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The Koch Foundation had a say in hiring and firing George Mason University professors

“The idea that the Kochs are giving money without anything expected in return always seemed a little absurd."

Samuel Ramey, Charles Koch and David Koch attend New York City Opera's Theater Debut Celebration in 2009. CREDIT: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Samuel Ramey, Charles Koch and David Koch attend New York City Opera's Theater Debut Celebration in 2009. CREDIT: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The Charles Koch Foundation had a say in hiring and firing professors at George Mason University, an agreement the university denied for years, according to documents released Monday and detailed in an Associated Press report.

The newly released documents spell out the relationship between George Mason and the conservative megadonors wherein the foundation creates a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at a free-market think tank at the school, the Mercatus Center. The agreements also create a five-member selection committee to choose the professors, and the foundation gets to name two committee members. They could also appoint members to advisory boards that had firing power should Koch-funded professors fail to live up to standards.

Last week, a judge scrutinized George Mason’s refusal to release any documents. In a note to faculty Friday night, George Mason President Angel Cabrera said the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

The documents were released to a former student, Samantha Parsons, after she filed a Freedom of Information Act request. According to the AP, Parsons has had similar requests denied multiple times. Parsons now works for the activist group UnKoch My Campus, and she told the AP that the documents from George Mason are similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University.

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“The faculty is supposed to have the independence to choose the best-qualified candidate,” she told the wire service.

The Koch Foundation said in a statement that the agreements with George Mason University are “old and inactive” and that newer agreements contain no such provisions.

The revelation about George Mason sticks to the Koch brothers’ clear strategy at universities around the country. In 2016, UnKoch My Campus recorded remarks made by Koch-backed professors and executives at the Association of Private Enterprise Education’s annual meeting in Las Vegas, who said students act as “foot soldiers” for free market ideas.

They also said that university deans would take money from anyone and that and that the slightest mention of the foundation’s legal team keeps schools in line.

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That same year, $5 million was earmarked for Koch-backed “economic freedom centers” at Arizona public universities, and George Mason’s move to rename their law school the Antonin Scalia Law School after receiving $30 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor drew a firestorm of criticism.

More recently, the relationship between the Koch brothers and Utah State University has, as ThinkProgress’ Mark Hand put it at the time, raised eyebrows. A small Koch-backed think tank began publishing the same research as one Utah State institute, prompting critics to question whether the conservative donors were using the school to push their agenda.

The question is most certainly worth asking.

As Del. Marcus Simon, a Fairfax County Democrat who helped lead a petition effort in 2016 to block George Mason University from renaming its law school after Scalia, put it to the AP, “The idea that the Kochs are giving money without anything expected in return always seemed a little absurd.”