The Koch Foundation and academic freedom



Richard Vedder argued at that in higher education, “the most invidious single violation of basic concepts of free expression of ideas is the attack on the Koch brothers, Charles and David.” This claim is absurd, since no one has sought to censor the Koch Brothers, and because their foundation has sought to limit academic freedom by imposing ideological litmus tests on faculty and curricula in their funding of programs.

Vedder’s argument goes something like this: universities are controlled by left-wingers, so anyone who tries to bring more conservative voices in higher education is promoting free expression (no matter what their methods), and anyone who opposes on principle allowing donors to purchase faculty with views they want is restricting free expression. It’s a kind of unprincipled idea that would have made Herbert Marcuse proud, if he hadn’t represented the mirror image of it ideologically.

Exactly what is Vedder defending as the epitome of academic freedom? Kent Miller and Ray Bellamy at FSU exposed the disturbing pact between the Koch Foundation and FSU in 2011, which led the university to revise the agreement and create a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Martin Kich posted the full 2011 Florida State Memorandum of Understanding on AcademeBlog a few days ago. The problem with it remains the fact that the Koch Foundation imposes ideological demands to approve faculty before allowing money to be donated.

Since the purpose of the Koch donation is to provide money for the hiring of faculty who otherwise wouldn’t fit into the budget, this is a distinction with no practical difference. If the department hires “wrong-thinking” faculty, then it will lose a faculty slot (either this one or a future one).

Since the department is already very right-wing (as evidenced by their unprofessional willingness to sell their curriculum to Koch in the 2008 MOU with Ayn Rand’s dreadful novel Atlas Shrugged as required reading), it’s no surprise that they want Koch’s money under any conditions.

Florida State University President John Thrasher wrote an op-ed this week defending the Memorandum (which was signed by the previous president).

Thrasher argued that the 2011 MOU “contains no provisions that violate the academic freedom of the faculty or the students or threaten the integrity of the university’s policies regarding faculty governance.”

Thrasher argues that the 2011 MOU was “hardly a secret document” because four top administrators signed it. That’s certainly a bizarre interpretation of secrecy.

Thrasher quotes the chair of the economics department, Mark Isaac, who stated, “I believe that any attempt by anyone, be they students, faculty, or external groups, to tell members of my department that they may not make a grant application to a foundation because ‘we don’t like that foundation’ is, at a minimum, a gross violation of academic freedom.” That certainly would be a violation of academic freedom, but it doesn’t describe reality. I would never suggest that anyone be banned from applying for a grant from the Koch Foundation. The question is whether the department should agree to receive grants contingent upon ideological agreement with a foundation. And it definitely should never do that.

Yes, it would be a violation of academic freedom to refuse to allow a donor to fund research or faculty appointments because of the donor’s ideological beliefs. But requiring all donations to follow certain procedures is a way to protect academic freedom, not a violation of it.

Making funding for faculty positions contingent upon approval is a threat to academic freedom because it means that a department knows it will benefit by picking certain faculty.

This is highly unusual in academia: in general, a donor gives money to support a particular department, chair, or program. Then the department chooses the faculty. Florida State’s practice of donors holding their money hostage until the faculty they like are hired is a threat to academic freedom. It creates a financial incentive for departments to hire based on ideology.

According to Vedder, “You rarely hear, for example, of complaints that George Soros-sponsored groups exercise undue influence on the creation and dissemination of ideas, or that federal research grants might distort or dilute the academic mission.”

That’s true. And there’s a simple reason for this: George Soros-sponsored groups have never exercised undue influence on universities by requiring them to obey George Soros’ commands. If Vedder has any evidence of this, he doesn’t bother to tell us. Nor do federal research grants involve demands by the federal government for ideological control over hiring and curricula decisions. If Soros or other leftists started imposing demands for ideological approval of faculty hiring before donating money, then I would criticize them as harshly as I criticize the Koch Foundation. But until left-wingers actually do this, Vedder’s critique has no substance.

Vedder claimed, “Left-wing groups believe all academic decisions should be made by their leftish faculty colleagues, and that outsiders should not be able to fund alternative perspectives.” I would strongly oppose any attempt to shut down courses, professors, and curricula in fields where I disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy, such as business, economics, agriculture, and many more. But there simply aren’t any examples of rich left-wingers attempting to impose their will on campus appointments and curricula by giving money contingent upon examination of a professor’s ideology.

By contrast, Vedder’s position of allowing any funding of “alternative perspectives” is completely incompatible with academic standards and academic freedom. If universities are going to be a “free market” where anyone with money can purchase a department or a professor, does Vedder think that foreign governments should be able to stop the criticism of their human rights violations by simply buying up professorships? Should creationists be entitled to purchase professorships of biology and compel them to teach creationism? Should a rich astrologer be able to hire a professor of astrology for the astronomy department?

No one is restricting the right-wing economics department at Florida State from imposing its conservative ideology in hiring professors (even though it is morally obliged to be more open-minded). But the department cannot turn over control over hiring and curricula to a wealthy donor, as Florida State did in the 2008 agreement and continues to do in the 2013 modified agreement. And a university cannot allow a department to profit from selling off its academic freedom to the highest bidder. The Koch Foundation should be perfectly free to give any money it wants to the department. But the department is not entitled to get extra professors if it hires according to the Koch Foundation’s demands.