Florida State University Accepts Big Money from Koch Brothers – and Restrictions on Academic Freedom

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May 13, 2011; Source: St. Petersburg Times | Do the sources, politics, and ideologies of grantmakers affect the decisions of grant recipients? Despite protests to the contrary, the truth is, how could they not? Especially when the grantmakers intend to exercise tangible influence over the recipient’s program implementation.

In the case of a $1.5 million grant from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation to Florida State University, it is hard to imagine otherwise, notwithstanding a plaintive op-ed from FSU’s president, Eric Barron, who contends, “I fervently believe Florida State University did not – and would not – sacrifice its academic freedom in order to receive a donation of any kind.”

The Koch gift to FSU (and the FSU Foundation) went to create two programs at the school, one, the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise and a second, Excellence in Economic Education. Barron’s defense is in response to an earlier St. Petersburg Times article that charged that the agreement allows the Koch Foundation to “screen and sign off on any hires” for the two new programs and to “withdraw its funding if it's not happy” with the faculty who are hired or if they “don't meet ‘objectives’ set by Koch during annual evaluations.”

Although the Koch grant was in 2008, two professors earlier this year denounced the Koch deal as an affront to academic freedom, in part because donors usually get very limited input into hiring faculty to fill grant-funded positions.

Barron’s op-ed offers a detailed defense of the process, the excellence of the two hired, the protection of academic freedom, and so on. But other universities have clearly rejected such donor conditions regarding faculty hiring, even in the case of Yale, returning a $20 million gift.

The Times quoted Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc., describing the FSU/Koch deal as “truly shocking” and “an egregious example of a public university being willing to sell itself for next to nothing."

Barron might have acknowledged that the reason there was so little discomfort at FSU with the Koch demands was ideological, not academic. The head of FSU’s economics department admitted that he and his faculty are quite comfortable with the Koches, who “find, as I do, that a lot of regulation is actually detrimental and they're convinced markets work relatively well when left alone.” In other words, FSU’s faculty choices were unlikely to discomfort the politically libertarian donor.

Read the agreement (PDF) and see if you can identify the provisions that, ideology aside, clearly compromise academic freedom.—Rick Cohen

  • David Cearley

    Where’s the companion article detailing the political requirements for Mr Soros’ donations? I see a new article attacking the Koch brothers every other day, so many stories in fact, that it appears to be a coordinated effort to smear or suppress their viewpoint. When more than 80% of academics identify themselves as politically liberal, is there really a problem with the Koch’s efforts to ensure students see both sides of an argument? Aren’t the people and organizations attacking them actually trying to limit speech and bully those with different opinions?

  • Pete Hudson

    I have no data to compare any Soros donations to the Koch donation to FSU as requested by David Cearly, but I would use the same yardsticks for both. Two things are clear from the conditions placed by Mr. Koch upon the FSU donation. One is that it ensures that students who go to FSU do NOT hear a point of view other than Mr. Koch’s – precisely the opposite of the desired state of affairs of balance professed by Mr. Ceary. On the same point I might add that students along with the rest of the population are bombarded outside the the walls of Universities by Mr. Koch’s views, and the Universities are one of the few places where an alternative to neo-liberal economics can be heard. It seems that Mr. Koch is now moving to diminish even that small voice. The second yardstick is the one of academic freedom which is clearly violated by Mr. Koch being granted veto on hiring and firing. It means that if a professor’s studies, using sound method, should lead him or her into even the mildest of critiques of capitalism and its current economic monopoly, s/he is fired. So much for the spirit of enquiry.

  • rick cohen

    The same yardstick should be applied to any donor who expects his or her donation to a university to supplant academic freedom. If anyone wants to identify a Soros donation with the contractual language that we cited in the Koch agreement with FSU, please send it along to us. But let’s get real. On the newswire, we simply picked up and commented on a news story, a real news story, and it happened to involve a Koch donation. But when the left automatically tosses out “Koch” as an epithet or the right emulating Glenn Beck uses the specter of “Soros”, it’s really not only silly, but it makes the political dialogue into a competition of competing political slogans rather than analysis of empirical evidence.