May 10, 2011- A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.
A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."
Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.
Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.
David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty's suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors — one retired, one active — criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.
Rasmussen said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. "I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' he said. "But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it."
The Koch foundation, based in Arlington, Va., did not return a call seeking comment.
Most universities, including the University of Florida, have policies that strictly limit donors' influence over the use of their gifts. Yale University once returned $20 million when the donor demanded veto power over appointments, saying such control was "unheard of."
Jennifer Washburn, who has reviewed dozens of contracts between universities and donors, called the Koch agreement with FSU "truly shocking."
Said Washburn, author of University Inc., a book on industry's ties to academia: "This is an egregious example of a public university being willing to sell itself for next to nothing."