‘The University is For Sale’: Koch Brothers Target Higher Education
By Mary Ellen Flannery
The billionaire Koch brothers, famous for the more than $400 million they funneled to right-wing candidates in the 2012 state elections, aren’t just bankrolling politicians to do the dirty work of their anti-worker agenda—they’re also investing in the minds of young people.
In 2012, two of the six private charitable foundations controlled and funded by Charles and David Koch infused nearly $13 million into higher-education programs and departments at public colleges and universities across the U.S., according to a new investigative report by the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI). The money comes on top of tens of millions more that Koch foundations spent on campuses in the decade before, according to CPI’s analysis of Internal Revenue Service tax filings.
“The university is for sale—that’s the message,” said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, where the Koch brothers spent nearly $300,000 in 2012, as part of a multi-year $1.5 million deal to endow two faculty positions to “promote political economy and the free enterprise” in the Florida State University (FSU) economics department.
That contract was unparalleled in the power it granted the Koch foundation in the faculty hiring process—and students and faculty were outraged when the St. Petersburg Times pulled back the curtain in 2011. “It was a huge embarrassment to FSU,” Auxter recalled. “FSU made assurances to everybody that Koch wouldn’t have a voice in the faculty hiring process. But the contract wasn’t actually renegotiated.” In any case, with headlines blaring about the price of academic freedom, the damage to the university’s reputation had been done, he noted.
“It got a lot of press,” Auxter said. And the headlines broadcast this message: “We have right-wing foundations dictating the ideology of our departments.”
A GROWING REACH
Between 2007 and 2012, Florida’s public universities suffered a 22 percent cut in state funding, and that’s on top of years of additional cuts. Since state law limits increases in tuition—and tuition already is unaffordable for so many Florida students—it’s small surprise that public institutions are meeting on the crossroads with politically motivated donors, who clearly hope their money will buy influence in classrooms and curriculum.
Money for influence is the Kochs’ stock-in-trade. Their “mighty political machine,” which includes the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity and the ever-destructive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has recently invested millions of dollars in efforts to expand school vouchers in Florida, shut down Florida’s state pension system, derail the Affordable Care Act, and hand-pick candidates to run for local, state and federal offices on behalf.
Their political agenda is clear: It’s about promoting the interests of the 1 percent, and it’s accomplished through corporate tax breaks, acts of voter suppression, and now, apparently, also through attacks on academic freedom on university campuses.
FSU isn’t the only public university to welcome the big money of the billionaire brothers. In 2012, CIP reports that recipients included the University of Arizona, Utah State University, University of North Carolina, Kansas State University, Ohio State University, and West Virginia University (where one Koch-funded professor has argued that fewer regulations would actually make mines safer…) But the top recipient, according to CPI, was George Mason University (GMU), a large public university in northern Virginia that raked in about $8.5 million from Koch foundations that year alone.
That cash comes on top of tens of millions more from the Kochs in previous years, mostly used to start and pay for GMU’s Mercatus Center, which describes itself on its website as, “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.” (Among its most recent publications is a paper that argues against “burdensome” occupational licenses, like for preschool teachers and school bus drivers.)
WHAT’S THE PRICE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM?
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 that specifies there should be no limits on study, investigation and presentation by faculty, and that faculty should choose their own classroom methods and materials.
In Florida, the United Faculty of Florida’s 2013-2016 contract includes an article about academic freedom so encompassing that it serves as model for faculty everywhere. It states, “The principles of academic freedom are integral to the conception of the University as a community of scholars engaged in the pursuit of truth and the communication of knowledge in an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom,” and it protects the rights of faculty to freely engage in scholarship and creative activity, present and discuss, “frankly and forthrightly” academic subjects, and define course content.
But at the same time, the power of corporations and for-profit interests in Florida can’t be underestimated. In 2013, the state legislature passed a bill that kicks-off the process of awaiting credit at Florida’s universities for courses designed, taught, and graded by corporations.
In an online discussion last year, GMU President Ángel Cabrera said its donors “respect our academic freedom and understand they can’t influence what we do! If they ever threatened our academic freedom, we wouldn’t take their money.” But GMU has declined to make public its contract with the Koch foundations, and the relationship does raise concern, GMU politics professor Jennifer Victor told the Center for Public Integrity.
“It’s potentially damaging to the image and the reputation of the university and academia, rightly or wrongly, to be associated with ideological anything,” Victor told CPI. “It’s contrary to what the goal of higher education is.”
What is that goal? The Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison writes that the university should “take seriously and rigorously its roles as guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of…complex ethical problems, [and] as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices.”
It doesn’t seem like the Koch brothers would agree.
Academic Freedom Sold Off Cheap