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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.


Written by epopp

July 18, 2014 at 4:40 am

5 Responses

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  1. I’ve thought a lot about the problem of “non-political” donations that have strings attached, especially donations that require institutional matching or will entail institutional support in other ways. These can and will distort the university in directions favored by donors and can and will crowd out other expenditures, even in good times and especially in hard times. My institution has experienced, for example, some unpleasant unintended consequences of offering matching to gain external support for graduate fellowships: fields that previously rarely won fellowships in the interdepartmental competition (e.g. arts, business) were better at fund-raising and sucked up the fellowship funds from the core academic disciplines that originally had competed most successfully for the lion’s share.

    The only way to proceed, it seems to me, is to know your own priorities and think about them when accepting or structuring donations. And because universities are large, heterogeneous, and embody multiple interests, even that rule cannot prevent the world of donations from shaping the outcomes of intra-institutional political processes over priorities.

    In some cases, donations also have to be rejected on purely symbolic grounds, if the donor is inherently an anathema to the inherent meaning of the organization. NOW turned down money from Playboy on those grounds, although Playboy at the time was headed by a woman and defined itself as feminist, so there was certainly debate about it. The NAACP should turn down money from the KKK and vice versa. I can see why AFSCME would punish a donee for also taking money from Koch, although UNCF seems kind of like a victim caught in cross-fire here.

    Universities are harder in terms of what should be rejected on purely symbolic grounds. We should certainly decline funds that have outsiders hiring and firing, and decline funds from organizations whose purpose is to restrict the free flow of ideas, because that is the core of the meaning of the university.



    July 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

  2. The Koch brothers may be achieving some level of personal insulation with this funding, but from my perspective, they have completely failed in terms of their stated politics. I think they are mostly beltway libertarian. Harry Reed spends a lot of time trying to build up a demonology of sorts around these brothers, but these guys were even funding PBS. PBS is likely responsible for many leftists in the world. I probably would have been one myself due to PBS, but I developed this annoying habit of reading practically everything.

    So, Reed hates the Kochs because they funded a threat to his livelihood; you guys ought to love them because they fund people and generally let them say whatever the hell they want. I do think there was that one time they finally pulled funding on a documentary on themselves, but even the saintly would do that.

    The veto power over new hires is an interesting one, but not necessarily a deal killer. If you get to publish what you want, why not outsource hiring to the Kochs? Frankly, at this point, I would probably have more of a problem with them than you do. I’m thinking patent and copyright here- the Kochs are going to want to protect whatever sinecures the government has granted them.

    So, depending on your scope, take the money, because if your scope is narrow enough, you aren’t going to trip on their interests, even if you publish something in direct opposition of what they espouse. Indeed, you will very likely be protecting their interests.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 18, 2014 at 1:51 pm

  3. Additionally, saying that full public funding would take care of having to deal with strings attached is like complaining about having to tie your shoes while there is a noose wrapped around your neck. If a bureaucrat enjoys a monopoly on your funding, you must fiddle that bureaucrat’s tune. It is easier to deal with the Kochs- their politics are out in the open and you will know what the deal is when you take it. Funding from (preferably multiple) private sources is freeing, because you can usually find someone in agreement with you; funding from one source, usually requires you to agree in some way with that one source.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 18, 2014 at 5:06 pm

  4. […] Popp Berman has a very fair treatment of the Koch Brothers issue over at Orgtheory.  She notes, correctly, that it’s not a Koch […]


  5. […] I wrote about universities and the ethics of donations the other day, the takeaway was that we should 1) protect academic freedom and 2) avoid resource dependence but […]


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