We’ve seen the headlines surrounding the opioid crisis, but the United States also has a Koch problem. This particular addiction epidemic affects college students and educational institutions across the nation. As of January 2018, the Charles Koch foundation has financially supported over 300 institutions of higher learning, including UT Austin. While many universities receive financial contributions from private and public organizations, the Koch Foundation is different. Funding from the Koch family has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of higher education and the value of academic freedom upon which these institutions of scholarship are founded.
In the 1960s, brothers Charles and David Koch inherited the family business empire, including holdings in technological development, energy, paper production, and cattle raising in the 1960s. Following David Koch’s death in August of 2019, Charles Koch became the primary actor in the family’s economic endeavors, making him one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Despite the financial supremacy of Koch Industries, the brothers were better known for their political ideology. Though the foundations started by the Koch brothers support a variety of philanthropic causes like medical research and cultural institutions, they were also heavily involved in advancing an economically conservative agenda. Though their political views aligned more closely to libertarian ideology than that of the modern conservative, the Koch brothers have allocated huge sums of their considerable wealth to supporting conservative candidates in the past several years. Both brothers have expressed a strong distrust of government involvement, especially in the economic sphere. More subtly, however, the Koch brothers spread their conservative ideology through funding for educational programs.
According to some of the recipient schools, Koch money comes with strings attached. While it is not uncommon for donors to indicate the specific programs or causes for which their money is intended, the Koch brothers prefer to take a more involved role in the universities they fund. Typically, they allocate their money to support or establish centers for economics or politics, as long as these programs agree to teach a Koch-approved curriculum and employ Koch-approved faculty.
The Charles Koch Foundation presented a multi-million dollar offer to the economics department at Florida State University in 2007, as long as the University agreed to a few conditions. In exchange for the money, faculty had to follow a curriculum that supported Charles Koch’s liberatarian economic views, the Koch Foundation had to be allowed to exert some control over the hiring of faculty, and the university had to retain a libertarian scholar as their department chairman. Florida State ultimately did not agree to these conditions, as this financial “gift” would have severely infringed on the institution’s academic freedom. Instead of learning an overview of economic theory, students would have only been exposed to one potential economic model. Professors would not have been able to discuss the potential benefits of government involvement in the economy because they would risk disobeying the conditions presented by the Koch Foundation. The economics department would have sacrificed opportunities for scholarship and critical thinking and would instead have become a vehicle to advance a single political ideology.
At Arizona State University, Koch-funded programs quickly grew in influence with support from conservative members on the state legislature. According to Matthew J. Garcia, the former director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at ASU, the two centers that the Koch brothers had funded did not initially pose a significant problem because they were contained within a larger department. He welcomed the diversity of thought and new perspectives, believing that the different opinions could provide a more comprehensive education for the students. Further, ASU’s financial agreement with the Koch Foundation left control of faculty and curriculum under the university’s jurisdiction.
However, Garcia’s opinion on the Koch-funded centers changed after Michael Crow, the president of ASU at the time, accepted money from the state legislature to transform the centers into a separate school called the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). Its justification included claims that the new school would avoid the “conformity of opinion” and “lack of debate” apparently present in the school under Garcia’s direction. But it soon became clear that SCETL was not exactly designed to encourage debate and diversity of opinion. President Crow excused the school from typical hiring protocol, allowing the directors to handpick primarily conservative faculty without consulting Garcia or other ASU faculty. Despite its huge budget, SCETL continues to have difficulty attracting students. Those that do attend receive an ideologically-driven education that aligns with the economic views of both the Koch brothers and conservative politicians. Garcia has since left ASU for Dartmouth due to his discontentment with the establishment of SCETL.
The Koch brothers’ influence is perhaps most evident at George Mason University, which receives more funding than any of the other Koch-supported schools. Much of the funding given to George Mason University is focused on the Mercatus Center, of which Charles Koch serves as a director. The Mercatus Center not only conducts economic research, but also boasts the largest number of “free market-faculty” at any university worldwide. Though other universities also host Koch-funded centers staffed by Koch-approved faculty, the Mercatus Center poses an additional problem because the Kochs use its research to support their other organizations and political opinions.
The reports published by the Mercatus Center include analyses of regulation, claims that lower taxes are better for states, and statements that government involvement is more detrimental than beneficial. It is difficult to believe that the agreement between the Mercatus Center’s research and the Koch brothers’ ideology is simply a coincidence. One of the most important principles of academic research is avoiding a conflict of interest between the research and private donors. The Koch Foundation’s use of ideologically driven research supported by their own funding presents a blatant conflict of interest.
Organizations like the Mercatus Center reveal an additional component of the Koch’s educational investments. By requiring that schools agree to certain conditions before receiving Koch money, the Koch Foundation ensures that the next generation of scholars, public figures, and politicians supports a certain ideology. Charles Koch has enough wealth to significantly influence electoral processes on his own, but his educational contributions reflect a more long-term goal to change political views in the nation. Instead of focusing on individual elections, the Koch Foundation is leaving its mark on entire generations of students who have the potential to become agents of political change. If private funding continues to go unchecked, future political change will be in a Koch-approved direction.
Granted, the Koch brothers are not the only politically aligned public figures to donate large sums of money to higher education. George Soros, who is often considered the Kochs’ liberal counterpart, secured a $60 million multi-year deal with the New York liberal arts school Bard College. However, Soros focuses his donations primarily on international centers and programs rather than domestic political efforts. Some of the Soros-funded educational initiatives include developing public policy leaders in Asia, organizing conflict-resolution meetings in Latin America, and funding a project on economic growth in Albania. While the universities that receive these donations benefit from Soros’s philanthropic efforts, they are not held to the same ideological expectations as the Koch-funded programs.
In the past few years, the Kochs have attempted to indoctrinate even younger students to their libertarian ideology. A class designed by the Koch-funded Freedom Center at the University of Arizona is offered at public, private, and charter high schools in multiple Arizona school districts. According to testimonies from students who completed the course, they learned a new appreciation for entrepreneurship and the innate ethical practices of businesses in a free market economy. While exposing high school students to a variety of different perspectives can significantly improve their educational experience, the high school classes sponsored by the Koch brothers most likely resemble the strictly libertarian university-level programs.
Though the erosion of academic freedom in universities that accept money from the Charles Koch Foundation is a concerning trend in higher education, it masks a far more serious issue with economic legislation in the United States. These Koch-funded universities do not take money with strings attached because they are eager to promote libertarian values or diminish the diversity of opinion in college education, but because they need money. Florida State University, Arizona State University, and George Mason University are all public schools. If they do not receive adequate funding from the state or national government, they are forced to search for funding elsewhere. Even Bard College, which receives millions from Soros, would not refuse a large donation from the Koch Foundation. Further, Koch money is typically devoted to liberal arts programs like civics and government, which are too often overlooked and underfunded. Programs like the Mercatus Center and the Freedom Center would struggle to continue operating without the influx of money from private donors. The irony of this financial situation is that the libertarian views supported by the Kochs advocate for even less government involvement in education than we see now. Their ideology would reduce government funding for public schools, allowing the Koch brothers and other private donors to step in and take their place. Without a check on the increase in private funding, the Kochs will have succeeded in educating a new generation of scholars and politicians in their own image.
Students and faculty at several universities that receive money from the Koch Foundation have spoken out against the partnerships with Koch organizations. Both Suffolk University and the University of Dayton in Ohio have since severed their connections with the Koch Foundation. A leader of the UnKoch My Campus activist group at Suffolk University hopes that the protests will push the universities to become more transparent about the sources of their funding. However, speaking out against the infringement on academic freedom that the Koch brothers represent will not solve the overarching problem that drove so many universities to accept Koch money in the first place. Until states can provide adequate funding for public universities, America’s Koch addiction will persist.