Koch Brother Buys Professors At Public University to Spread Free Market Propaganda -- Is Public Education the Kochs' Next Front?

Usually, when billionaires or millionaires give a large sum of money to a university, even a private one, they can specify where that gift will go -- which department or function, facilities, new hires, dorms, or what have you. And it's no secret that some of those big donations may lead to a little bit of wink-and-nudge affirmative action when it comes time for the little billionaires Jr. to apply to college. 

But what these monied donors cannot do, what remains taboo in the academic world, is leverage that kind of gift to influence who gets hired and fired by the faculty and what they teach--until now, thanks to Charles G. Koch.

A recent op-ed in a Florida newspaper brought to light a shady deal by billionaire Koch, one of the Koch brothers, who donated a hefty million-dollar plus pledge to Florida State University, with some very big and ethically compromised strings attached.

According to the St. Petersburg Times' Kris Hundley's thorough report:

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

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.

Again, to be clear, such conditional donations have been rejected by universities in the past, even when they were not political in nature

This breach of traditional academic protocol surfaced in the pages of the Tallahassee Democrat (subscription only) last week, where it was discussed in an op-ed by two disgruntled professors who felt the deal impinged on the academic freedom of the economics department.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences at FSU, made a rather halfhearted attempt to defend his decision in the op-ed pages of the same paper. "I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' he subsequently told the St. Petersburg Times' Hundley. "But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it."

He denied that tough times and budget cuts contributed to his position. The head of the economics department also chimed in supporting the decision to take the Koch brother's money, swearing it was a mere coincidence that he completely and totally agreed with the Koch brothers' free-market dogma: "But I agree with what they believe, whether they give us money or not," he said, hardly reassuring detractors. 

The reality is, the Koch brothers have been mostly focused on creating their own think tanks and institutes rather than infiltrating universities and attempting to bend economics departments to their own ideological will--with one exception. They have, in fact, been doing something similar at George Mason University, right outside DC, and it's had a demonstrable effect on public policy, as Hundley reported:

The big exception has been George Mason University, a public university in Virginia which has received more than $30 million from Koch over the past 20 years. At George Mason, Koch's foundation has underwritten the Mercatus Center, whose faculty study "how institutions affect the freedom to prosper."

When President George W. Bush identified 23 regulations he wanted to eliminate, 14 had been initially suggested by Mercatus scholars. In a New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers in August, Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist, called Mercatus "ground zero for deregulation policy in Washington."

While this may be the first time the Kochs have directly attempted to influence a public university in such a way, their actions in regards to freedom of expression have recently been trending directly against their so-called libertarian principles.

The Nation recently reported that the duo have cracked down on freedom of thought within their own massive corporate structures, telling employees how to vote and inundating them with right-wing fear-mongering talking points--something that would have been illegal in the pre Citizens-United era.

On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.

The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State—which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.

Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual....

Between this recently exposed move in Florida, the election-eve emails detailed above, and the recent attacks on professors' academic freedom in both Wisconsin and Michigan, as AlterNet has extensively covered, these kinds of once-hallowed academic spaces are clearly the next frontier of the right-wing ideological crusades.

This kind of action would indicate that the Kochs and their ilk are not content to fertilize ultra-conservative thought at ultra-conservative think tanks but have moved on to using the shock doctrine of economic hardship to turn the once safe-spaces of public universities into an intellectual breeding ground for their own supporters.


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