Charles and David Koch are well known for funding political campaigns, but the Kochs also donate tens of millions of dollars to colleges and universities.
Nothing unusual about wealthy people giving to higher education, but some professors warn that Koch funding can come with conditions that threaten academic freedom, and that has sparked a debate about the influence of big donors in an age of diminishing public university funding.
Ground zero in the dispute over Koch funding at the University of Kansas is a cluttered room, on the third floor of the old business school building.
“This is it, this is the center,” says Art Hall, Director of the Center for Applied Economics, walking into the small room. “Nine by nine, no windows,” laughs Hall.
Art Hall is in charge here. In fact he’s the only employee, teaching students and doing policy analysis from a libertarian economic perspective.
“One of the fundamental elements is freedom to engage,” says Hall. “And the more freedom the better, within the context of rules that allow people the incentive to act entrepreneurially.”
Hall has backed big tax cuts in Kansas, and lobbied against wind power subsidies. Before this job he was an economist working for the lobbying arm of Koch Industries. A Koch foundation pays Hall’s salary. But Hall says the Kochs don’t control this center of learning.
“My recollection, there is no fundamental stipulation,” says Hall. “It’s just the goal, like many foundations provide grants, is to do quality scholarship.”
Hall is popular with students, but the terms of his grant are secret, which leads to questions.
Schuyler Kraus, a senior at KU, leads the group Students for a Sustainable Future. At a recent meeting of the group at Dempsey’s Burger Pub in Lawrence, Kraus and five other earnest-looking students washed their burgers down with water.
Kraus says a year ago last October, she just decided to Google “Koch KU,” something like that.
“We had no idea what we thought we were going to find, but it keeps getting deeper and deeper and deeper,” says Kraus.
She discovered Hall and his ties to the Kochs, and that made Kraus wonder if the Koch Foundation was essentially buying credibility at the university’s expense.
“So, we filed an open records request just asking a few questions and everything blew up,” says Kraus.
Kraus asked for all the documents related to the Koch grant, and Art Hall’s relationship with Koch-backed political groups. KU charged $1,800 to get all that together. Faculty and students donated the money, but just before Kraus was to get the documents, Hall sued to stop KU from transferring them. Hall says the records request is an attack on academic freedom. A Koch foundation is paying Hall’s legal bills.
“That tells me that there is something that these students are on to,” says Connor Gibson with the group UnKoch My Campus.
Koch funding at Florida State University
Connor Gibson says it’s not unusual for schools to resist disclosing the terms of Koch grants.
“And I think that speaks to the nature of the embarrassment schools like Florida State University have felt, where it’s showed they offered a lot of control to Charles Koch, in exchange for a few million dollars,” he says.
When a Koch foundation donated to Florida State it installed a Koch-appointed board to scrutinize hiring, research funding, and some academic work. Ray Bellamy, head of Sergey at the Tallahassee campus of FSU’s College of Medicine, uncovered all this with his own open records request.
“They want their view taught,” says Bellamy. “And it amounts to propaganda, rather than assisting education.”
Florida State has since revised its agreement with the Koch foundation, but Bellamy says big donors still call the shots.
A state-assisted university
Back at KU, Jim Guthrie, associate dean of the business school, allows that private funders are getting more and more important.
“People use the phrase that we’ve moved from being a state-funded to a state-assisted university. But the University of Kansas is no different in that regard than almost any state institution across these United States,” says Guthrie.
Private donors are picking up where states are pulling back, says Guthrie. They are paying for buildings, endowed chairs, and basic research. Of course funders all want something, from a just name on a wall, to serious political or economic return. But Guthrie insists that professors keep donors from corrupting the curriculum.
“If you’ve ever spent any time with faculty, you know that we’re a pretty strong willed, independent group,” laughs Guthrie. “Some people might say sometimes arrogant! We’re not easily influenced by outside folks. We take money and we spend it wisely."
Guthrie points to the big construction project going on across the street, a new building for the business school, paid for, largely by private donors.
Koch higher education funding explodes
Just inside the old business school’s front door, the Koch Student Commons lounge offers comfy seats, coffee and vending machines.
A decade ago, Koch university funding was limited to a handful of schools. No more.
“Currently we’re fortunate to support over 350 programs, and over 250 colleges and universities across the country,” says John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation.
“Our philanthropy is really about a shared interest in a school’s vision,” continues Hardin. “Our role is to provide funding so that those scholars and those schools can pursue their interests.”
But, Dave Levinthal, at the Center for Public Integrity, isn’t so sure. He’s studied Koch funding for years and says that when the Kochs spend money on universities, or even high schools, they do it to advance the long-term objectives of the Koch political network.
“At every level that they can operate in, for all intents and purposes they are making investments that will build that next generation of Libertarian economic thinkers, and actors, business people and politicians,” says Levinthal.
Levinthal expects the Kochs to accelerate university funding, and says other donors — from the right and the left — are doing the same thing.
KU senior Schuyler Kraus says her brief and unintentional brush with the university donors has left her troubled about the state of public education.
“We call ourselves a public institution, and we say that we’re unbiased, but when anyone, even a student, asks to see the nature of those relationship between those private donors and the academy we’re silenced and shut down, a lawsuit happens,” says Kraus. “And I think that’s telling of a bigger, more systemic issue that’s happening here.”
As of today, Kraus hasn’t received the documents pertaining to the Koch grant funding the Center for Applied Economics — they are still tied up in court. Meanwhile, Kraus is considering investigating strings tied to funding in another department.
It seems likely that as private funders gain influence in public universities, students and professors will have to step up their vigilance, if they hope to ensure that big donations don’t trump academic ideals.