Billionaire Charles Koch’s efforts at shaping public policy have come under immense scrutiny recently, despite the fact that he and his brother have used their immense wealth to influence legislation for years. But given the disastrous results in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Indiana some of the Koch’s old deals are getting a second look.
Take for example their reach into our public institutions. In 2008 the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation had an agreement with Florida State University where the foundation agreed to provide millions of dollars of funds for the school’s economics department in exchange for granting Koch the ability to directly approve faculty hired with those funds.
The agreement also provides that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates will be considered and provides that should Koch not be happy with the faculty’s choice or, more alarmingly, if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch, the foundation will withdraw funding entirely.
As if that were not chilling enough for academic freedom, Koch wanted the ability to review work done by the economics faculty, to determine which candidates qualify to receive funding and which professors find themselves on a tenure track.
The agreement with FSU is not the first venture into academics by the billionaire, but it is the most controversial due to the amount of reach it allows Koch into the academic operations of the department.
It is no secret that most public universities are starved for cash as decreases in federal and state funding have been the norm for at least a decade now. And while most schools have strict guidelines regarding donors’ influence over how donations are to be used, the FSU deal represents the dawning of a dangerous new age of buying academic support for controversial political positions.
To be clear here, there should be no problem with open, vigorous debate in academics, and that debate should embrace all points of view. And those points of view should be represented in research and policy development, regardless of partisan implication. But to give a private donor veto power over faculty hiring decisions and funding choices all but guarantees that debate will quickly turn into a monologue.
Wealthy individuals and foundations funding academic research is also nothing new. Indeed, some of our greatest breakthrough in the sciences and arts come thanks to cooperative private-public partnerships. In fact, our public institutions function best when they are the beneficiaries of an invested private sector.
But to have an institution cede control to its donors as FSU has done here will not encourage an open exchange of information, nor will it promote cutting-edge research for the benefit of the public good. It will simply further entrench, embolden and empower an elite all to willing to overlook public utility for private enrichment.
photo courtesy of RMTip21 via Flickr