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Thursday, October 01, 2020

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Koch Foundation funding raises controversy

In the spring of 2011, Kim Ray, a 2012 Richmond graduate, earned the first of what has now become five Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law (PPEL) summer fellowships funded by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

Upon receiving the fellowship, Ray spent 10 weeks during the summer researching the ways that economics students reacted to certain strategic formulas. She created in-depth models to show her data and shared her research at a dinner symposium in October, she said.

In 2011, the Koch Foundation gave Richmond $11,675 under the stipulation that funded fellowships, such as Ray's, would have to relate to the idea of classical liberalism, said Jonathan Wight, economics professor. In the two years since, the grant has risen to $14,000 and $15,500, respectively, with a fair portion of the money also being used to bring a variety of speakers to campus, he said.

A Koch Foundation representative approached Wight after one of Wight's lectures on free markets in 2010 about a grant relationship. Wight and David Lefkowitz, two PPEL professors, conferred afterwards and decided to accept the grant proposal, they said.

"The Koch Foundation was really interested in connecting with young people about the ideas of freedom," Wight said, "and I'm interested in that too."

Classical liberalism is an idea that the newly developed PPEL program's faculty readily want to pursue, Wight and Lefkowitz said. It is a broad philosophical idea that contemplates the balance between freedom and government control. It doesn't necessarily signify contemporary liberalism or conservatism, Wight said.

Charles Koch, founder of the Koch Foundation, is also a co-owner of Koch Industries with his brother David. The brothers -- each worth $34 billion -- own the second biggest private corporation in the U.S. Many critics have accused them of promoting their economic interests through a network of organizations known as the "Kochtopus," according to Forbes magazine.

The two have also been linked to the origins of the Tea Party in a study done by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institute of Health. The brothers' grassroots organization, Americans for Prosperity, is a major donor to the party, according to the study.

Ray Bellamy and Kent Miller, two Florida State University professors, objected to Koch Foundation funds given to their university in 2011. The FSU economics department accepted a $1.5 million grant, in exchange for the power to hire faculty within a new program called "political economy and free enterprise," Bellamy and Miller said.

The two professors later wrote in an academic journal that the foundation was organized, committed to its cause and "focused on pushing their ideology through the educational system."

"They're known for vicious corporate behavior and being fiercely libertarian," Bellamy said. "They're ruthless."

The two use their money to "ensure and reflect their ideology" as best they can, Miller said.

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According to a letter that the professors received from FSU, the strings attached to the donation also allowed the foundation to require every undergraduate student in the college of business and finance/economics graduate students to receive a copy of "Atlas Shrugged," a novel by Ayn Rand about the dystopian effects of government regulation and the value of self-production.

The feeling that only free-market ideas were accepted at FSU created a barrier for some, said Bellamy, who had students who lobbied for more Keynesian viewpoints -- a more regulated view of economics -- in the economics department. Those who wanted a balanced education felt silenced for not going along with the free-market approach, Bellamy said.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, has paid close attention to the Koch Foundation's spending in higher education and has noticed a trend, he said.

Programs that the Kochs start up tend to reflect only one point of view, and the funds are unusually strategic, Nelson said. They advance their conservative agenda in a moderate fashion, he said. On its website the Koch Foundation lists 222 colleges and universities that it supports.

Clemson University, West Virginia University, Auburn University and others, have also felt the Koch Foundation's free-market influence Bellamy said. George Mason University oversees the Mercatus Center, a research department that has received millions of dollars from the Koch Foundation, according to The New Yorker.

If classical liberalism, the only stipulation of Koch funding at Richmond, were to match up with a contemporary ideology, it would be libertarianism, which is a strong belief in smaller government and more individual freedoms, Lefkowitz said. Much of the Koch brothers' monetary influence has centered on these same ideas.

This parallel in ideology doesn't change the beneficial nature of the fellowship, Lefkowitz said, because allowing engagement with the ideas does not imply that they are ultimately correct.

As for the Koch Foundation's reason for funding the idea of classical liberalism specifically, Lefkowitz said he believed the foundation wanted to promote critical engagement with classical liberalism.

"I think they're interested in part because they would think that ones who engage with the idea with an open mind will come to believe that many of its core tenants are true," Lefkowitz said. "But again, that's not a condition of receiving funding through our program."

The fact that an organization tied to past influence in higher education such as the Koch Foundation has a presence at Richmond was a cause of concern for some professors, including rhetoric professor Tim Barney.

"It brings up red flags," Barney said. "We still hope that our university is supporting education in general, but it raises flags ... As a faculty, we aren't asking enough questions and I just wish we knew more about the agenda here."

Andrea Simpson, political science department chair, was a recipient of a fellowship when she was younger that had a certain negative stigma attached to it, she said. It allowed her to see that people needed to be careful not to judge or misrepresent a certain fellowship associated with a political figure because it can still be a great learning tool.

Although everything read about the Koch brothers is negative, there is no certifiable data that the Koch Foundation's contributions have constrained the learning environment, she said.

Lefkowitz agreed that there would be a group of people who would see the grant and make some type of negative judgment, he said. Lefkowitz and Wight discussed what the funds would be used for and the magnitude of the Koch Foundation's influence before accepting the grant proposal, he said.

Wight said he appreciated the concern about the PPEL Fellowship because he understood the Koch brothers were not always in the news for flattering reasons.

There's a reason to be concerned about the way outside money can influence education, Lefkowitz said. If the Koch Foundation had organized to fund fellowships that argued only in support of the ideas of classical liberalism, the PPEL program would have rejected the proposal, he said.

"It's a worthwhile endeavor," Lefkowitz said. "We thought that the arrangement would be beneficial to students without in any way jeopardizing our commitment to freedom of thought and true education."

The responsibility is placed more on the university than the outside source of funding to choose whether to accept the funds, political science professor Ernest McGowen said.

"A university has certain values and the university community around it makes up those values," McGowen said. "I'm sure we can think about a lot of rich people who want a lot of messed up things, and they portray a lot of messed up points of view that a university won't allow into the door, so where is this line of what you're comfortable with and what you're not? These types of things can interfere if you lack academic integrity. It's all about how you view your role on campus."

Wight agreed that these monetary relationships say more about the universities that accept the funds than it does about organizations like the Koch Foundation, he said.

The business world doesn't understand the world of academia very well because the norms and practices are very different, Wight said. The leadership of a university is unlike that of a company, because university leadership can't mandate what tenured professors are going to teach, he said. A CEO, on the other hand, has the ability to give orders to those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The conversation about academic freedom and outside influence has a history within the PPEL department, students and the provost, Lefkowitz said. Both Wight and Lefkowitz said that there have been other occasions of outside organizations attempting to fund the university with strings attached.

BB&T, a corporation tied with a libertarian agenda similar to the Koch Foundation's, has attached certain conditions to proposed funding at Richmond, Lefkowitz said. The judgment was subsequently made that the university was not interested in this arrangement.

"You always need to think about what level of influence is acceptable and what level is not," Lefkowitz said.

The issue of balancing academic freedom with outside influence will continue, Miller said. There will continue to be schools, such as FSU, that don't see a problem with allowing outside people to dictate curriculum based off ideology, he said.

"If you asked what we're accomplishing," Miller said. "It would be sensitizing what we see as real intrusions on academic freedoms and being less welcome to sign off on taking money."

It's an important subject to discuss, Nelson said, because these types of agreements compromise academic freedom.

"I prefer money be given to higher education without ideological strings," Nelson said. "Academic freedom means institutions should be able to make decisions about where they want to go."

The PPEL program is interested in whether accepting this funding is the right thing to do, yet because of the value students such as Kim Ray are getting from it, it's been deemed acceptable, Wight said.

There is a growing sense of intermingling between the worlds of business and academia that needs to be monitored, Wight said. There are some academic institutions, such as research centers, that depend entirely on questionable outside funding, which can be a moral hazard, he said.

"It's an issue that is of interest to me," Wight said. "It's absolutely right to be worried about this blend of business and academia. Is the search for truth being corrupted by the search for profit? It's a troubling question you see at a lot of these research centers right now and is something that needs to be watched all around moving forward."

Contact reporter Scott Himelein at scott.himelein@richmond.edu

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