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 the University of West Virginia.
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.
“I think it’s important to be a little bit pragmatic. The reality is that most gifts have strings attached,” said Daniel D. Warner, professor of mathematical sciences and chair of the faculty senate at Clemson, citing scholarships or grants made to specific colleges within universities as other kinds of gifts with strings. “I appreciate the concern, but I just feel pretty strongly that it’s not an academic freedom issue.”
Three years ago, the AAUP contemplated the relationship between private money and academic freedom in an observation put forth by the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom. The committee argued that academic institutions surrender their autonomy and authority — and diverge with principles of academic freedom — when they accept outside funding that is “conditioned on a requirement to assign specific course material that the faculty would not otherwise assign.”
The Case at Clemson
Courting Koch did not alter the university’s scholarly orientation, said Claude Lilly, dean of the College of Business and Behavioral Science at Clemson. The university spent several years cultivating the Charles G. Koch Foundation to support its Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and has received $1 million thus far. The terms of Clemson’s agreement with the foundation state that the director of the institute will present to the foundation the credentials of a faculty candidate — who must support the goals and objectives of the grant and should complement and inform existing faculty research in the “study of capitalism and its ties to prosperity, social progress and human well-being.”
But that was the extent of the foundation’s involvement in the process that led to the hiring of Brandon Turner and Henry Clark as, respectively, assistant professor of political science and Hayek Visiting Professor of History. “They had no input into the selection process,” Lilly said of the foundation. He likened Clemson’s agreement with Koch to a scholarship in which a donor wants to know to whom their grant was ultimately awarded. “If we gave them any kind of say who we would hire, that would be a different issue.”
Lilly also disputed the idea that the grant’s conditions amounted to an ideological litmus test. “I don’t think that’s true any more than if I hire a finance person and I look for one who has an expertise in derivatives,” he said. Lilly added that the university had protections in place to allow a professor to freely shift views — even if it meant that he or she would start criticizing capitalism. “If there’s only one [ideology] that should be espoused, then I think that crosses the line.”
The fact that the faculty was involved in the hiring process, said Warner of Clemson’s Faculty Senate, also meant that only qualified scholars would be considered. He noted that Clemson faced questions about outside control several years ago, when the university received $10 million from the automaker BMW to build a center and hire faculty experts in automotive research. Provisions were put in place to allow donors to offer names of candidates while also protecting the process from undue outside influence. None of the company’s recommended candidates was hired, said Warner.
He added that it was difficult to argue that the foundation’s goals and objectives to support research into the “causes, measurements, impact and appreciation of economic freedom" clearly constituted a predetermined set of outcomes. “Saying you appreciate it — that seems vague to me,” said Warner. “I would assume that Clemson would go into it with the attitude that faculty research is faculty research and we do it to the highest standard we can muster. If it fails to be appreciated, that’s the game. The funding stops."
Utah State’s Huntsman School
From 2007 to 2009, Utah State University raised more than $700,000 from the Koch Foundation to supplement the salaries of five faculty members at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business (named after the industrialist and philanthropist; his son is the former governor and recently declared Republican presidential candidate). The agreement between the school and Koch contains academic freedom provisions and stated goals and objectives that are similar to those at Clemson.
The hiring processes are spelled out more explicitly, however. After stating that faculty members whose salaries are supplemented with Koch grant money will be subject to the same standards and procedures as those that apply to other faculty, the contract requires that the foundation approve of the person hired. But no one from the foundation had any role in the search committees, said Randy Simmons, professor of economics and finance.
And it was the university’s decision, he said, to focus on hiring faculty members with a common perspective — which also dovetailed with the goals and objectives set out in the grant agreement signed with the Koch foundation. “The way we sold it to the foundation — because we were the ones who made the contact — [was] we want to address fundamental issues of what it means to live in a free society,” said Simmons. “The fundamental question is what kind of financial system enables people to live free and productive lives.”
The result has been a sense of “intellectual vibrancy” that Simmons said has been lacking in other departments in which he has served during his career. At the same time, he said, those whose salaries are being supplemented by Koch money are not reading from the same playbook. For example, one scholar consistently argues for the primacy of computer modeling in forecasting economic behavior; another sees such models as disconnected from the real world.
“You ought to listen to these folks argue with each other,” said Simmons. “Their conclusions are not conclusions in lockstep with Charles Koch.” One of the new faculty members whose salary is supplemented by Koch money is a strong proponent of state-run systems, he said, referring to T. Scott Findley, who last year published a paper on Social Security.
Such deviation from free-market orthodoxy has not been a problem, Simmons continued. “I have never had a requirement from the foundation to do anything or to look at a topic in any particular way,” he said. In fact, he added, the faculty would be offended by such a demand.
The scrutiny of universities with ties to Koch is a byproduct of preconceived notions rather than any real problems with the agreements themselves, Simmons argued. “I think it’s the perception that the Koch Foundation is trying to take over a university,” he said. “And so it’s the perception that I think is the problem, in part because after the piece in The New Yorker and everything that sprung from that there’s now this, ‘How dare you take money from people who rape the environment?’ If you got exactly the same grant from the Ford Foundation I don’t think there’d be the same thing at all.”
Millions to George Mason
By far the largest recipient of Koch support is George Mason University, which has a relationship with the foundation dating to 1980. Since 2002, according to publicly available federal tax filings, the foundation has awarded more than $10 million to George Mason through the university’s foundation, and about $15 million to the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank that is affiliated with the university (it publishes the Freedom Index, which ranks states according to the extent to which there are regulations on everything from trans fats to mandated family leave policies). Another $6 million has gone to the Institute for Humane Studies, which is housed at George Mason (it offers scholarships to and runs seminars for those with “an interest in liberty”) but has few formal connections with the university beyond occupying space there.
When asked for copies of the donor agreements, the university referred the request to the foundation, saying that — since they are held by a private nonprofit organization — such documents are not subject to freedom of information requirements, a position the foundation confirmed.
The faculty has made similar requests and been rebuffed by the foundation. Spurred by concerns over the relationship with the Koch Foundation, the Faculty Senate has formed a task force to examine the implications of all the funding agreements into which the university has entered.
“If we can’t have access to the agreements, it’s very difficult to determine where the intent lies,” said Peter M. Pober, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of communications.
While many faculty members at George Mason acknowledged that private foundation support of a university’s academic programs is nothing new, Pober said the important line of distinction is at what point and how the private foundation exerts its influence. It is customary, he said, for a foundation to give money to study a particular discipline, whether it be free market economics or labor studies. But it is something else if the donation is contingent upon a scholar producing research with a predetermined outcome.
“[If it’s] ‘We hope you will find X’ before the hypothesis is formed, the Faculty Senate would be concerned,” said Pober. “That’s not to say I think that’s happening. The concern that it could be happening is what led to the creation of the task force.”
Peter Stearns, George Mason’s provost, said that none of its agreements with the Koch Foundation went so far as to require a predetermined outcome or to give the foundation control over hiring. “When the incident at Florida State occurred, I looked to make sure we had no agreements tying our hands with the hiring of faculty,” said Stearns, “and we have no such agreements.”
Most of the money from the Koch Foundation has supported specific research projects, said Stearns, most of them conducted by doctoral students in law and economics. “There are simply no contractual agreements that specify that this money is supposed to be used for specific ideological purposes,” he said. “Let me say the obvious: donors give to institutions that do things that they like. That doesn’t mean they require specific research agendas. Obviously, Koch has decided we have a batch of economists that it likes.”
Such cycles of continued private funding and acceptable research are “as old as the academy itself,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (and a recipient of Koch support). The responsibility to protect academic freedom and deal frankly with donors rests, he said, with universities.
“In hazier cases where it seems that the donor would prefer the promotion of certain viewpoints, the university must not apply the grant in a way that would violate the free speech or academic freedom rights of its faculty or students,” said Lukianoff, who said that the Koch grants’ requirements, especially those related to research into "appreciation of economic freedom,” fall into this hazy category.
Besides, he argued, many departments or fields of study — from peace studies to human rights law — have inherent ideological and intellectual assumptions. But that is not, in itself, an academic freedom problem, he said.
“Departments (and entire fields of study) often come with certain limited intellectual assumptions built in, but when these are transformed into mandatory ideological requirements they run afoul of principles of academic freedom,” said Lukianoff. “While I have no doubt that donors — and universities themselves — do often favor certain particular sets of ideological beliefs over others, universities have a responsibility to do their best to make sure they maintain their role as a true marketplace of ideas.”
The best way to safeguard a university’s interests and commitment to academic freedom is to be clear about expectations up front, said Rae Goldsmith, vice president for advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. “The gift agreement is in many ways like a prenuptial agreement,” she said. “All issues of institutional and donor control should be laid on the table. In this case, prevention is the best medicine.”