$5 Million Is Going To Koch-Backed Think Tanks In Arizona Universities. Professors Are Angry.

People stand on the campus overpass, Thursday, April 28, 2016, at Arizona State University. CREDIT: MATT YORK/AP
People stand on the campus overpass, Thursday, April 28, 2016, at Arizona State University. CREDIT: MATT YORK/AP

Arizona lawmakers could provide the state’s public universities with $32 million in additional funding this year — but some of that money will go to supporting conservative causes. A $5 million addition has been specifically earmarked for “freedom schools” at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, according to the Arizona Republic.

These conservative institutes — which center on free-enterprise ideals and libertarian thought — don’t offer degrees, but instead function more as think tanks. They are often funded by the conservative Koch brothers. Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, for example, has received $3.5 million from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation. The other freedom schools are the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said he supports lawmakers’ efforts to fund these schools — and for good reason. A study from the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty supported the governor’s land trust plan last year. And Ducey has connections to groups tied to the Koch brothers, which spent nearly $1 million on his recent campaign to stop an amendment renewing a sales tax, Proposition 204, according to IRS records analyzed by the Arizona Republic.

In this photo taken Oct. 7, 2015, George Mason University students Colin Nackerman, left, and Samantha Parson, poste for a portrait by the George Mason statue on campus in Fairfax, Va. George Mason University, a public school outside the nation’s capital, has quietly become a conservative powerhouse in economics and law, a reputation built in part with tens of millions of dollars a year from billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch. CREDIT: Jacquelyn Martin, AP
In this photo taken Oct. 7, 2015, George Mason University students Colin Nackerman, left, and Samantha Parson, poste for a portrait by the George Mason statue on campus in Fairfax, Va. George Mason University, a public school outside the nation’s capital, has quietly become a conservative powerhouse in economics and law, a reputation built in part with tens of millions of dollars a year from billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch. CREDIT: Jacquelyn Martin, AP

It makes sense that the Koch Brothers would be invested in these schools. According to Jane Meyer’s book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, it’s part of a bigger strategy to create a future generation of lobbyists for their causes. Charles Koch spent $109.7 million on 361 campuses from 2005–2014, Greenpeace found.

Koch-funded professors and advisers have suggested that educational initiatives that are disguised as being more neutral in their approach but that support a libertarian ideology would be beneficial for creating a talent “pipeline” for future lobbyists, and have argued that free enterprise ideals will have more credibility if they’re attached to a university, according to excerpts from Meyer’s book published in The Huffington Post.

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the story represents the continuation of a disturbing trend in higher education. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

“ Just because dollars go back into the system doesn’t mean they pay for the things they did before.”

“What I would say is interesting is that at least in Arizona the state government appears to be mimicking a common move used by more conservative philanthropists in the past … The Arizona move suggests this type of support has jumped from private individuals to the state government itself,” Miller told ThinkProgress.

He added, “This shows why we need more nuance in the discussion of state funding. Just because dollars go back into the system doesn’t mean they pay for the things they did before.”

The discussion of where money slated for state universities is really going is particularly relevant to Arizona students. Arizona’s public universities are in serious trouble. Its state universities earned the dubious distinction of enduring the country’s biggest cuts, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released last year. The state spent almost 50 percent less in 2015 than it did in 2008, the report found, and it has seen the largest tuition increases — spiking by 83 percent from 2008 to 2015.

“The state has slashed higher education funding over the past decade, which has forced public universities to operate like private universities and to the detriment of access for state residents,” Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor at the College of Education at the University of Arizona, told ThinkProgress. “The proposed increase in unrestricted funding is puny in comparison to past cuts. Public universities need more unrestricted revenues to subsidize the education of Arizona residents. Without those funds, universities turn to out-of-state students and raise in-state tuition price, both of which work against access for Arizona residents.”

In this context, it’s not surprising that some University of Arizona professors aren’t thrilled to see state money earmarked to these centers.

“In higher education, power is broadly distributed and decentralized and faculty have enormous voice, influence, and sometimes positions of authority …”

Jaquette said it “sets a bad precedent” to use state funds for what is essentially a political think tank, no matter what its ideology is. And Gary Rhoades, the department head for educational policy studies and practice at the College of Education at the University of Arizona, said it is a “cynical” ploy on the part of politicians to claim they’re refunding the higher education budget when it is actually providing funding for a special interest group.

“Gifts from the Koch Foundation are particularly problematic in that they often violate long-established principles of gift giving in higher education, which is that the giver does not control decision making, for example, about the governance of the unit being funded, or about the people being hired or students being supported by the funds,” Rhoades said of Koch’s philanthropic influence in higher education.

Rhoades pointed to Florida State University, where the Charles Koch Foundation gave $1.5 million to the economics department. A contract between Koch’s foundation and Florida State University required that an advisory committee chosen by Koch would provide annual evaluations and choose professors, the Tampa Bay Times reported. According to the Times report, Koch rejected almost 60 percent of the faculty’s first round of hiring recommendations in 2009.

“In short, giving should not be governing. [The gifts] constitute, in a very real sense, the Koch Foundation purchasing hired guns to promote their particular beliefs. That is not what a university in a democracy is about,” Rhoades said.