Academic Freedom Sold Off Cheap

What’s the price of academic freedom? At Florida State University, it looks like $1.5 million – or the amount donated by a right-wing billionaire who, in return, gets a final say in faculty hiring.

The contract between the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation – and yes, that is the same Koch who bankrolled the anti-union agenda in Wisconsin – calls for two endowed positions to “promote political economy and the free enterprise” in the FSU economics department. And, according to The St. Petersburg Times, the agreement gives Koch’s representatives the power to reject candidates that a faculty panel has recommended.

“This is an egregious example of a public university being willing to sell itself for next to nothing,” said Jennifer Washburn, author of the book University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, who has received dozens of similar contracts, to The Times.

Charles Koch

But it’s not the only example. Over the past two years, state higher education funding decreased in 35 states. Forced to cut majors, programs, and full-time faculty positions, an increasing number of institutions are willing to meet on the crossroads with politically motivated donors, who clearly hope their money will buy influence in a university’s classrooms and curriculum.

The risks for universities and faculty are high, noted Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, an NEA affiliate that includes Florida State faculty among its membership.

“The larger issue is, do we let outside interests shape what is going to be the curriculum we teach students?” he asked. “If you want to protect the integrity of academic institutions, you defend the right of faculty to determine curriculum and determine the faculty hiring process.”

With those questions like those in mind, FSU’s Faculty Senate will investigate the Koch contract, said FSU-UFF chapter president Jack Fiorito. The local union also will consider the issue during bargaining.

Since 1928, when NEA adopted its first (but not last) resolution on academic freedom, saying, “We believe there should be more genuine freedom for the teacher, freedom in mind and spirit to achieve and create…” the Association has maintained that academic freedom is essential to teaching. It has vigorously opposed legislation that would limit faculty, such as the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights,” which failed to pass in 11 states in 2006.

But the best defense of academic freedom often is a well-negotiated contract. In its advice to local faculty unions, NEA suggests contract provisions that guarantee academic freedom, specifying there should be no limits on study, investigation and presentation by faculty, and that faculty should retain the privilege to choose their own classroom methods and materials.

(You know what would violate a contract like that? The BB&T deal at Florida State, also reported by The St. Petersburg Times, that requires a libertarian Ayn Rand novel be taught to students.)

Most contracts also make clear that the process of faculty evaluations, tenure, and other promotions must be free of politics or personal opinions.

Nonetheless, despite such provisions, as well as decades of major court rulings in defense of academic freedom, there’s a long list of cash-strapped universities that have made deals like Florida State’s. In fact, many have made them with Koch for programs or faculty that specifically promote deregulation and free markets.

At George Mason University in Virginia, Koch invested millions to create the Mercatus Center, a think tank credited for much of the Bush administration’s anti-environmental regulation policy. And, while one Koch-funded professor at West Virginia University has argued that fewer mine-safety deregulations would make mines safer, AlterNet reports, another at Brown University produced a paper claiming bank deregulation helped the poor.

And it’s not just Koch. The Walton Family Foundation spent $800,000 to set up a pro-voucher, pro-charter school education center at the University of Arkansas. Similarly, the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee has invested heavily in the anti-public school agenda with Harvard University’s Paul Peterson.

And it’s not just foundations with a political purpose – it’s also corporations with economic goals. In a piece entitled “Big Oil goes to College,” Washburn shows how ExxonMobil, BP and other oil corporations have turned to universities to do their research. The problem is, she shows, in nine of 10 agreements, universities failed to retain academic independence. Four went so far as to turn over control of research direction to the industry.

  • Groovyhomeboy

    I hate to sound smarmy, but this article would have a lot more relevance IF academic freedom actually existed on college campuses. Having been educated at public institutions from K through my masters, I have found that finding a conservative faculty member on campus is about as likely as finding an African American actor in an Elvis film.

  • John Keating

    Would you have written this article if George Soros had donated the money?

  • retiredattorney

    Everyone needs limits, including teachers. Academic freedom means the ability to study and research all sides of a subject- not total freedom of academics to do as they please. Teachers and professors need to remember that they are providing a service for which they are paid. The people who pay you have a say in what is taught, because they are paying you.

  • LLBrown

    “And, while one Koch-funded professor at West Virginia University has argued that fewer mine-safety deregulations would make mines safer, AlterNet reports”… WHAT? Are you saying that MORE dereulations would make mines safer? I don’t think you wanted to make that point.

    Schools are so pro union, and left wing, that anything that Koch does is just a drop in the bucket. You, forgot to mention that having control of a chair that you fund is quite normal. Ask George Soros.

  • TC

    One of the best college teachers I had was actually not a “teacher” at all, but worked in administration of some type. He had a particular interest in the subject and chose to pick up a few sections. He had an ability to present one side of an argument so passionately that you were completely on board and totally convinced. But then…he would present the polar opposite position with equal passion and authority. As a student, you ended up with no clue where he personally stood on the issue, but lots of information both ways. This forced you to…wait for it…THINK FOR YOURSELF! What a novel and rare concept in public education these days. Wouldn’t it be great if our students were taught in this manner on a regular basis? If teachers would put aside their own personal biases while in front of a class for the greater good of teaching our children to become critical thinkers on their own? I can only hope my boys have such a teacher at least once.

  • William McFerren

    Is it true that Christian conservatives are being “shut out” of teaching positions at public universities?

    There have been numerous lawsuits accusing public universities more or less telling students to leave thier Christian beliefs outside the door because these beliefs have no place at the institution.

  • Michael

    My children attended a charter school after significant difficulty at our local elementary school. The district had no interest in discussing our objections, in this case to the proprietary and useless D’Nealean alphabet, and their approach to instruction was to copy a page from this book today, but a page from that book tomorrow. Reading was “whole word” shape memorization.

    Enter the charter school; suddenly we get Saxon math — the stuff I grew up with, lots of drill and practice. Reading is not just phonics it is broken right down to the phonemes themselves, every sound a human can make, then assemble it back together. My 7 year old could read almost any word presented to her and by the age of 12 was reading adult novels such as “Mary, Queen of Scots”.

    Thank you, thank you, for the Charter school option. Now, to be fair, some of the charters were pretty hokey but at least it gave me choice and a situation where parents were listened to and changes actually happened.

  • Michael

    Charters seem pretty good for younger children, up to about grade 5. By middle and high school charters just don’t have the resources and social environment needed for more advanced study and socialization. That’s just my experience of course, your mileage may vary.

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  • Michael

    Gentlebeings — there’s something wrong with your system clock. It says August 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm but it’s actually August 22, 2012. The time is about right.

    The first comment on this topic (“for sale academic freedom”) is what I was going to write. Nearly every faculty member is already left wing Democrat; why do you begrudge a few Republicans? Are you THAT afraid of them?

    One of my best college professors was a woman from India; who accepted my challenge and persuaded me to argue *against* my natural point of view in a debate in front of 200 students. Without credible alternatives, universities cease being innovative and thinking; becoming mere indoctrination stations.

  • Michael

    Scratch that comment about the system clock being off. It is a bizarre coincidence to see what looks like what I just wrote but a year ago. Obviously this page doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic 😉