The Koch Brothers and the University of Louisville: Or, Why You Cannot Sell Your Soul, or Your Principles, Incrementally

On December 9, James McNair, writing for Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, has explored the many implications of a pending gift from the Koch Brothers and Poppa John’s CEO John Schnatter to the University of Louisville.

The article, the full text of which is available at http://kycir.org/2014/12/09/university-of-louisville-set-to-get-millions-from-charles-koch-foundation-and-papa-johns-ceo/, opens:

“Declines in state appropriations and negative financial trends have made American universities rely more on alumni and wealthy benefactors for cash donations. So as the University of Louisville tries to rebound from three straight years of financial deficits and slumping net worth, a proposed $6 million infusion from the Charles Koch Foundation and Papa John’s International CEO John Schnatter would appear to be a very welcome gift.

“A university spokesman wouldn’t talk about the gift, but the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has learned that Koch would give $1.5 million, Schnatter $4.5 million. The three parties are said to be negotiating, with Schnatter deferring to Koch on contract terms.”

McNair notes that similarly directed gifts to George Mason University and Florida State University have been very controversial because they violate the principles of shared governance by giving the Koch Foundation the final voice in who is hired to fill the positions funded by the gifts and because they violate the principles of academic freedom by ceding control of the curriculum from the faculty to the donors. And, it should not be difficult to see how such an arrangement simply makes a mockery of the process of earning tenure and promotion because the economic security earned by the faculty member does not promote free inquiry but inquiry that in a very predetermined way conforms to a particular and very narrow political, economic, and cultural ideology. (Unless, of course, one can imagine that a faculty member who conformed enough throughout his or her probationary period to maintain employment would suddenly become interested in exploring other ideological possibilities after being granted tenure.)

McNair does quote denials from the universities and from the Koch Foundation that such violations of such fundamental academic principles have occurred. But he also points out that, at both George Mason University and Florida State University, the Koch influence has already spread well beyond the funded positions:

“The Koch deal bolstered the standing of free-markets philosophy at Florida State. Beyond the programs and like-minded professors, free-markets content has gained greater prominence in economics instruction. Students in an Introduction to Economics class this summer, according to its syllabus, had to watch 15 videos of Fox News journalist and government regulation critic John Stossel, who makes appearances paid for by the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. Stossel’s latest book is titled No They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed.

“What’s more, FSU’s economics program serves as a gateway to the websites of free-market advocacy groups. On the FSU web page hosting the SPEFE and EEE programs is a link to FreeTheWorld.com, ‘website of the Economic Freedom Network’ run by the libertarian Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada. And in the syllabus of this summer’s Economics 101 class is a link to LearnLiberty.org, a ‘free society’ template of the Institute for Humane Studies–at George Mason University.”

McNair details the concerns expressed by faculty and students at Florida State, concerns that have led to the formation of groups actively opposed to the expansion of Koch influence within the university. He likewise surveys the full spectrum of opinions at the University of Louisville about the impact of the pending gifts:

“From the professor who has read the proposed contract: ‘There are certainly some on the faculty who would embrace [the proposed agreement with Koch and Schnatter]. But if you had everything out on the table, you probably couldn’t get a majority vote out of the Faculty Senate.’

“From a student, senior political science and philosophy major Rebecca Peek: ‘Gifts should be provided to forward the best interest of students and not to promote a particular political agenda,’ she said by e-mail. ‘It seems that it would be impossible for a donation of this size from donors that have historically attempted to influence policy through monetary contributions to not influence curriculum.’

The clearly conservative faculty and students who argue that universities have accepted gifts from progressive donors, without inviting similar controversy, are clearly missing the point on two counts. First, those gifts have always been controversial, in large part because the Far Right has been self-servingly characterizing universities as bastions of Leftist thinking for more than a century. And, second, previous gifts to universities have not typically come with the kinds of conditions that have been explicitly attached to the Koch gifts.

So, it is very easy, especially for those outside academia, to lose such distinctions in the midst of rhetoric that seems carefully selected to blur the clear ideological intent of the gifts. But, if one looks at all carefully at the rhetoric, it is revelatory.

Consider this passage from McNair’s article:

“The proposed $6 million gift would come at an opportune time for the university’s economics department. In the 2013-14 school year, 212 students majored in economics, more than double the 103 in 2009-10.

“’The department is in the process of hiring a new full-time faculty member but is struggling to get enough funding, faculty and class offerings to keep pace with student demand,’ said university spokesman Mark Hebert.

“Hebert said the department focuses on applied microeconomics, which includes statistics and econometrics instruction needed for health, industrial organization, labor and environmental studies. ‘The department would like to expand all of these areas if funding and faculty were to become available,’ he said.”

What this spokesperson is actually saying is that the ideological slant of the department is up for auction. Since it is very clear that the Koch gifts are not going to fund “labor and environmental studies,” in the absence of competing gifts from progressive donors, one can only conclude the Koch views on labor and environmental issues will dominate, if not go completely unchallenged.

 

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