The financial undercurrent behind The Morningside Institute.
By Iris Chen
One windy January evening, my friend and I walk over to Riverside Church in search of what it means to be “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty.” This predicament, the subject of the Morningside Institute’s talk for the night, draws in a crowd of students.
One attendee has come all the way from Princeton and tells us he is here on behalf of the James Madison Program. Despite the fact that JMP was exposed in 2015 for being funded by right-wing dark money, at the Institute the association only warrants curiosity. Other students ask him about Princeton’s conservative publications and mention the policing of free speech on Columbia’s campus.
Slightly uneasy, my friend and I soon realize that the talk is concerned with a very specific type of religious beauty. We read some Antiphons and Psalms and get a rather ostentatious taste of Bach. Afterwards, people raise their hands to describe the deep suffering that foregrounds what they believe to be the summit of aesthetic beauty: the crucifixion of Christ. They lament the modern world’s brutalization of innocence and childlike purity. They proselytize canonical works of art and music and lacerate their own shortcomings in the face of the supposed beauty, kindness, and goodwill that these works embody.
As we sit there, my friend and I cannot help but feel that we will never be subject to their particular plight of inheriting a civilized standard of beauty.
Our discomfort, while telling, does not amount to much as criticism of the Morningside Institute. But one need not look any further than the Institute’s tax record to find that they are funded by America’s neo-fascist, Catholic, right-wing elite.
Perhaps it is hasty to conclude from here that the Institute’s hands are tied, but it is obvious that they are somewhat bound. Their website’s masthead omits several of their key members; affiliated organizations and funders are notably absent. Even still, first-time attendees will pick up on the Institute’s foundationalist, Catholic focus. On their events calendar, “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty” is followed by a reading group on the works of Alexander Schmemann, a 12th-century Eastern Orthodox thinker, and talks on former Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg Address.
The obscurity surrounding the influence of the Morningside Institute’s funding throws a wrench into this kind of religious inquiry. If their talks are indeed conducted in earnest, why the secrecy?
When I raise the question of the Morningside Institute’s purpose to its director, Nathaniel Peters, he employs the vague language of humanism. Their mission, he tells me, is to “help students and faculty investigate important aspects of human life and what is good for us and for our society, in a spirit of intellectual friendship.”
In practice, this humanistic inquiry takes the form of bi-weekly dinner seminars. Some have a religious focus and are predominantly hosted by Morningside Institute scholars. Others, hosted by public intellectuals or Columbia professors, focus on writers like Iris Murdoch or topics like Bad Music and Bad Books. Occasionally, the Institute will also offer eclectic cultural outings—a hike in upstate New York, a free trip to the Opera, or a tour of a Met exhibition.
Peters explains that these curated cultural experiences aim to transform the Morningside Institute into “a place where it’s natural to question the nature of human beings, their place in the universe, their relationship to God, or the transcendent, moral structures out there.”
It is this beating religious heart which really sustains the Institute’s conception of the good life. Peters’ parents were at some point Roman Catholics, and he grew up attending weekly Protestant church services. His upbringing eventually culminated in a doctoral dissertation on Christian thought and ethics. As his Ph.D. concluded, a friend approached him with a job opportunity at an organization called The Foundation for Higher Excellence for Higher Education which was “helping to fund the effort” to start what is now the Morningside Institute.
Though there is little publicly-available information about the Foundation for Higher Excellence for Higher Education—their website lacks an “about us” page or a public list of staff or directors—their financial records position them within a vast web of Catholic right-wing ideological initiatives. In 2020, the Foundation spent nearly ten million dollars funding eleven other like-minded institutions at Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, John Hopkins, Princeton, Rice, and Yale.
The same man serves as both the CEO of the Foundation and president of the Morningside Institute: Luis E. Tellez.
Tellez holds many titles in the world of Ivy League adjacent right-wing think tanks, including president of the Witherspoon Institute, board member of the American Principles Project, and advisor to the James Madison Program, now widely acknowledged by Princeton’s students and national publications like The Atlantic to be “a conservative beachhead within the liberal Ivy League.” The Nation reported that JMP receives much of its funding from groups like the Association for Cultural Interchange, the Clover Foundation and the Higher Education Initiatives Fund, all of which are conduits to Opus Dei.
Opus Dei is an evangelizing arm of a diocese within the Roman-Catholic church whose list of controversies includes bodily torture, indoctrination of young members by older authorities, fascist politics, use of mind-control tactics (as recounted by ex-member Eileen Johnson), imposed diets and restricted sleep schedules, and an extensive list of sexual offense allegations that have together earned them the reputation of an abusive cult. Tellez serves as president of the organization’s Princeton chapter.
When I attended an Opus Dei meeting at Murray Hill Place in February, the women I met there—all their meetings are gender-segregated—were all familiar with the Morningside Institute.
In 2020, the Morningside Institute received over $250,000 from the Foundation for Higher Excellence for Higher Education. Since then, they have moved out of their initial location in a Harlem WeWork office to their current room inside Riverside Church. Institutions like the Foundation have been quick to distance themselves from red money. But this money is undeniably what allows them to exist.
The Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education is only one organization within a sprawling consortium of funders who sustain a network of conservative institutions, organizations, and think tanks.
In 2016, political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez studied how “extra-party funders” like the Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education and Opus Dei shift resources away from the Republican Party itself; in the twelve-year period from 2002 to 2014, the GOP’s share of resource control fell from 53 to 30 percent, correlated with a six to 26 percent rise among extra-party funders.
Another player in this space is The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Hacked internal documents revealed their plan to “construct state-by-state networks of activist groups to win support for its conservative agenda from coast to coast” after successfully defending Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election in 2012. They contribute $1,000,000 annually to the Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education.
Terry Considine, a board member of the Bradley Foundation who has been termed the “Bigger, Darker Rightwing” Koch counterpart, also operates his own Considine Family Foundation. They contributed $50,000 to the Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education in 2020.
The largest players in this “extra-party-funder-phenomenon” have historically been Charles and David Koch. As of 2016, the Koch brothers funded 76 percent of third-party conservative organizational budgets.
The Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education receives an annual million-dollar grant from the right-wing Diana Davis Spencer Foundation. This foundation, once called “the biggest pot of conservative money you’ve never heard of,” is associated with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.
Unlike individual donors who sustain scattered causes, the Koch brothers’ inherited wealth has allowed them to exert wide influence across political spheres. Beyond a robust donation profile, they host conferences where conservative political donors get one-on-one time with elected politicians like Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton.
The Kochs also have deep roots in American academia. Their conservatism unfurls under discreet labels like “free-market theory” research, courses on “Law and Economics”, and the names of historical figures like James Madison.
This subtlety is key to their mission. Koch advisor George Pearson was caught on tape saying that “traditional gifts to universities … didn’t guarantee enough ideological control” to the right-wing cause. To achieve control, he said, “it would be necessary to use ambiguous and misleading names, [and] obscure the true agenda.”
One might ask, “So what? Shouldn’t people be allowed to fund the causes they support?”
Perhaps. But not all funders are made equal—some are made wealthier, better connected, and more ideologically stringent. Students and professors alike should also know just what it is they are about to experience.
When Nathaniel Peters was just starting out as the director of the Morningside Institute, he approached Roosevelt Montas, the former director of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Montas recalled Peters expressing a “broad interest in working with the Core.”
In situations like these, Montas tries to keep third-party organizations “at arm’s length.”
“You’re careful about them using your name,” he tells me, given that it is difficult to know “how the groups are being funded and whether they have some kind of agenda.”
But eventually, when Montas attended a Morningside talk as a panelist, he came away impressed.
“What they’re doing is interesting,” he said. Setting aside questions regarding their funding, he argues that, “as long as the programming remains intellectually integral, and are not pushing either policies or ideas that I find morally problematic,” students should feel comfortable going.
Cautiously, one might agree with Montas’ invocation of open-mindedness. The Institute’s guest-led discussions such as “Intellectual Survival: Columbia After Leaving” and “The Dangers of Creativity” are often intriguing. Rare one-on-one, student-professor connections mushroom inside the Institute’s small, carpeted room in Riverside church.
However, these professor-led events are what legitimize the Morningside Institute’s more ambiguous political positions. The Institute uses these high-profile figures to attract and nurture students who attend events under innocuous pretenses that mask George Pearson’s aforementioned goals of “ideological control.” The fact that the content of their events is conservative or Catholic is not so much the issue as is the fact that their programming strives toward “control” of their students’ political ideology—and that it does so in the dark.
Ultimately, this combination of factors comes back to harm the Institute. Many students who suspect that more lies underneath the Institute’s conservative Catholic associations simply stop attending.
Martina Maximovich, CC ’24, argues that those who regularly attend the Morningside Institute “probably also back the values and the funders of the Institute.” As such, she does not associate with the people there.
Tianyi Ding, CC ’24, academic chair of Columbia’s undergraduate “Great Books” club Symposium, tells me that, at the Morningside Institute, it “just doesn’t feel like you can express things without feeling a little bit intimidated.” This is especially true for talks led by the Institute’s own faculty wherein like-minded students and faculty form a bulwark for their shared, classical intellectual interests.
Perhaps, then, the Institute is not so insidious. It attracts those who strongly agree with its ideology and deters those who do not. However, without outside scrutiny, the insular environment that remains will only incubate the Institute’s relationship with its funders. Moreover, as my friend and I experienced with the “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty” talk, analogous opinions make for lackluster, alienating conversation. By definition, discussions need perspectives. The invocation here for more diversity is not necessarily limited to skin color or ethnicity—as my friend and I witnessed, Opus Dei’s women’s retreat was mostly filled with women of color. A diversity of opinion, rather, which is correlated with cultural and economic factors, is essential.
For institutions whose humanistic curricula might attract attention from right-wing initiatives like the Morningside Institute, vigilance is required. This, of course, implicates Columbia’s crown jewel, the Core Curriculum. The Core Curriculum’s commitment to classical thought makes it susceptible to expropriation by groups like the Morningside Institute that hide behind pretensions of highbrow classical and theological inquiry. Other Morningside-affiliated groups like King’s College, a Christian university which offers course credit for attendance of Morningside Institute events, and sister-organizations like the James Madison Program put up similar facades, if not their own version of a “great books” core program. They posture as subtle, rare, and coveted allies of Columbia’s humanistic, classical cause but harbor a firm commitment to right-wing politics.
The saving grace of Columbia’s Core might be that it situates these texts within a contemporary context that considers the misogyny or antisemitism from the likes of Plato and Foucault as potent and indivisible concerns which must be addressed. Organizations like the Morningside Institute, on the other hand, see them as anomalies, or even elements to be preserved.
In its haste, institutions such as Columbia have failed to maintain an appropriate level of suspicion. All the while, conservative actors across the country have latched on and have begun to milk professors, students, and facilities dry.