September 2, 2011; Source: The American Independent (Texas Independent) | How close should foundations get to the various candidates for president? Republican Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for months and officially became one last month. Would you as a foundation director steer clear of Gov. Perry? Apparently not if you’re on the board of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

A Texas subsidiary of the online Western Governors University is participating in a $4.5 million Gates grant that will actually benefit WGU affiliates in Indiana and Washington as well as in Texas. Gov. Perry established WGU Texas by executive order on August 3 to offer students the chance to earn a four-year college degree for as little as $10,000, which is less expensive than the degrees offered by the University of Texas system (four years of tuition at WGU actually costs around $23,000, but many WGU students are adults who have some prior education and experience, reducing the need for four years of courses). It is a little unusual for a state governor to create and support private-market competition against the state’s own university system, but that is plainly what Perry wants to do. 

Gates has long been a supporter of WGU. This $4.5 million grant was preceded by a $1.2 million grant to WGU in 2009. Texas was one of several states that helped create WGU in 1997, contributing $100,000 to its start-up costs. For the creation of the Texas-specific affiliate, Perry has directed the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Education Agency, and Texas Workforce Commission to collaborate with WGU, though purportedly without spending any state money. 

We have to believe that Gates isn’t necessarily trying to cozy up to Governor Perry per se, but rather wants to support an online alternative school built on free-market principles that appeal to both the foundation and the governor. This is different than the Gates Foundation’s six-figure grants to the DeLay Foundation, the charity established by now disgraced Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas), to help foster children, a cause that had no connection to the Foundation’s stated programs and priorities. This is also not connected to Governor Perry’s support of “intelligent design” as an alternative to the theory of evolution—despite the Gates Foundation’s $10 million in grants to the Discovery Institute, one of the nation's better known intelligent-design proponents (Gates said the money was to support the Institute’s programs on reducing automobile congestion, not intelligent design). 

On the other hand, we wouldn't be surprised to hear Governor Perry touting his no-frills free-market higher-education strategy as part of his presidential campaign’s theme of market solutions competing with government—even if that government is the one he runs. When that happens, and the reporters start buttonholing Gates executives about where they stand, what will the Gates Foundation flacks say?—Rick Cohen