Investigation Reveals the Extent the Koch Empire Is Willing to Go to Take Over a University
In 2011, the public found out that the Florida State University Economics Department had signed a deal in 2008 with the Charles Koch Foundation, which would supply the department with $1.5 million over several years in exchange for control over hiring decisions and curriculum development. After public and faculty outcry over undue donor influence, the department renegotiated the deal, signing a new one in 2013. The foundation of billionaire fossil-fuel industrialist Charles Koch, a controversial Republican mega-donor, continues to fund various programs at FSU.
A new report from the FSU Progress Coalition and UnKoch My Campus, a band of activists who have researched and opposed Koch’s higher education donations for several years, analyzes new documents detailing the Charles Koch Foundation’s (CKF) prolonged grasp on the Economics Department. In addition to influencing hiring decisions within the programs it funded, CKF took part in designing required classes for economics majors, could cut off graduate fellowships based on proposed dissertation topics, and steered the creation of a new certificate program within the department.
"Despite all we've seen in past years, the depths of Koch's control revealed by this investigation has left us dumbfounded,” Ralph Wilson, an UnKoch member and FSU alumnus who worked on this report, told AlterNet.
Other contributors to the report were Jerry Funt of UnKoch, also an alumnus, and Sydney Norris, an undergraduate at FSU who leads the FSU Progress Coalition, a group there that opposes the Koch donations.
The report is the culmination of more than three years of research and the receipt of over 2,000 pages of documents recovered through public records requests, countless conversations with university stakeholders, selections from roughly a dozen secret recordings, and archived web content that was taken down by university officials.
New revelations come from documents including an uncensored faculty senate investigation—which describes “an atmosphere of intimidation” created by a dean—and emails exchanged during a subsequent faculty investigation. Other revelations about the Koch donor strategy come from secret recordings by UnKoch at the 2016 Association for Private Enterprise Education conference, which Koch partially funds.
The 2008 agreement created two new programs within the Economics Department—Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise and Excellence in Economic Education—and “donor partners” including the BB&T Foundation supplemented the CKF funds.
This CKF donor agreement has now expired, but Koch continues to fund FSU, and two new academic centers have appeared, also funded by CKF.
Control Over Hiring Decisions and Graduate Fellowships
In 2007, Dept. Chair Bruce Benson wrote in a memo to economics faculty:
“The Koch Foundation agenda is to expose students to free-market ideas, and to provide opportunities for students who want to study with faculty who share Koch’s appreciation for markets and distrust of government. The proposal is, therefore, not to just give us money to hire anyone we want and fund any graduate student that we choose. There are constraints…”
One of CKF’s tactics is writing donor control measures into its contracts with universities. In the FSU Memorandum of Understanding, CKF stipulated that it could withdraw funding for any aspect of its grant with 15 days’ notice if the university violates CKF’s “objectives and purposes,” which include studying “individual freedom” and “private property.”
The agreement also set up a program advisory board, which is tasked with “preserv[ing] and safeguard[ing] the philanthropic and educational intent of [the Koch] Foundation, its Donor Partners, as well as the educational objectives of FSU.” The board has three members: two economics professors and one CFK representative. Who appoints the two professors? The Charles Koch Foundation.
This board, according to the 2008 MOU, held veto power over all professorships and other positions that are part of the Koch initiative. During the search for the first professor funded by the CKF grant, the advisory board vetoed 34 of 52 candidates provided by the faculty.
The 2013 MOU amended the hiring provision to say that CKF cannot cancel an offer to a candidate but may refuse to fund that candidate’s professorship. The foundation also has control over a “teaching specialist” position, which they can rescind based on a yearly evaluation.
CKF also funds graduate and post-doctoral scholarships, which are subject to approval by a “screening committee” that includes one CKF representative. Even graduate students’ dissertation topics must align with the Koch agenda, or their funding will vanish.
All of this hyper-control by a donor is a violation of FSU’s donor policy, an issue to which the UnKoch report devotes a whole chapter.
Role in Designing Courses
In 2011, a faculty investigation expressed concern over CKF’s role in creating a “donor-prescribed course with donor-prescribed curricular content.” A certificate program in free-market economics was created with CKF funding and without faculty input. According to UnKoch research, CKF and the BB&T Foundation, a “donor partner,” influenced the creation of nine courses, three of which are introductory courses that all economics and finance majors are required to take, serving roughly 7,000 students per year. Most professors who teach these basic courses are donor-funded lecturers who also form the majority of a “Principles Committee” that sets the curriculum for these courses. The three introductory courses all use a textbook that is authored by three Koch-connected academics and has been panned for its denial of climate change.
One donor-directed program is a minor in Free Enterprise and Ethics, in the College of Business, funded by the BB&T Foundation, which gave $1 million grants to over 60 schools, requiring them to teach the libertarian idol Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. After being CEO of BB&T and directing these grants, John Allison went on to lead the libertarian, Koch-funded Cato Institute.
Another donor-directed certificate program to which Koch has donated is Specialized Studies in Political Economy, established in 1998 by the DeVoe Moore Center, which is part of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy that also houses the economics department. The DeVoe center promotes a program that teaches an article titled “Sacrificing Lives for Profits.”
Faculty Investigation Marred by Threatening Administrators
The 2008 MOU stated, “FSU will allow [CKF] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of [CKF].” But considerable censorship also occurred in faculty investigations, and the university misled the public numerous times regarding the grants.
A faculty report on the Koch MOU was heavily edited before being disclosed to the public. More than half of the text disappeared, including recommendations to “consider terminating” part of the Koch agreement and to discontinue an agreement with the BB&T Foundation to teach a course using Atlas Shrugged. Faculty reported that the dean of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, David Rasmussen, and the department chair, Koch ally Bruce Benson (who stayed on as chair as part of the MOU) stifled faculty attempts to expand the department’s governance model. This generated “an atmosphere of intimidation” in which the dean made threats about future teaching assignments and faculty dissent over the Koch agreement was considered disloyalty.
In addition, the FSU Foundation removed several entries regarding the Koch gifts from its website, at least one of which had deceived the public in the first place. University officials misled a journalist with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Economics Department came to numerous conclusions about the Koch agreement based on the edited faculty reviews, not the originals.
“We need to put in place structures that not only create proper oversight procedures but create policy that holds administrations to a standard of transparency and accountability that would prevent this from happening again,” Funt told AlterNet.
New Donor Agreements at FSU
Last year, CKF entered into a new donor agreement with FSU, putting more than $800,000 over five years towards research on “free will, victimhood, personal control and moral cultures as well as the impacts of economic, political and social institutions on the marketplace…” Professors previously funded by CKF and the BB&T Foundation write about and teach the “morality of capitalism,” which other Koch-funded students promote, and it’s likely this free-market capitalist mindset will be front and center in the Koch-funded research.
$540,000 will support a post-doctoral fellow, three PhD students and research on markets and institutions at the L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center for the Study of Economic Prosperity and Individual Opportunity, a new center within the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. The Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise program, created by the 2008 MOU, had been quietly transferred over to the Hilton Center under a new name, the Markets and Institutions Group.
$150,000 will go to graduate research assistants and undergraduate interns at the Project on Accountable Justice, an organization housed within the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy that has a mission to “advance public safety through research and evidence-based evaluations of criminal justice practices and policies.” The program appears to be a “criminal justice Trojan Horse,” as Wilson details in a report showing that the program is part of a corporate-backed criminal justice reform movement, supported by Koch, the American Legislative Exchange Council and others, that backs policies aimed at enriching the private prison industry.
CKF also gave $120,000 to support psychology “research on individuals’ moral beliefs regarding freedom, inequality, and responsibility.”
Kochs’ Current Projects
“Universities that sign agreements with the Koch Foundation are signing away the academic freedom of students and faculty, ceding maximal control over administrative and scholarly activities,” said Wilson.
CKF funds programs at nearly 400 U.S. colleges and universities and has invested in at least 53 free-market academic centers at many of these schools. Over the years, CKF has donated tens of millions of dollars to George Mason University and several free-market centers there including the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies. Recently, Koch gave the law school $10 million, funding scholarships and renaming the school after the late, ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Other top recipients of Koch cash include Florida State, Utah State and Texas Tech. CKF has given 14 schools more than $1 million since 2005.
Among the newest free-market centers that CKF has funded include two at Arizona State and others at Ball State, Oklahoma State, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and Western Carolina University.
As CKF’s higher education donations increase every year, expect more free-market centers to pop up this year and in the years to come. You can also count on more funding for professorships and graduate students at established centers. Koch’s plan to transform the country into a tax- and regulation-free nation run by corporate oligarchs may come more quickly than he might have thought: President Donald Trump’s new White House is shaping up to be the richest in modern history, and Koch and his brother David have numerous lackeys in powerful positions.