Are We Stuck In a Plutocratic Formal Organization? An Analysis of Trinity’s “FORG” Department

Sarah Dajani ’26

Staff Writer

Formal organizations is a peculiar name for a unique minor that is offered at Trinity. What does it study and what makes it so unique? Trinity’s website states that formal organizations is the arrangement of people “into a social unit for the explicit purpose of achieving certain goals.” The minor aims to “explore and analyze the organizations in which people learn, work, socialize, and serve their communities.” The formal organizations minor at Trinity is fully funded by the Shelby Cullom Davis Endowment and was directed by Professor Gerald Gunderson from 1982-2020. One of the qualities that make it unique is that it is “totally independent” from the college’s administration and other departments, as Gunderson himself stated in an Association for Private Enterprise Education Conference in 2016. He proudly stated that hisdonor insisted on not being a member of the Economics department. But why would Shelby Cullom Davis invest in Trinity yet ensure that his endowment remains separate from the College?

Higher education has been an integral part in shaping American ideals and public opinion. Actions like the formation of the National Americanization Committee in 1915, which aimed to “bring American citizens, foreign-born and native-born alike, together,” highlight the significance of higher education in the making of American society. So if you were to alter the country’s ethos, higher education is the place to start. Doing this, however, requires an effective strategy that is able to maneuver the norms around academic freedom, peer review and faculty governance. This piece examines the Shelby Davis Endowment as an attempt to enforce a single ideological view on Trinity’s campus and is inspired by a rich literature that demonstrates the effort wealthy free-market fundamentalists place in higher education to construct a society in line with their ideological beliefs.

The Association for Private Enterprise Education is a self-described “organization of teachers and scholars from colleges and universities, public policy institutes, and industry with a common interest in studying and supporting the system of private enterprise.” In that same APEE conference in 2016, Gunderson shamelessly presented formal organizations at Trinity College as an example of “successful models of programs in private enterprise.” So, in the eyes of the plutocratic libertarian “generous” donor class, your education is their way of influencing American societies and imposing their libertarian fantasy. These attempts to privatize education and limit it to a single libertarian view defy what education is about and shatter its goals in the development of critical and rational thinking, and they are becoming increasingly popular throughout the campuses of the United States. Some of the wealthy donors at APEE’s 2016 conference communicated an alarming vision of how they want education to look. Charlie Ruger of the Koch Foundation—which is a part of a large network that funds the student groups that bring controversial speakers to college campuses, media outlets that amplify and inflame those controversies, and even careers for those controversial speakers—communicated his desire to have college campuses apply “these great ideas of the APEE network the way we think about it at least” and to include “arranging state legislative testimony to make sure that, you know, these kinds of ideas have a seat on the table in public policy.”

The story of the Davis Endowment at Trinity is commemorated at APEE and other libertarian organizations because Gunderson—the Davis Endowed Chair for almost 40 years—launched, as he names it, a “war” at Trinity “to get the full funds” of the endowment and distribute them to other individuals and professors with his same ideology. Those individuals were, or ended up being, a part of the same libertarian donor network that aims to control and alter public opinion about free-market enterprise and eventually, enact laws that contribute to their increasingly growing wealth and power. So, why is this important and how does it affect you?

This donor “integrated strategy” aims to limit education and academia to what is seen fit to the donor’s political and ideological interests. It contributes to the increasing disparities of our world. The hostility and intolerance which guide this strategy send a message to everyone with different political and intellectual ideologies that they are unwelcome in this donor-privatized world. So, if you have different ideological beliefs to those networks you are, at best, unwelcome in their spaces and, much worse, attacked for your academic and scholarly criticism of their foundation.

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