An ongoing lawsuit brought by enterprising student activists revealed last month that George Mason University had given the Charles Koch Foundation input into faculty selection and evaluation under some financial gift agreements. Naturally, media outlets seized on the story as demonstrable proof of the long-suspected perfidy of the Kochs, with lengthy write-ups excoriating the Kochs in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, Inside Higher Ed, Washington Post, and The New York Times, among others.
The arrangement between the Charles Koch Foundation and George Mason, however, was less sweeping and less remarkable than the media suggests. Indeed, in its eagerness to decry the billionaire libertarian donor, the Post editorial board overstated their case to such an extent that they had to issue a clarification acknowledging that the foundation “had no power over faculty retention or promotion” as previously claimed, somewhat dampening their credibility on the topic.
The gifts in question were given between 2003 and 2011 in support of faculty positions in economics and the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank on campus. Under the agreements, the Charles Koch Foundation could appoint two members to a five-member selection committee for professorships and have a role in evaluating professor performance through an advisory board. In an email sent to students and faculty, George Mason President Ángel Cabrera wrote that “the agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions,” and explicitly stated the university retains final say in all faculty appointments. “Yet,” Cabrera acknowledged, “these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”
Of course, this should not be dismissed. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) explains, nodding to Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), arrangements like those in place at George Mason threaten academic freedom: “Academic decisions must be left to the academy—not donors, legislators, or the general public.” And those (rightly) concerned about censorship from within academia should be equally concerned about inappropriate influence from without.
But proper context is also necessary for an accurate appraisal of what was going on at George Mason—something most of the coverage lacked. For instance, in his official statement, John Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, explains that the foundation’s original agreement with George Mason was not sui generis: “It was not unusual for universities to offer donors this type of input at the time—and, especially where named and chaired professorships are being created, this is still something that many universities do today. […] This is not something, however, that the Charles Koch Foundation does today, nor do our current grant agreements include these provisions.”
Perhaps the most important detail gleaned from this case is that universities at that time were—and in some cases still are –inviting donor meddling. And even as the Koch Foundation and George Mason have abandoned these influence-heavy agreements, it remains standard fare elsewhere. As Jim Geraghty ably points out at National Review, such arrangements are “far from rare in the academic world”:
Policies explicitly permitting donors to serve on faculty search or selection panels in some capacity (but not selecting faculty single-handedly) are in place at Auburn University, Chapman University, the University of Florida, Georgia State University, Illinois Wesleyan University, the University of Missouri system, the University of New Mexico, New York University, the University of Richmond, San Francisco State University, Southern Methodist University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. In a 2002 RAND Corporation report, Intelligent Giving: Insights and Strategies for Higher Education Donors, the research team declared that “it may be okay for you to be on the search committee for your endowed chair, but you cannot have veto power. While it is less common to be on the search committee for replacements for the original holder, there is no reason you could not be.”
Further, it’s telling that the Koch Foundation had already altered their donor agreements after similar public concerns were raised around gifts given to Florida State University back in 2008. Those agreements provided for a donor representative to review faculty candidates for positions the foundation had given money to support. According to Hardin, “We did not exercise that option and always respected university governance; however, in light of those concerns, we invited outside academics to review our grant agreements and suggest improvements.
From these suggested changes we rewrote our standard grant agreement to reinforce our long-standing commitment to academic freedom.” The foundation also publishes the current agreement template used for university gifts. Again, while academic freedom concerns are and should remain real, the Koch Foundation’s willingness to solicit and heed academic input on financial gift agreements and further transparency speak far more of good-faith philanthropy than nefarious ideological influence.
Finally, the major-media narrative about the Charles Koch Foundation buying influence into George Mason gets the relationship backward. As Professor John O. McGinnis writes, “The gift is not designed to elicit conservative thought from the school. Instead, the school’s thoughtful conservatism elicited the gift.” And this is far from a rare phenomenon in higher education. “It is, of course, common for donors who support professorships to specify the academic field or subfield,” according to Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty. “So while the Koch family’s extensive giving to antiregulatory causes in politics is controversial, it is not necessarily controversial that they fund professorships in economics and even free-market economics.” Replace “free-market economics” with “critical theory” or “climate science,” and it’s hard to imagine the media painting donors funding professorships in those fields as Machiavellians attempting to shape research.
In their rush to call “Gotcha!” on the left’s favorite political boogeymen, the media once again abandoned nuanced reporting for tendentious editorializing. Protecting academic freedom should not be a partisan enterprise, and a strong fourth estate is needed to shine the light on problematic outside influence in academia. Unfortunately, this episode is unlikely to restore conservatives and libertarians’ faith in reporters’ ability to cover such issues dispassionately—at least where Charles and David Koch are involved.