John M. Olin Foundation
- Location: New York, NY
- Tax-Exempt Status: 501(c)(3) Private Foundation
- EIN: 37-6031033
The Olin Foundation, a major funder of conservative academic programs at elite universities and law schools nationwide, was started by John M. Olin, heir to a fortune his father built. As journalist Jane Mayer writes in Dark Money, “By the time the John M. Olin Foundation spent itself out of existence in 2005, as called for in its founder’s will, it had spent about half of its total assets of $370 million bankrolling the promotion of free-market ideology and other conservative ideas on the country’s campuses.”
The source of Olin’s fortune was the Olin Corporation, founded by his father. Despite his anti-government views, the Olin Corporation’s production of gunpowder and small arms and ammunition resulted in “huge government arms contracts in World Wars I and II,” according to Mayer, which quintupled profits in World War I alone. The company made $40 million in profits during World War II.
After the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon Administration, the EPA singled out Olin as “one of its first targets… facing charges of egregious pollution practices at several states at once,” from the production and contamination of the highly-toxic pesticide DDT, to massive mercury pollution issues in New York and Saltville, Virginia, one of the country’s first EPA-designated Superfund sites.
Olin’s academic philanthropy was inspired by what he saw as increasing leftism at his alma mater, Cornell. According to an Olin Foundation memorandum, quoted in Dark Money, Olin “saw very clearly that students at Cornell, like those at most major universities, were hostile to businessmen and to business enterprise, and indeed had begun to question the ideals of the nation itself.”
With a concern for the well-being of multimillionaire businessmen in mind, Olin created a foundation “aimed at the most elite schools… cognizant that these schools were the incubators of those who would hold future power.” His goal was to halt the rise of “liberalism” which he regarded as “synonymous” to “socialism,” and further argued that “It matters little to me whether the economic development is classified as Marxism, Keynesianism, or whatnot.”
Prior even to focusing on creating a conservative atmosphere at universities, the Olin Foundation funded a bevy of right-wing think-tanks popular with conservative philanthropists of the time, such as Richard Mellon Scaife. These included the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution. Olin, according to Mayer, directed his lawyer to “enlist his fortune in the battle to defend corporate America,” and to do so, his lawyer, Frank O’Connell, was trained in right-wing philanthropy by the head of the Charles G. Koch Foundation, George Pearson.
Additionally, according to Dark Money, the Olin Foundation served as a secret “bank” for the Central Intelligence Agency between 1958 and 1966, during which time the CIA laundered $1.95 million to “anti-Communist intellectuals and publications.” The program was ended after the press exposed it, causing a political furor. Additionally, the fund provided extensive funding to conservative programs at law schools, most notably providing start-up money, alongside the Kochs and Scaifes, to the Federalist Society. At the same time, the program funded the Collegiate Network, an organization which financed right-wing student-run newspapers at colleges. Collegiate Network alumni include Dinesh D’Souza, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter.
In 1977, Olin made William Simon the president of the Olin Foundation. Simon “was a famously intemperate critic of those he considered ‘stupid.’ This large category included liberals, radicals, and moderate members of his own Republican Party,” Mayer writes. While under Simon’s leadership, the Olin Foundation contributed $25,000 to support Charles Murray’s work attacking welfare while he was at the Manhattan Institute.
Some of the organization’s most controversial programs were “Law and Economics seminars that the Olin Foundation funded for judges… The seminars treated judges to two-week-long, all-expenses-paid immersion training in law and Economics usually in luxurious settings.” Mayer describes the seminars as “a cross between Maoist cultural reeducation camps and Club Med… By one count, 40 percent of the federal judiciary participated.” A Center for Public Integrity study found that the Charles Koch Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and several corporate sponsors underwrote seminars modeled after the Olin Foundation’s between 2008 and 2012.