Inside Higher Ed: Not Just Florida State

-By Dan Berrett

June 28, 2011– When the terms of a 2008 grant agreement between Florida State University and the Charles G. Koch Foundation became public last month, the news drew attention to the fund for what some saw as an attempt to exert undue influence over personnel matters.

The foundation has made sizable grants to a number of other colleges and universities — including six-, seven- and eight-figure gifts to such public institutions as Clemson University, George Mason University, Utah State University and West Virginia University. 

In at least one case besides that of Florida State, Utah State University, the grant agreements give the foundation a role in reviewing candidates for positions. While the role given to Koch is less expansive than the one set out at Florida State, it still goes beyond norms of faculty hiring, which generally avoid any formal role for donors beyond designating an area of study. In other cases, the nature of the gifts has raised questions — with critics suggesting that the subject matter is so narrowly defined that it effectively embraces a political perspective, not a subject of study.

Many of the donor agreements — to the extent that the institutions made them available — included consistent, if not identical, language regarding the goals and objectives of the grant. The money paid for the hiring of new faculty members and the expansion of centers with a mission to study capitalism and free enterprise. The goals and objectives of these grants were to support "research into the causes, measurements, impact and appreciation of economic freedom," with faculty hired with this money expected to advance "the understanding and practice of those free voluntary processes and principles that promote social progress, human well-being, individual freedom, opportunity and prosperity based on the rule of law, constitutional government, private property and the laws, regulations, organizations, institutions and social norms upon which they rely."

To Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, such language violates academic freedom and poses problems because of its unspoken agenda.

“Although the Koch Foundation’s objectives are written so as to sound upbeat and cheerful, they amount to code words calling for the dismantling of the welfare state,” Nelson wrote in an e-mail. “ ‘Economic freedom’ sounds like mom and apple pie until you realize it means the government shouldn’t collect taxes, and ‘free voluntary processes’ means buy health care on your own if you can afford it.

“It is wholly inappropriate for an outside foundation to use a university to promote its ideological biases in this way,” he continued. “The Kochs can fund positions to hire faculty members who study these issues, but not control what stand the faculty members hired take on them. That distinction is part of the firewall protecting academic freedom.”

But the Charles G. Koch Foundation says it does respect academic freedom (several donor agreements pledge support for the concept) — and its contractual language is meant to ensure that the universities honor the intent of their donation. “The mission of the Charles Koch Foundation is to promote an understanding of the conditions that create the most opportunity and prosperity for individuals, and we support researchers and teachers who are interested in examining these ideas,” Ryan Stowers, director of higher education programs at the foundation, said in an e-mail.

“Our agreements with both Clemson and Utah State expanded existing educational programs at these schools, which have long been recognized for their innovative research and teaching on the ideas of economic freedom,” Stowers continued. “We respect and support academic freedom and consider it foundational in fostering a vibrant academic environment, and as numerous university administrators, professors and students have said about these programs, they have complete freedom to shape the programming supported by our grants."

Detractors of these deals see them as part of a campaign to co-opt scholars and advance the agenda of Charles G. and David H. Koch (these would be the billionaire brothers who, particularly since a New Yorker profile last year, have been pegged as the financial wellspring of several causes that are anathema to liberals and progressives — including efforts to strip public sector unionized employees of their right to collectively bargain, and bids to minimize financial and environmental regulations).

“Their ultra-conservatism needs a veneer of intellectual credibility, which is why for decades the brothers have lavished resources on a host of think tanks and academic institutions that are willing to make a case for anything a billionaire without a conscience would want,” the columnist Robyn Blumner wrote recently.

Defenders of the foundation counter that the conditions it attaches to its gifts are no different, structurally, from what funders typically request. (Others note that more typical gifts might support scholarship in a given field, such as economics or business, and do not specify the particular approach; fund-raising experts almost always say the donors should have no formal role in faculty hiring, as the foundation has at Florida State and to some extent elsewhere.)

And, the foundation's supporters continue, it is the Koch Foundation’s libertarian and pro-market ethos, which runs counter to the political and ideological orthodoxy of many academics, that has made it — unjustifiably — the subject of such scrutiny.

Between these two poles of thought, the faculty and administrators on many of the campuses that have received Koch money have described their relationship with the foundation with a mix of caution and a sense of context, and they are mindful of the political lightning rod that the Koch name has become. 


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