On Blacklists, Harassment, and Outside Funders: A Response to Phil Magness


A little more than a month ago, Martin Kich posted to this blog a piece on the Koch network that prompted a lively and extensive exchange in the comments section between Conor Gibson of UnKoch My Campus, John Wilson, and Phil Magness, a professor at George Mason University, frequent commenter on this blog, and a recipient of Koch funding.  The exchange is well worth reading.  Magness later summarized his position briefly in a comment on a subsequent posting by Kich, which read:

Why is the AAUP enthusiastically providing a platform to an organization that encourages the harassment of faculty?

Keep that in mind, Martin, the next time you or the AAUP complain about faculty watchlists, surreptitious recordings, and other online harassment campaigns. UnKoch My Campus engages in all of these tactics, and by promoting them you are undermining your ability to credibly oppose them when they happen to faculty who are closer to your political views.

Magness’s stance here might be dismissed by many due to his own Koch association and perhaps because many readers of this blog may have come to view his comments (on this issue and several others) as repetitive, even trolling.  But I think his position merits a more thorough response.

The “about” page of this blog stresses that “the blog and Academe are published by the American Association of University Professors, but opinions published in them do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.”  I should begin, therefore, by pointing out that the AAUP has never endorsed UnKoch My Campus or any of its positions, nor have we provided a platform for that organization.  When Martin Kich or any contributor to this blog posts a piece favorable to their project they do so as individuals.  Nevertheless, I will freely acknowledge that I once participated in a panel with representatives of UnKoch and that AAUP staff members and leaders, myself included, have met with individuals involved in this project.  Our goal has been solely to educate them about principles of academic freedom, stressing that, from our perspective, the Koch interests have as much right as anyone to donate funds for programs they support and that faculty members receiving their support have every right to do so — provided the funding does not violate other principles of academic freedom, transparency, and shared governance.

But has this advice been taken?  Has UnKoch engaged in or promoted faculty watchlists, surreptitious recording, and online harassment of faculty?  Has the AAUP in effect created a double standard, as Magness suggests, criticizing those on the Right who engage in such actions but letting those on the Left, like UnKoch, off the hook?  It’s a legitimate concern, I will admit, but by and large I don’t believe either organization is guilty as charged.

Let’s turn first to the matter of watchlists.  Magness first raised this issue on this site in a comment on the AAUP’s February 1 statement on Targeted Online Harassment of FacultyHe inquired: “Would the AAUP be amenable to issuing a similar statement condemning Greenpeace’s watchlist, which explicitly targets free-market economics faculty, departments, and programs over disagreements on climate policy?”

In response, I wrote:

This statement is not directed at any specific list but instead condemns all efforts to intimidate and silence faculty members, which such lists encourage. If Greenpeace has such a list as you describe, it would also be covered by the principles in this statement. However, I googled “Greenpeace watchlist” and spent some time exploring the Greenpeace website and found no evidence of such a list. Greenpeace does, it seems, maintain a “blacklist” of “fishing vessels and companies engaged in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.” (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/pirate-fishing/Blacklist1/) That, however, is neither what you describe nor what the AAUP statement is concerned with. I also found that Greenpeace itself was improperly placed on an FBI “terrorist” watchlist some years ago. But let me reiterate that any and all efforts to silence or intimidate faculty members who advance controversial views — from no matter what perspective, left, right or other — are to be condemned, as are any “watchlists” that facilitate such intimidation.

UnKoch My Campus has received funding from Greenpeace, however, and was previously — but is not now — a Greenpeace project.  Clearly this was what Magness was referring to.  In a follow-up response he directed me to this link, noting that “It specifically names multiple faculty members in the economics departments at Florida State, North Carolina State, West Virginia University, Utah State, Clemson, George Mason, UC-Boulder, and Pepperdine – almost always on account of their political beliefs about climate change, their receipt of grant money from the Koch brothers, or their overall free market leanings.”

However, the link leads to something rather different than a watchlist or blacklist.  It is instead a text-heavy account of Koch-funded activities at a variety of universities followed by a database of Koch funding of colleges and universities, listed by institution with no listing of individuals, from 2005-2015.  To be sure, individual faculty members are mentioned — and criticized — in the narrative accounts of specific institutions and their use of the funding, but this hardly counts as a watchlist.  It is a reporting — I cannot vouch for how accurate — of publicly available information.  It is also a totally legitimate work of advocacy that readers are free to accept or reject.  Moreover, I might add, while this web page may have been prepared by UnKoch when it was under the Greenpeace aegis, a visit to UnKoch My Campus’s own website uncovers no such list at all.

The AAUP’s aforementioned statement on online harassment quoted from the Association’s 2004 report on Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis, which said this about groups that sponsor watchlists or blacklists:

As private entities, these groups are protected by the First Amendment from state censorship or sanction as long as they stay within lawful bounds. They are sheltered by the same freedom of expression that we seek for ourselves, and they are equally subject to public rebuke. Insofar as a particular professor might be thrust into the rough and tumble of the public arena, the law demands, as a prominent legal scholar once put it, a certain toughening of the mental hide. Such is the price of free speech.

In my view, faculty members who receive funding from the Koch brothers are free to do so, but they have no right to claim immunity from criticism for so doing, just as leftist faculty members have every right to tweet their hostility to various right-wing figures but have no right to expect no critical reaction to their views.

Moreover, what UnKoch My Campus has done needs to be distinguished from what sites like the Professor Watchlist or Canary Mission are doing.  These sites simply list faculty members who they allege “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” in the case of Professor Watchlist or who are identified as BDS supporters and anti-Semites by Canary Mission.  They offer no evidence in support of their claims and no factual data.  Take, for example, the web page “128 Radical Islamic Professors who teach on 69 American Campuses,” derived from the Canary Mission site.  The page simply lists names of individual scholars by institution with the vague assurance that each has been “carefully researched and sourced” by Canary Mission, which is, of course, totally anonymous and unreliable.  Many of those listed are in no way Muslim (several are Jewish), including Committee A member Joan Wallach Scott — apparently included owing to her book on The Politics of the Veil

By contrast, UnKoch strives to convey information about which institutions, and to some extent, which individuals have received Koch funding, on what terms, and to what uses such funding has been put.  To my knowledge no one has challenged the factual accuracy of their reporting on these matters.  That UnKoch condemns the activities they report is irrelevant; they too have the right to promote their ideas.

While this sort of attention may make some recipients of Koch (and similar) funds uncomfortable, this is hardly an illegitimate venture, any more than publicizing how some scholars who denied the link between tobacco and cancer had received funding from tobacco companies.  The issue is transparency.  Should colleges and universities — or, for that matter, individual faculty members — hide or disguise their sources of funding?  Didn’t we in the 1960s have a right to know if a faculty member was conducting secret weapons research for the Pentagon?  I don’t believe that simply revealing this information amounts to a violation of the researcher’s academic freedom.  This applies as well to those in fields like climate science, where “controversy” has often been created not by scientists themselves but by powerful outside interests.

In short, there is nothing wrong with publishing such information or, for that matter, criticizing those who accept such funding.  That is not a blacklist.  I certainly hope that conservative scholars do not become the “snowflakes” on the left who, they charge (inaccurately, I believe), can’t take the rough and tumble of free and open debate.

But what of the surreptitious reporting?  Here Magness refers to a meeting of the Koch-sponsored Association of Private Enterprise Education in Las Vegas last spring, reported in Inside Higher EdSpeakers at the meeting were secretly recorded, and audio clips and full transcripts were later released by UnKoch My Campus and Greenpeace.  One consequence of that disclosure was that an economics professor at Troy University in Alabama, George Crowley, was removed as department chair after it was revealed that he had told the meeting that his Charles Koch Foundation-backed academic center wants to “take down” Alabama’s public retirement system, adding that Troy is a “third class” university.  Magness contends that this disclosure violated the AAUP’s statement on targeted online harassment, which declared: “The AAUP recommends that administrations and elected faculty bodies work jointly to establish institutional regulations that prohibit the surreptitious recording of classroom discourse or of private meetings between students and faculty members.”

To this John Wilson replied:

I don’t speak for the AAUP, but on that InsideHigherEd article I commented, “Faculty should not be punished–including the denial of chairs–for expressing their views. It appears that what really upset the administration was (accurately) calling Troy “third class,” not the political issues. Now, there is certainly a question here about Koch and its allies on campus imposing their ideology on programs and departments, to take over departments by discriminatory hiring. As Crowley said, ‘We had a big gift that let us hire a whole bunch of people all at once, and we kind of were able to take over.’ But that doesn’t justify a university punishing a professor for speaking publicly.”

It is pretty clear that the AAUP statement on secret recordings applies only to classrooms and private meetings with students, not public conferences and speeches. But the AAUP obviously condemns threats and harassment over comments, as well as punishment by the administration (the AAUP may never have been asked to comment in this case at the time).

I agree with Wilson.  In my opinion, academic conferences should be open and transparent.  The classroom is a quite different venue.  Moreover, I can add that to my knowledge the AAUP was never contacted about this incident.

But the incident does bring me to the matter of harassment.  Magness’s charge that UnKoch engages in harassment is a serious one, but I simply can’t see how it holds water.  Criticism — merited or not — is not harassment.  Exposure — embarrassing or not — is not harassment.  I don’t doubt that there are recipients of Koch funding who have received genuinely harassing emails, tweets, or even phone calls from overzealous idiots who somehow think this will advance their agenda.  Such individuals are as misguided and contemptible as the legion of “alt-Right” types who have regularly and viciously harassed and threatened — sometimes physically — those they deem leftist.  But I see no evidence that UnKoch has encouraged such behavior.  And while I can’t measure it (I doubt anyone can at the moment) my suspicion is that such harassment from “the Left” pales before the more extensive and frequently organized campaigns of online and other harassment conducted by some elements of the Right.

Moreover, judging from his Twitter feed UnKoch might even accuse Magness of harassment, although I would not go that far.  In a recent series of tweets Magness repeatedly accused UnKoch of being Soros-funded (they are not, although I’ll bet they’d like to be) and, more ominously, of being “Soviets” or even “Stalinists.”

Here’s one such tweet: “Things that strongly correlate: 1. support for UnKoch My Campus. 2. posting sentimentalism for the Soviet Union on social media.” (March 10)

Here’s another: “A good expose of the type of ‘journalism’ produced by the Soviets in the UnKoch crowd:” (March 21)

And then there’s the series of tweets beginning, so far as I can tell, with a Magness message to UnKoch charging that “there’s plenty of overt Soviet sympathizing in your organization to historically contextualize you with them.” (March 24)  This was followed by a tweet later that day claiming that “Your own co-founder is quite the fanboy of genocidal Soviet types” offering as proof a tweet that reveals how UnKoch co-founder Ralph Wilson participated in the carving of a Halloween pumpkin with the faces of Marx, Engels, and Lenin!  How damning!

There’s more like that.

Of course, to call any of the five young UnKoch staffers “Soviet” is totally ludicrous, since looking at their photographs online I’m pretty sure they were no more than children, and perhaps not yet born, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  As a scholar of Soviet history myself, I can assure Magness that the Soviet Union is no more and that Communism (in any meaningful sense) is dead.  But it’s not funny, since this sort of red-baiting recapitulates the kind of activity that made blacklisting so dangerous in the 1950s.  Although I don’t seem to agree with Magness about much, having read many of his comments I had hoped he would be above such base crudity.

Let me turn now to the underlying question here: Is the activity of the Koch brothers at colleges and universities legitimate?  Or does their money represent an ominous threat to the academy, as UnKoch would have it?  The answer, I think, is not simple, but I can offer some principles that might help provide one.

First, some context.  In an informative and thoughtful article published in the November-December 2009 issue of Academe the late former AAUP General Secretary Mary Burgan addressed the question of “Faculty Governance and Special-Interest Centers.”  As she pointed out,

centers, institutes, and schools are regularly proposed by well-meaning friends of the academy who want to sponsor some special program or by ideologues who aim to provide “balance” to redress the imagined biases of higher education. The programs that result tend to be narrowly defined and politically charged. Moreover, their sponsors are likely to assume the kind of ownership that demands a say in all of their operations—setting the curriculum, appointing faculty, granting scholarships, inviting visiting lecturers, and the like.

The strategy of establishing centers to redress a purported blindness to neglected areas of study or a supposed resistance to oppositional ideas is not a new development in higher education; indeed, it has been the basis for the creation of a number of respected academic centers. Since the late 1940s, many new programs, created through faculty approval and ongoing faculty governance, have enriched research and teaching by opening up neglected areas and new methodologies for study. As a matter of fact, the spirit of interdisciplinarity has become a hallmark of the contemporary academy, giving rise to programs and departments everywhere—comparative literature, forensic studies, film studies, religious studies, informatics, environmental studies, and the like. Such interdisciplinary programs have been controversial at times, but when they have been administered carefully and with ample faculty participation, they have become integral parts of many institutions.

Nevertheless, even such established programs may pose problems for faculty governance. For example, the locus of tenure for faculty is a besetting issue for almost every interdisciplinary center discussed in this essay—traditional or newly established. And there is also the continuing problem of funding over the long term. Programs may be initiated with the promise of continuing resources, but all too often the funding priorities of foundations shift, private benefactions prove to be inadequate, or the promised money is never raised. The program then becomes anomalous, and the campus that hosts it is left holding the bag.

Burgan goes on to offer a survey of such programs in such diverse areas as Area Studies, Minority or Cultural Studies, Named Buildings, Thematic Studies, and Presidential Studies Centers.  She then identifies “some particular issues for faculty monitoring at various levels:

  1. School and Departmental Oversight. Traditional faculty activities like staff appointments, curricular development, and student admissions may be affected by the expectations embedded in special-interest programs. Given the possibility of their distributing professorial chairs, fellowships, study grants, and salary enhancements, such programs may be especially liable to political or ideological exploitation. In these traditional areas, faculty governance must be engaged, at either the faculty senate level or the departmental level.
  2. Maintenance of Priorities. The “service” majors on most campuses have been starved for faculty resources in the past twenty years, resulting in a devastated job market in the humanities, languages, and social studies. Meanwhile, some special programs seem to flourish, increasing the status and compensation for faculty superstars. This situation has exacerbated the growing stratification of higher education, because it places basic instruction in general education at the bottom of the priority list. Too often the governance role of the faculty in debating such priorities has been ignored; faculty must reclaim their right to a say on the effects of special-interest centers on institution-wide resources.
  3. Academic Freedom. One focus of debate in special-interest centers is the issue of balance, and the Association’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom has forcefully addressed whether faculty must always present some “other side” in their classrooms. But that question returns insistently when the research and teaching have been branded as serving special interests that seek to gain the credibility of an academic setting without observing its rules. Here is where faculty governance should be vitally involved.

Burgan then concludes:

And so faculty governance must have a role in the establishment of special-interest centers for philosophical as well as strategic reasons. The academy should be a marketplace of ideas, but its programs should not be for sale. The over arching question is whether and to what extent the academy should make room for a panoply of particular interests. It is up to the faculty to respond to that question—both individually and in collective governance bodies. In doing so, faculty members must maintain the ideal of disinterested objectivity that has been a value of universities for centuries. The necessary insight that knowledge may be socially and politically conditioned does not lead to the proposition that the academy should become one more source of ideological advocacy in American society.

In a February 2015 post to this blog responding to a report on conservative academic centers released by the John William Pope Center I wrote that “donors have every right to request that their donations be used for goals they support.  That’s fine.  It is the responsibility of the university, however, to ensure that those goals do not conflict with the basic principles of university autonomy, of academic freedom, and of shared governance.”

This position is based on longstanding AAUP principles.  First, the Association’s 2004 Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research, while mainly concerned with individual research contracts with private industry, enunciates a number of principles that apply equally to the kind of activities funded by the Koch brothers and, indeed, all outside funders:

  1. Consistent with principles of sound academic governance, the faculty should have a major role not only in formulating the institution’s policy with respect to research undertaken in collaboration with industry, but also in developing the institution’s plan for assessing the effectiveness of the policy.  The policy and the plan should be distributed regularly to all faculty, who should inform students and staff members associated with them of their contents.
  2. The faculty should work to ensure that the university’s plan for monitoring the institution’s conflict-of-interest policy is consistent with the principles of academic freedom. There should be emphasis on ensuring that the source and purpose of all corporate-funded research contracts can be publicly disclosed. Such contracts should explicitly provide for the open communication of research results, not subject to the sponsor’s permission for publication.
  3. The faculty should call for, and participate in, the periodic review of the impact of industrially sponsored research on the education of students, and on the recruitment and evaluation of researchers (whether or not they hold regular faculty appointments) and postdoctoral fellows.
  4. The faculty should insist that regular procedures be in place to deal with alleged violations by an individual of the university’s conflict-of-interest policy. Should disciplinary action be contemplated, it is essential that safeguards of academic due process be respected.7
  5. Because research relationships with industry are not static, the faculty, in order to ensure that the assessment of conflict-of-interest policies is responsive to changing needs, should regularly review the policies themselves as well as the instruments for conducting the assessment.

The AAUP’s 2014 book-length Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships expanded upon these principles and is also relevant to non-industrial external funding.  It enunciates 56 principles — many specific to certain research endeavors, specifically medicine — but the first two general principles are definitely a propos here:

PRINCIPLE 1 — Faculty Governance:  The university must preserve the primacy of shared academic governance in establishing campuswide policies for planning, developing, implementing, monitoring, and assessing all donor agreements and collaborations, whether with private industry, government, or nonprofit groups.  Faculty, not outside sponsors, should retain majority control over the campus management of such agreements and collaborations.

PRINCIPLE 2 — Academic Freedom, Autonomy, and Control: The university must preserve its academic autonomy — including the academic freedom rights of faculty, students, postdoctoral fellow, and academic professionals — in all its relationships with industry and other funding sources by maintaining majority academic control over joint academy-industry committees and exclusive academic control over core academic functions (such as faculty research evaluations, faculty hiring and promotion decisions, classroom teaching, curriculum development, and course content).

An analogy can also be drawn between the kind of funding provided by Koch interests and the China-sponsored Confucius Institutes, about which the AAUP issued a statement in 2014.  Our objection then to such institutes was not to their content but to their apparent lack of independence.  So, the statement concluded:

Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities. The AAUP joins CAUT [Canadian Association of University Teachers] in recommending that universities cease their involvement in Confucius Institutes unless the agreement between the university and Hanban [the Chinese state agency sponsoring the institutes] is renegotiated so that (1) the university has unilateral control, consistent with principles articulated in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts; (2) the university affords Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights, as defined in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, that it affords all other faculty in the university; and (3) the university-Hanban agreement is made available to all members of the university community. More generally, these conditions should apply to any partnerships or collaborations with foreign governments or foreign government-related agencies.

Taken together these are the standards to which, I believe, the Koch funders should be held.  And this is the stance that we have urged UnKoch to take.  UnKoch may object to the political content of the work done by Koch-funded centers, which is their right, but insofar as the AAUP is concerned this is largely irrelevant.  To be sure, given the financial straits faced by most colleges and universities today, the fear that large amounts of politically directed funding might distort an institution’s basic mission is hardly unfounded.  But that is a much larger problem that goes well beyond the specific activities of the Koch brothers or, for that matter, any similar liberal funders.  For now, let me conclude by saying that if the relationship of a given institution with an outside funder like the Kochs conforms to the above principles, neither I nor, I believe, the AAUP will object and if need be we will defend that relationship.



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