The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are best-known for donating millions to the election campaigns of Tea Party candidates and others committed to fighting regulation of business and to protecting the oil and gas industries from efforts to combat climate change. It turns out that Charles Koch, through his foundation, is now also heavily invested in higher education. The money comes with major strings attached.
According to Greenpeace’s recent report, Koch on Campus: Polluting Higher Education, the Charles Koch Foundation gave more than $50 million to 390 colleges and universities between 2005 and 2012. Among the major grantees are George Mason University, Florida State University, Clemson University, Suffolk University, Utah State, West Virginia University, Catholic University, University of North Carolina, George Washington University, and Arizona State.1
Most of the funding has gone to economics departments, and the conditions are explicitly ideological. The West Virginia contract, for example, specifies that “human freedom” and “free market economics” are the main purposes of the grant. It requires supervision from a designated professor (at the time, the holder of an endowed chair in “Entrepreneurial Studies”), and names two others as the Foundation’s preferred candidates for tenure-track jobs.2
Florida State’s “Memorandum of Understanding” with Koch likewise provides that the programs funded and professors hired must “advance and expand” research and teaching related to “free enterprise.” The agreement specifies that the Foundation will have approval power over faculty appointments that it funds. If the Foundation disagrees with a proposed appointment, it can refuse to fund the position.3
Faculty at Florida State were upset in 2011 to discover that the grant also guaranteed mandatory reading of Ayn Rand’s writings in some courses.4
The Utah State contract mandates that Koch-funded, tenure-track professors follow free-market ideology. Utah State also has a “Koch Scholars” program that pays students $1,000 to join study groups, whose reading list includes Charles Koch’s The Science of Success.5
Denying Climate Change
A primary concern of Greenpeace is that the Koch funds are supporting professors and programs that are impeding attempts to stop or slow climate change. Greenpeace reports that Florida State’s economics department, heavily financed by Koch, appears to host professors who are misrepresenting climate science, “a field well outside of their credentialed expertise.” Three of the four authors of a notorious economics textbook containing misinformation about climate science have ties to FSU.6
George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies, chaired by Charles Koch, has been “a haven for climate change deniers,” according to a report from Mother Jones. It recruits students to work for Koch-funded organizations that have fought climate change initiatives, including the development of clean energy alternatives.7
The Koch brothers own the second largest private corporation in the U.S.: Koch Industries, which had $115 billion in sales in fiscal year 2013. Its wide range of enterprises include oil refineries in Alaska, Minnesota, and Texas, and thousands of miles of pipelines.8
Implications for Academic Freedom
Yale University, in once returning a $20 million grant when the donor demanded veto power over appointments, remarked that such control was “unheard of.” Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc., calls the Koch agreement with FSU “truly shocking … an egregious example of a public university being willing to sell itself.” Ralph Wilson, a doctoral student at FSU, accused the Charles Koch Foundation of “plundering the very foundations of academic freedom.”9
FSU’s Economics chair Bruce Benson, in a lengthy memo to staff, acknowledged the “ethical/moral issues” involved. “Some will object to having any group trying to use our department (or any other department) as a means of furthering their political agenda,” Benson wrote. “I have considerable sympathy for these normative arguments. Indeed, I wish that universities were free of political manipulation. Unfortunately, the reality is that we live and work in an environment that is subject to all sorts of political manipulations.”10
Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, told National Public Radio: “it amounts to the Koch brothers’ foundation basically trying to buy a position on the faculty. And that certainly is a threat to academic freedom.”11
Students and faculty at many campuses have mounted protests, which are loosely coordinated by the “UnKoch My Campus” campaign. The campaign’s web site includes an interactive database for students to track information about their school, and reports the latest news on student and faculty protests.
Churchmen have also expressed reservations. In 2013, fifty Catholic educators signed a letter protesting Catholic University of America’s acceptance of a $1 million grant from Koch, saying that the grant sends “a confusing message” – “that a school created by U.S. bishops agrees with the Kochs’ “anti-government, Tea Party ideology.”12
Update: In January 2016 Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson published a summary of the revelations relating to the Koch brothers’ assaults on academic freedom in Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money.
*This article previously appeared on the Free Expression Policy Project, which existed from 2000-2017.
1. Connor Gibson, Koch on Campus: Polluting Higher Education, Greenpeace, 2014.
4. Colleen Flaherty, “Not Interested in Koch Money,” Inside Higher Ed, June 25, 2014.
6. Connor Gibson, “FSU Students to Charles Koch: Stop Polluting Academic Integrity,” Apr. 9, 2014.
7. Koch on Campus, supra, quoting in part Josh Harkinson, “Climate Change Deniers Without Borders,” Mother Jones, Dec. 22, 2009.
8. “Koch Industries,” Forbes, Oct. 2014; Kris Hundley, “Billionaire’s role in hiring decisions at Florida State University raises questions,” Tampa Bay Times, May 9, 2011.
9. Hundley, supra (Yale and Washburn); Wilson quoted in Dave Levinthal, “Koch foundation proposal to college: Teach our curriculum, get millions,” Center for Public Integrity, Sept. 12, 2014.
11. Quoted in “Koch Foundation Criticized Again For Influencing Florida State,” National Public Radio, May 23, 2014.
12. Michelle Boorstein, “50 educators sign letter to Catholic University protesting Koch Foundation’s $1 million gift,” Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2013.