taking candy from strangers
The Koch brothers are, of course, a favorite liberal bugaboo. And while they bankroll a wide range of right-wing institutions, more recently they’ve shifted their focus to the world of higher education. Most recently, the Koches made the news when UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) accepted a $25 million grant to provide scholarships to students interested in entrepreneurship, economics and innovation—a decision that was followed by the union AFSCME cutting its own ties to UNCF.
Now, UNCF is a nonprofit, not a university. But the Koches support universities as well. George Mason is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest recipient of Koch largesse. Overall, in 2012, Koch foundations gave $12.1 million to 163 U.S. universities and colleges.
On the one hand, this is small potatoes. A single hedge fund manager gave Harvard $150 million this year. On the other, it raises important questions about when colleges should say no to money.
Part of the reason the Koch money receives attention is that some of it has come with strings attached. A couple of years ago, Charles Koch pledged $1.5 million to support Florida State’s economics department. A Koch-appointed advisory committee had the right to approve potential hires. In the first round, Koch rejected 60% of faculty suggestions. Despite acknowledging the academic freedom issue, the department chair said he nevertheless felt “it would have been irresponsible not to” take the money.
This got me wondering where the line is. What money is okay to take? For me, any donation that involves veto power over hires is clearly way beyond the line. On the other hand, I don’t mind universities taking undirected donations from lots of sources I’m not ideologically crazy about, as long as they’re not so big that they create real resource dependence.
But what about special programs, for example? The Koch brothers’ biggest influence on campus has probably been through the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason. These are privately funded centers at a public university. Are these a problem? And if you think they are a problem, would you feel the same if they were located on a different part of the political spectrum?
Because it’s hard to see what money—particularly, though not only, money that supports the social sciences—isn’t political at some level. The big foundations certainly have a political color, even if they are more centrist. Ford, for example, highlights on its front page its LGBTQ Racial Justice Fund, whose goal is to “strengthen the rights of LGBTQ people and families” by supporting communities of color. That’s politics too. Sure, it’s my politics, but it’s politics nonetheless.
I can see a couple of possibilities for dealing with this, none of which seem all that great, and I’m looking for others.
- Take all the money. As long as it doesn’t cross some egregious line — like veto power over hires — let anyone who will pony up the money support a center or start a program. You still have to decide where the line is — if supporting centers is okay, what about having letting a donor have some say over who gets their research money goes to? Are there some groups too repugnant to take money from? But with some limitations, you accept the marketplace of ideas in its literal sense. This is basically the system we have, although the location of the line-that-can’t-be-crossed keeps slipping.
- Be overtly political about it. Reject the Koch brothers because they’re the Koch brothers, and enemies of all that is good and right in the world. Or, if we want to move a little closer to home, reject money that comes from “pro-family” groups or “pro-religion groups” or whomever we disagree with as being tainted. I have two problems with this strategy, though.
One is ethical. I’m not the most rah-rah-science of sociologists, but I do believe we’re on a search for truth here, and that while there is no value-free knowledge, all views deserve a fair hearing within the context of a community-developed set of rules for evaluating new knowledge. There are way too many sociologists willing to shut down dissent without dialogue.
The other is practical. Universities are liberal places, and there are already a bunch of people who think they are bad for that reason alone. Giving donors a political litmus test is bound to end badly for universities.
- Come up with some set of principles that acknowledges the diversity of views in the world, the fact that universities run on money, and the fundamentally political nature of the social sciences. Yet protect what is most important to the university itself: free inquiry conducted without direct obligation to financial supporters, and a respect for its results. So, the Koch brothers are in (I guess? As long as they stop asking for vetos over hires?), but the Heartland Institute, which rejects all of climate science, is out. The problem here is that it’s still not very clear where the line should be. What counts as “settled science” that it’s not okay to reject? Just how insulated does the inquiry have to be from the money?
Despite its messiness, I think this is going to be an increasingly important question in years to come. As public universities continue to lose funding, and as super-wealthy philanthropists keep gaining significance, these issues are going to come up.
Of course, there’s a simpler solution to this — full public funding for public universities, so that we can all Just Say No to any money with strings attached. Given our current financial reality, though, I’m curious if others have ideas about where to draw the line.