By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Could it be that students at Florida State University have a deeper understanding of academic freedom than their professors do?
The FSU Student Senate has introduced a resolution denouncing the university’s acceptance of big donations from a foundation run by the billionaire Koch brothers to fund positions in the economics department — and to have a say in who gets the appointments.
David and Charles Koch, septuagenarian owners of one of the world’s largest privately held companies and each worth about $20 billion, are prominent funders of groups that believe that government regulation is stifling American business. They’ve been increasingly active in politics as actors behind the scenes, using their deep pockets to promote tea party groups and anti-union governors including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Our own Florida Gov. Rick Scott admitted in June that he snuck away to a Koch brothers’ invitation-only retreat for conservative politicians in Vail, Colo. — a trip that wasn’t on his public schedule.
Last May, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reported that the Koch foundation had pledged $1.5 million for positions in FSU’s economics department. “In return,” wrote the Times, Koch representatives “get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting ‘political economy and free enterprise.’” In total, FSU received a pledge of $6.5 million over the course of six years from the Koch Foundation.
At any serious university, allowing donors to dictate the content of teaching or research would be a cardinal sin. FSU officials have denied that their deal with the Charles G. Koch Foundation violates academic freedom. Bruce Benson, the Economics Department chair at FSU, told the Washington Post that while the Koch money paid for two new professor positions, the Koch people didn’t suggest candidates for the job. “It was the other way around,” Benson said. “The department gave such a list to the foundation.”
Benson added: “It must be made perfectly clear that the two positions the Koch Foundation offered to fund were not positions the economics department would have been hiring on because it had no other funding source. The Koch Foundation provided the department with the opportunity to add to its faculty, but it was not held hostage.”
The Koch brothers, whose businesses in chemicals, textiles, trading and refining bring in revenues of at least $100 billion a year, have made financial agreements with more than 150 U.S. campuses, a trend that the president of the American Association of University Professors finds very troubling. “The Koch brothers have paid tens of millions of dollars to get their point of view instilled in classrooms, amongst faculty members and in students,” Cary Nelson said. “Programs they start tend to be one point of view only.”
At a time when money is being slashed from Florida’s university system, FSU has every motivation to accept gifts of private dollars. But the ancients teach that it’s wise to be wary of who’s bearing the gifts. As Bloomberg Markets revealed in a recent investigation, the Kochs are men with extreme views to go with their bottomless bank accounts. In 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket, “pledging to abolish Social Security, the Federal Reserve System, welfare, minimum wage laws and federal agencies — including the Department of Energy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.”
In business, Koch Industries has made improper payments to secure deals in India, Africa and the Middle East — and sold millions of dollars of petrochemical equipment to Iran, a country the U.S. identifies as a sponsor of global terrorism, Bloomberg reported.
Students are right to worry if the Economics Department is for sale. As the documentary Inside Job noted, some economics departments are already — in the words of University of Michigan history professor Juan Coles — “hopelessly corrupt.”
The FSU Student Senate resolution decries the Kochs’ “undue influence on academics as established by the current agreement between the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the FSU Economics department.”
“No public institution should accept funding that is conditional upon a willingness to fulfill or conform to a private entity’s ideological goals,” the resolution states.