Charles Koch, the billionaire libertarian who has funded front-groups and lobbying efforts to expand his anti-tax, anti-regulatory agenda under the guise of “free enterprise,” has now widened his reach into another key public policy area: academics. The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation entered into an agreement with Florida State University in 2008 in which the foundation would provide millions of dollars in funds for the school’s economics department.
The funds were marked to add multiple faculty positions in the economics department. But the money came with multiple strings attached, including a demand that Koch have the ability to directly approve who ultimately filled the positions. As the St. Petersburg Times reports, the agreement is now raising questions across the board about academic freedom and integrity at public colleges and universities:
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.
Koch wasted little time in asserting his influence. In 2009, he denied 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions to fill the positions in the new programs, called the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise (SPEFE) and Excellence in Economics Education (EEE). The hires that were made were agreed upon by Koch and the department’s faculty.
But according to a memorandum about the agreement, obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, the ability to pick and choose faculty members was hardly the only string attached. In addition, Koch wanted the ability to review work done by the economics faculty and much more:
The three senior professors must come in with tenure, and FSU must continue to fund them for at least four years past the project period.
The Advisory Board of SPSFC and EEE is allowed to review all publicly provided material submitted by applicants for the Professorship positions.
The Advisory Board will determine which candidates qualify to receive funding.
No funding for a professorship position or any other affiliated program or position will be released without the review and approval of the Advisory Board.
An undergraduate program will be devised and funded for $30,000 per year for three years. The committee responsible for the program will report to the Advisory Board.
Other strings spell out the right of the [Charles G. Koch] Foundation to annually review the work of funded professors, publications, publicity, etc., and to pick up their marbles and go home if not satisfied.
David Rasmussen, the dean of Florida State’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, has asserted that academic integrity and “philanthropy” can coexist, arguing that there is no problem with the school’s agreement with Koch. But many universities have strict policies regarding donors’ influence over how donations are used, and Yale University once returned a $20 million donation because a donor wanted veto power over hires.
The agreement with Florida State is hardly Koch’s first foray into higher education. The Koch brothers have provided funding to numerous colleges and universities, including George Mason University, to which the Kochs have donated millions of dollars for an economics program that has played an extensive role in anti-regulatory policy development.
Because selling out its academic freedom to Koch apparently wasn’t enough, Florida State also entered into an agreement with BB&T, which provided funding for a course on ethics and economics and required that Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, be a part of the course curriculum. Responding to criticism of that agreement, Rasmussen said, “If somebody says, ‘We’re willing to help support your students and faculty by giving you money, but we’d like you to read this book,’ that doesn’t strike me as a big sin. What is a big sin is saying that certain ideas cannot be discussed.”
In the world where billionaires and corporations take over education, the only “big sin” is apparently fighting back against their control of academic curriculum.