Have you heard the news? First the nefarious Koch brothers were trying to end education for kids in Wisconsin (well, until they weren’t actually). And, now, if you can believe it, the news is that the Koch brothers are trying to promote education! Some nerve…
The phony outrage this time is over a $1.5 million donation that the Koch Foundation gave to Florida State University (FSU) to hire new professors and implement a program that promotes political economy and free enterprise. The agreement was made in 2008 with FSU, and though it was transparent at the time, it went largely unnoticed—that is, until just recently.
Here’s how an article in the St. Petersburg Times describes the agreement between the Koch Foundation and FSU:
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.
So while it gives the impression that the hiring is done by the Kochs, it’s actually highly misleading. But that hasn’t stopped the left, who have created something of bogeymen out of David and Charles Koch, from claiming that this program compromises the academic integrity of the university by allowing for outside sources to dictate to the university which professors can—and cannot—be hired.
But the left’s talking point is wrong – and misses the point.
As FSU president Eric Barron told the Associated Press:
“If there is anything that affected academic freedom, I would put an immediate stop to it,” Barron said Tuesday. “The Koch Foundation did not reject the faculty's suggestions for hiring.”
Barron stressed the point further in an interview with Insider Higher Ed:
“How are we thwarting academic freedom when [the hires] are proposed by the faculty, interviewed by the faculty and selected by the faculty?" he asked. They are not hiring anybody they don't want to. They are not being told who they have to hire.... If the Koch Foundation said yea or nay on hires, I would say we had crossed the line, but I don't see how this crosses the line."
Barron himself has been highly critical of the St. Petersburg Times for choosing “to be sensational, when it is clear that FSU faculty were the decision makers at every level.”
Even the chairman of the economics department at FSU, Bruce Benson, said this deal was an opportunity to improve the department and that it “guaranteed a diversity of opinion that's beneficial to students.”
FSU is not the first university to accept money from the Koch Foundation. In Wisconsin, a $5,400 grant was given to Richard Avramenko, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, to put together an undergraduate political theory group. The professor said that the funds allow him to, among other things, purchase books for students and bring speakers to campus. He also said that “there has been no input from the Koch folks on the substance of the programming.”
In Wisconsin, Beloit College received $32,000 from the Koch Foundation to fund a “Research Colloquium and Speaker Series.” Asked if the money came with stipulations by the foundation, Joshua Hall, a professor of economics and management who runs the program said, "none whatsoever." Hall continued:
“To be honest, there wouldn't be a lot of value there for myself or our students if I didn't have complete freedom to invite who I felt was appropriate,” says Hall.
Woah, talk about compromising academic integrity!
What’s going on here is that the left is doing its best to ascribe nefarious motives to people with whom they disagree with on politics. These grants are nothing more than an attempt to improve education for students at these particular colleges and universities.
The real problem, then, is simply that the Kochs are conservative. Liberal interests can partner with and donate money to universities all they want and know that their interests will be furthered – most universities, of course, are predominantly made up of liberals.
And, by the way, if one is really going to get outraged by a foundation trying to bolster education, should one really direct that towards the foundation itself? Seems like that should be directed toward the universities, who had a choice to accept the foundation’s money. But, then again, what would be the point of that? It wouldn’t even be a story if the nefarious Kochs weren’t involved in the first place!