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UnKoch My Campus: Opposing Billionaires’ Efforts to Infiltrate Higher Education

The Koch brothers’ efforts to create libertarian-leaning institutions are meeting with resistance on campuses.

David Koch speaks at the 2015 Defending the American Dream Summit in Columbus, Ohio, on August 21, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The names are simple and sound innocuous: The Institute for Humane Studies; The Center for the Study of Economic Liberty; The Institute for the Study of Capitalism; The Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. But make no mistake: These and other Koch brothers’ projects are well-funded attempts to steer the hearts and minds of US students in a decidedly libertarian, anti-tax and anti-regulatory, direction.

Along the way, the Koch initiatives have pushed, pulled, prodded and poked at faculty governance, academic freedom and hiring to promote their pro-business agenda. And they’ve dug deep. According to researchers at UnKoch My Campus, a two-year-old grassroots effort to educate students and faculty about Charles and David Koch’s incursion into academic life, between 2005 and 2015, the pair and their cronies gave $109,778,257 to 308 colleges across the country. The bulk of the money came from four Koch-run philanthropies: The Charles Koch Foundation; The Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation; The Claude Lambe Charitable Foundation; and the Koch Cultural Trust. They’re powerful entities, not only giving the Kochs a way to lessen their tax burden but also giving them enormous influence over what is taught, and by whom.

Grants, meanwhile, have run the gamut, from a measly $6,000 to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts to $45,558,153 to the George Mason University Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia. Other major recipients include two George Mason think tanks, the 55-year-old Institute for Humane Studies [$23,387,030] and the 38-year-old Mercatus Center [$8,708,500]; The West Virginia University Foundation [$1,337,525]; Suffolk University [$996,328]; Florida State [$600,000]; Southern Methodist University [$585,800]; and the Kansas State University Foundation [$498,754].

The goal is promotion of laissez-faire economics. That, however, is simply the first step. In fact, the Kochs and their minions — including Papa John’s founder John Schnatter — want to create a ready cadre of well-trained young conservatives to plug into positions of power not just in education, but in city government, state legislatures and Congress. In Charles Koch’s words, they aim to cultivate a diverse group of libertarian-leaning students who will “infuse policies and government with free market principles.”

Jane Mayer’s recent book about the Kochs, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, calls the end result a Kochtopus, with tentacles that link rightwing think tanks and conservative elected officials and funders to cash-strapped college and university administrators.

The Charles Koch Foundation, of course, sees nothing wrong with this and describes its inroads into higher education as “helping students and faculty members pursue scholarship related to societal well-being and free societies.” Its website touts its efforts as having “a direct impact on opportunities to thrive.”

Semantics, clearly, are key.

Violations of Faculty Governance

“What we’ve seen over and over again is that the Kochs’ donor agreements and partnerships have violated academic freedom and shared governance,” says Lindsey Berger, UnKoch My Campus’ Grassroots Campaign Strategist. “This has shown us the importance of revisiting university policy to identify gaps and strengthen and protect the integrity of the academy.”

Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina, is a case in point. “We have a very active, radical, free-enterprise faculty at WCU who have been representing this viewpoint on campus for many years,” Dr. David McCord, professor of clinical psychology, told Truthout. “The Koch money is basically fueling activities that were here already.”

That said, McCord makes clear that many students and faculty hold views that are at odds with libertarianism and are eager to engage in debate over economic and political issues. In addition, they pay close attention to the free enterprise rhetoric dominant in WCU’s business school, a response triggered by the 2008 funding of a faculty position by the Branch Bank and Trust Company [BB&T]. At that point, they learned that the grant — for the hiring of a Distinguished Professor of Capitalism — mandated that the person hired be a fan of Ayn Rand and willingly assign Atlas Shrugged to students in the course.

“The Chancellor agreed to these terms without a faculty review,” McCord explains. “As the faculty became aware of the BB&T agreement, there was an uproar. We went to the Chancellor and the agreement was rewritten to remove the Rand reading requirement. We then wrote and instituted Policy 104, a procedure for faculty review of all gifts to the university that have potential curricular impact.”

For the next seven years, things on the WCU campus remained relatively quiet. Then, in the fall of 2015, faculty learned that the Koch brothers had been in contact with Ed Lopez, the current BB&T professor, to discuss giving the college $1.8 million to establish the WCU Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. Although faculty understood that the decision to accept or reject the gift rested with the chancellor and trustees, the faculty senate — an advisory body — nonetheless held public forums and then voted 21 to three to reject the grant. The provost subsequently ignored the vote and recommended that the money be approved. In December 2015 the board of trustees unanimously agreed, overriding the faculty decision. But the faculty did not back down.

“What we got from this was a rewriting and enactment of policies 104 and 105, the procedure that addresses the creation of institutes and centers on campus,” McCord says. “We also pushed for an advisory board to play a real role in the Center, with members who were elected by the faculty from the arts and sciences as well as the business department. We won that and it has been a substantial counterbalance.” In addition, faculty members now oversee the work of the Free Enterprise Club, a group that brings speakers to campus and funds student attendance at meetings and conferences. Normally, McCord continues, advisory boards do not get involved in selecting who guest lectures at WCU, who goes to conferences, or who receives travel grants, but the faculty has made it clear that they want a fair and open process. “We watch to make sure we’re creating programs that support critical thinking and uphold the mission of a university,” McCord says.

That mission, he emphasizes, should include teaching free-market economics. It should also ensure that the university remains a place where students can compare a wide range of ideas. McCord notes that the college recently invited an Adam Smith scholar, with major university appointments and publications, to campus. “This was a sharp contrast to earlier speakers who sounded like religious cultists,” he says, “with no qualifications whatsoever. Students should be exposed to Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, but they should also know Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. We want our students to hear from legitimate scholars and intend to do everything we can to prevent the Koch influence from escalating in an unbridled way.”

Similar efforts to promote transparency and ensure faculty input are now underway on campuses, including Indiana’s Ball State University, the University of Kansas, the University of Kentucky, Florida State and George Mason.

Winning Small Victories

Already, the UnKoch Campaign has had several small victories. The University of Dayton, for one, has announced that it will no longer accept Koch money because of the funders’ attempts to exert undue influence on academic life. What’s more, thanks to pressure from students and faculty, the administration of Boston’s Suffolk University has asked the Koch-funded Beacon Hill Institute to disaffiliate with the college and move off campus by the end of this year.

It’s a start — and UnKoch My Campus is celebrating these wins. At the same time, they know that they’re fighting Goliath, not only working to monitor Koch donations, but also educating people about the strings that all too often accompany corporate gifts.

“We’ve seen some clear trends,” says UnKoch Campaign staffer Lindsey Berger. A year or two back, she says, Koch would offer a school a small grant to fund the purchase of books or pay for a faculty reading group. If that went smoothly, they’d follow up with a second round of money (usually around $10,000) to bring speakers to campus. If the university continued to be receptive, a larger gift (in the $100,000 range) would then enable the school to enlarge the speaker series or fund new research opportunities. Only after these three steps were successful would the foundations offer funding to set up centers, institutes or professorships.

“Today,” Berger says, “we’re seeing them skip the middle steps and go from a few thousand dollars to a million or more to fund a center. The shortfall in state funding for education doesn’t exist apart from the Kochs and allows them to ride in on their white horses with million-dollar checks.”

“The gifts can escalate very quickly as part of the Koch’s larger strategy to create a full-on Center,” says UnKoch My Campus’ senior researcher, Ralph Wilson. “The plan was originally to create 53 new centers in 2016 alone. We’ve heard unofficially that they decided to hold off until after the presidential election but we worry that there will be a huge rush of new centers starting in early 2017.”

Wilson also worries that the “Kochtopus” will secure deeper footing in academia. Already, he says, many people connected to Koch Industries or the organizations they support are in positions of power. Not only is Richard Fink — Charles Koch’s right-hand man and a former executive vice president of Koch Industries — a long-time player at George Mason University, but many other people connected to the Kochs are also in influential and strategic positions throughout the country. Among them, Wilson notes, are Florida Governor Rick Scott; recently installed Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former Republican state lawmaker and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s [ALEC] 1998 Legislator of the Year; Dean of the College of Business at North Dakota State University, Scott Beaulier, whose deep ties to Koch-funded institutes at Troy University, Arizona State and Mercer University are well known; and men like Ed Lopez at WCU.

“We need greater transparency,” says UnKoch My Campus’ Samantha Parsons. A recent graduate of George Mason [GMU], Virginia’s largest public university, she says that faculty and students have formed a committee — similar to the one at Western Carolina University — to develop a policy on donor relations and protect against conflicts of interest and excessive donor involvement in decision-making. “The committee is looking into whether the Mercatus Center, for one, really serves the public good, or serves only to benefit those who contribute money. We’re up against a huge problem, though, because the grants are given to the GMU Foundation, which operates as a private corporation. The foundation argues that since it is private it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. We’re researching this now to determine if it’s true.”

Regardless of what they conclude, the committee will remain undeterred, Parsons says, and will continue to show up and ask questions about GMU’s continued acceptance of Koch money wherever and whenever the college president makes a public appearance. “He’s refused to meet with us or acknowledge the anti-Koch petitions we’ve collected,” she says, so the group feels it has no choice but to bird-dog him. At the same time, his refusal has been a boon to organizing since the lack of transparency has led to near-universal outrage on campus. “The administration’s refusal to address student questions has opened conversations. It taught students to say, ‘Wait … this university exists because of me. I’m going into debt to be here, so why won’t the president speak to me?'” Parsons reports.

It has also led to joint faculty-student work on a range of campus issues.

By all accounts, fighting the “Kochtopus” and the growing corporatization of academia will be a steep climb for the foreseeable future, but UnKoch My Campus activists are optimistic. Berger cites increasing numbers of faculty members across the country who are revisiting policies to make sure that they have a say in governance, faculty hiring and procedures that both directly and indirectly impact education. “They understand the reach of funding agreements and are looking at stipulations that donors place on grants,” she says. “When donors like the Koch brothers demand student email addresses like they did at the College of Charleston, or issue mandates on curricula or on who is hired, like they did at Western Carolina, most people find it unacceptable. Most of us do not want to be cogs in the Koch’s political machine.”