Activists Are Pushing to Remove Donor Influence From College Campuses

Students and faculty across the U.S. have begun to push back against undue donor influence on campuses — particularly when orchestrated by a network of conservative Libertarian donors including David and Charles Koch — arguing that such influence violates faculty governance and compromises academic freedom and integrity.

The Koch brothers — billionaire businessmen whose fortune comes from the oil and gas industries, and whose gospel of unregulated capitalism has been promulgated through a network of groups — have far-reaching tentacles that extend into academia. In fact, a report released in October 2018 by the Center for Biological Diversity and UnKoch My Campus revealed that the Charles Koch Foundation has, in recent years, donated $200 million to support 800 faculty positions on 300 campuses throughout the U.S.

Indeed, since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, a wide swath of public institutions including George Mason University (GMU), West Virginia University, Florida State, Utah State, Kansas State, the University of Arizona and Western Carolina University have received Koch network funding.

What’s more, the Mercatus Center at GMU has become the prototype for other donor-created campus think tanks. As the Kochs see it, Mercatus is “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.” It provides them with an easily replicated platform to disseminate conservative Libertarian ideas to both undergraduate and graduate students — ideas that include opposition to virtually all government regulation, from mandates on environmental protections to limits on oil extraction on public lands.

Filling a Financial Void

Until fairly recently, most public colleges were more than happy to accept any and all contributions. That’s because overall government spending for public two- and four-year colleges was $7 billion lower in 2018 than it was in 2008.

The fact that there were plentiful strings attached seemed not to matter, even if those strings governed who could be hired, what they could research or what books they could use in their classes — realities that prescient students and faculty noticed and objected to as soon as academic coffers began filling with Koch network money.

But this is slowly changing. Faculty and students across the country have mounted a well-organized campaign against the Koch brothers — and against other funders who want to dictate how their money is spent and controlled.

Thanks to the national UnKoch My Campus network, they are joining together to oppose these mega-rich influencers, and are employing an array of tactics, from lawsuits, to public protests, to the promotion of a Model Gift Agreement that aims to limit grant-makers’ control over academic instruction.

Samantha Parsons, director of campaigns at UnKoch My Campus, is a recent graduate of GMU, the primary academic beneficiary of Koch money. She calls the Model Policy developed by UnKoch My Campus “a living document” and stresses that it can be tailored to the specific needs of a particular campus or be used by faculty unions to “identify creative ways to incorporate a stance against donor influence in their bargaining agreements.” Parsons notes the policy can also be used by students to push their colleges to abide by fundraising practices that do not limit intellectual discourse or stifle debate.

“Not a lot of universities have best practices to ensure that donor agreements respect faculty governance and academic freedom,” Parsons told Truthout. “The Model Policy evolved as a response by faculty and students to improve university policies around accepting donations and the creation of university centers that are sponsored by private donations.”

The Model Policy, Parsons says, was inspired by work done by faculty at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina. WCU efforts began in 2008, when Edward J. Lopez was hired as the Branch Banking & Trust (BB&T) Distinguished Professor of Capitalism. According to Laura Wright, an English professor active in efforts to limit donor influence on campus, when she and her colleagues learned that the BB&T grant mandated that all business majors read Ayn Rand, they mobilized and demanded changes “to lock down what could and could not happen.”

Several years later, however, in 2015, Wright reports that the Koch Foundation offered Lopez $2 million to establish a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. “It was very hush-hush, but we responded when we found out about it — kind of by accident — and demanded that the administration hold an open forum to discuss this,” Wright said. Nevertheless, because the university had already accepted the money, Center supporters prevailed, and the campus’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise opened in 2016.

Still, there were several victories for Center opponents: Faculty from the humanities as well as the business school now sit on the Center’s board and oversee its functioning to make sure that programming is ideologically diverse, according to Wright.

In addition, she reports that faculty have drafted a policy on gift acceptance and Center development that is meant to reduce donor influence and give faculty a say in all decisions that impact their teaching and research.

Tapping the Minds of Younger Students

The Koch brothers and their cronies clearly understand the importance of tapping young minds when formulating future policies. In Tucson, Arizona, they piloted a class in four public high schools — without getting school board authorization — using an economics textbook called Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship that was written by staff at the Koch-network-funded Freedom Center at the University of Arizona (UA). Students enrolled in the course received both high school and college credit.

The year-long class was funded by the Koch brothers and the John Templeton Foundation and claimed to support “the re-emerging fields of politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) and sought to make philosophical theorizing more relevant not only in academia, but in the larger community.”

This was not a first-of-a-kind venture for Templeton. The Foundation had initially tested PPE at Ormond University in Melbourne, Australia, and saw the Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship class in Tucson as a step toward spreading PPE to three continents and 15 universities: GMU, the University of Arizona, Chapman, Duke, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Brown, the University of Michigan, Wake Forest and Georgetown in the U.S.; the University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia; McGill in Canada; King’s College, London; the University of Hamburg; and El Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico.

The selection of these universities was not arbitrary. Consider that the University of Arizona is the second-largest recipient of Koch network money, due, many believe, to the fact that the Western U.S. is important to Koch Industries’ oil and mineral extraction operations, areas that they see as ripe for exploration and extirpation.

“What is going on is a large, deep effort to not just lobby politicians, but to lobby public opinion,” UA history professor Douglas Weiner told Truthout. “They’re using academia to play upon the image of the academy as an unbiased place of inquiry.”

Because UA was ranked number one nationally in political philosophy, according to Weiner, if the Koch network succeeds in gaining a foothold on campus, it will not only provide the network legitimacy, but will also give them access to some of the nation’s best and brightest philosophy and political science students.

As you’d expect, many at UA want none of it, and due to the work of a group called Kochs Off Campus and supportive faculty like Weiner, in late December, the Tucson Unified School District rejected the high school economics class, citing several reasons for the cancellation. Not only had the course never been formally approved but, after vetting by experts in the three disciplines the class touched on, the textbook used was found to be riddled with factual inaccuracies.

Successful Opposition to the Koch Network

Other victories have also been logged — and several would-be donors have been stopped in their tracks. For one, faculty at Wake Forest University recently voted to prohibit all Koch network funding for centers or institutes, and the Faculty Senate at Montana State University voted to reject the establishment of a Koch-backed Center in 2018.

Meanwhile, GMU students, through the group Transparent GMU, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2017 requesting access to all gift agreements between the GMU Foundation and donors. The request was denied; the Foundation argued that because it is not officially a GMU entity, but operates on behalf of the university, it is not required to share its files. Although one judge has already ruled against the group, siding with the Foundation, they are now awaiting a decision from the state appeals court. This follows a February 2019 hearing.

“When corporate donors buy influence, professorships and research outcomes, big money interests threaten the university’s academic independence, integrity and commitment to the public good,” GMU undergraduate activist Janine Gaspari told Truthout. “As a public body, the university must conduct its business in a transparent manner.”

Transparency is also at the core of the Academic Capture Warning System, a soon-to-be-launched website created by St. Louis University (SLU) professors Bonnie Wilson and Dave Rapach. After an unsuccessful campaign to stop a $50 million donation from conservative philanthropists Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield to create the Sinquefield Center for Applied Economic Research in SLU’s business school and fund a Sinquefield professor of economics, an ad hoc committee was formed to examine how other universities handle large, restricted grants. They are using this data to formulate a policy that will derail undue donor influence in the future.

“One of the things Dave [Rapach] and I learned doing this work is that it is really helpful to have information on what is happening elsewhere,” Wilson said. “We responded by creating a repository of information about all the sites where undue donor influence appears to be happening. We hope that by making this information widely available, we will provide incentives for universities to avoid these types of pitfalls. We also hope we’ll motivate donors to be more open to making unrestricted grants.”

It won’t be an easy struggle. Parsons of UnKoch My Campus understands that she and the student activists and faculty she works with are fighting a modern-day Goliath. “This is a long game,” she said. “But we feel good that a lot of campuses are reviewing their gift acceptance policies. Universities have the power to be proactive in how transparent they are, and who they allow to have a say in the decision-making process when a donor reaches out to them. We’re going to keep watching and organizing to encourage this to happen.”