A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University’s economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”
Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they’ve funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.
Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.
For the record, Florida State is a publicly-funded university. This isn’t the first time that the Kochs have pushed their way into academia: the Mercatus Center at George Mason University is a fully-funded Koch creation, pumping out right-wing economic memes for the masses. But at least that’s a private institution. This is a college funded by taxpayers, though critically, it’s underfunded. So when they had an opportunity to get $1.5 million, they signed away the right to vet their own instructors.
A Florida State graduate working for the Koch Brothers put together the deal, incidentally. So we should probably check on the academic affiliations of their entire staff to see who’s next.
The money involved here is trifling to the Koch brothers but vital to the university. And you can see how that asymmetry can lead to outcomes like this. As our public institutions get degraded and defunded, they reach more and more to the private sector for a lifeline, and that money comes with strings attached. The public interest is left out of the discussion.
Academia is the natural next step for the conservative movement. Having already crippled the public sector and labor, they take to another bastion of liberal support. But more than that, they gain a foothold for credibility for their own ideas. It’s one thing to see a Koch-funded think tank produce some study showing that poor people would have a better life if used as fertilizer, but another for a university to publish the same study. Florida State University isn’t exactly the institution which will lend the kind of gravitas to this effort, but it’s only the beginning.