with regard to its prevailing philosophies as being at direct odds with Yale’s founding purposes and ideals.

Unsurprisingly, then, God and Man at Yale caused quite a stir when it was published.

This book is selected for review in Whitestone Reviews for two reasons very important to us as business and nonprofit leaders—reasons not necessarily explicit in the text but critical takeaways nonetheless.

The first big understanding to glean from Buckley: in due time every organization drifts in significant ways from the founder’s desired ideals, stated mission, and preferred practices.

This organizational drift truth formed a vital part of Buckley’s theme: in his view, Yale had departed from the ideals and mission of its founding. But this departure didn’t really trouble many of his fellow “Yalies,” from professors to administrators to donors to trustees—they had “grown” from the viewpoints of their founder and their predecessors from decades and centuries before.

Colleges like Harvard and Yale were started as Bible colleges, of course, in order to provide vocational training by which its students could honor God. Needless to say, Buckley’s Yale circa 1951—and certainly Yale today—has little institutional interest in advancing the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Think of it: God’s purposes intentionally advanced by the institution of Yale? Ludicrous to ponder, but that only because we know where Yale has chosen to be today. But consider that there is a clear, unbroken historical link of trustees for Yale over the centuries—trustees who, over that time, agreed to move it from a Bible college to where it is today. From the Christian’s perspective, something very dear was clearly discarded along the way.

Higher education is not the only context where organizations drift from aligning with God’s approaches to defining an agenda of their own. This, despite Jesus making the practical ideals for every one of His followers to fulfill very clear: to love God and to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).

And, before leaving, Jesus gave His followers a great (com)mission: to “go forth and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Of course, when believers aggressively go forth and make disciples, they are quintessentially fulfilling both ideals—by loving people enough to help bring them into God’s Kingdom and loving God by doing so. That’s why this was Jesus’ “Great Commission.”

Every church and every person has failed, at least in some way, in fulfilling this mission and these ideals. Indeed, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

In response to this “drifting” of many Christians and churches, God has always relied on a faithful remnant—however proportionally small that may be at any given time—but also turned to new believers who work to take both His desired ideals and His mission for Christians seriously.

So, denominations come, denominations go—and now denominations as a category are fading. Churches come, churches go. Large, ornate churches come, then essentially become venerated museums and city landmarks that are spiritually dead. This is not happening once in a while: given enough time, this drift often becomes routine where faith in action was once very robust.

Just what “progress” is your business, nonprofit, or church making that is, in truth, actually organizational drift—drift that is defeating the organization’s proper mission and ideals? Are you sure you will recognize such drift even while it is transpiring? After all, modern “leadership” is all-too-often motivated by addressing popular impressions about short-term, hot-button issues?

The second big understanding to glean from Buckley: to effectively address drift, those filling the proper roles (the “who”) in the organization must identify and manifest the proper stewardship (the “what”).

Buckley bluntly wrote, “The responsibility to govern Yale falls ultimately on the shoulders of her alumni.” That was Buckley’s answer to “who.” Why did he select “her alumni”? Clearly, he picked alumni as “the who” because they aligned with the “what” that he wanted.

Buckley was a Roman Catholic with a driving focus on political freedom, then and later in life. At Yale, he perceived a wide gap in priorities and philosophies between the more individualist (freedom-oriented), presumably “God-fearing” alums and the more collectivist (socialist), allegedly God-muting administrators and professors. All this, with apparently disconnected trustees oblivious or indifferent to the shifting institutional focus.

Interestingly and very tellingly, if Buckley were addressing the Yale dynamic today, he very likely would not appeal to the alumni of Yale as the proper “owners” of the stewardship of Yale, given that the now-living Yale alums would be, by most measures, far more collectivist and atheist than the Yale alums of 1951. Buckley’s “who” of 1951 would change because the Yale alumni—his “who” demographic that Buckley selected in 1951—have since changed their “what.”

Besides, how many modern universities truly feel accountable to their alumni, as Buckley believed necessary for Yale in 1951?

So, just who really holds the power in your preferred college today? Agitating students? The Chancellor or President? Key administrators? The faculty senate, or faculty members acting as individuals? The governing body of the national educational establishment—the Higher Learning Commission? The Board of Trustees? A couple of dominant donors who essentially “replace” alumni as the institution’s meaningful external representation? Or is it in reality a mish-mash of faulty compromise that prevents any real, crisp stewardship?

This particular problem of lack of accountability to anchoring missions and ideals, of course, is now a cliché throughout American higher education: in due course, almost all institutions routinely shift to the left (effectively changing their “what”), from elite colleges in the Ivy League to more humble state institutions like the University of Missouri. John O’Sullivan, Buckley’s British successor as editor of National Review, famously wrote, “Any institution that is not explicitly right wing [conservative] will become left wing [liberal] over time.” This pithy statement is captivating to think about, certainly for churches and nonprofit organizations.

So, let’s cut to the chase for you and me: as key organizational leaders (the “who,” or part of it), just “what” are we steward for?

Are we steward for the founder and his or her founding ideals and mission? Or are we steward for the shifting opinions of our nonprofit’s board of trustees…our business’s board of directors…our church’s deacons or elders? Tricky, huh? But very worthy of the highest scrutiny.

For your church this very day, is your “what” driven by the Founder (Jesus) or by the dominant traditions in your church? (Now, you must choose between these two, because one always prevails over the other. For almost all churches, in due time, it’s their traditions that prevail—the allegedly “correct” interpretations of the Founder’s intent, they might assert, but the more objective outsider clearly sees traditions trumping.)

Let’s say you are a leader in a significant business or nonprofit. Does your executive team have a brand-new vision (a new “what”)—or the inherited, founding vision that you should faithfully steward? Can you innovate and improve, all the while stewarding the same “what”—the organization’s foundational vision and values?

Trusting that you are working to advance a noble institution (e.g., a business, a nonprofit, a university) with a noble mission every day, then your task as a leader in a “who” position is to wisely adjust any tactics, structure, and processes as needed to succeed in a changing culture, even while remaining concretely committed to fulfilling the organization’s anchoring mission and ideals, the “what.”

The Apostle Paul himself aimed to strike this balance, becoming “all things to all people” while simultaneously “know[ing] nothing except Christ and Him crucified.” Happily, each Christian believer is tasked to be a “who” in his or her particular sphere and is to pursue faithfulness to both the mission and ideals that Jesus set out—these are God’s timeless “whats.”

Ponder these two big ideas fleshed out by Buckley’s book: first the “drift,” then the combined “who” and “what.” Then ponder them all again a month later, a year later, a decade later.

And correct any drift from first love. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4 ESV)