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

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