A Washington Post Scoop about the Koch Brothers Falls Apart

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
George Mason’s agreement with the Koch Foundation was entirely standard in academia.

The headline in the April 28 Washington Post sounded dire: “George Mason president: Some donations ‘fall short’ of academic standards.”

The story quoted an e-mail from George Mason University president Ángel Cabrera declaring that some donations to the school and its independent think tank, the Mercatus Center, “raise questions about donor influence at the public institution.” The story quoted a professor alleging that the school’s administration “violated principles of academic freedom, academic control and ceded faculty governance to private donors.”

Ominous stuff. But Cabrera’s admission was vague and heavily qualified: “The agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions, and all but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures,” Cabrera wrote. “Yet these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” Cabrera didn’t specify how those agreements fell short. A subsequent article quoted a representative from a progressive activist group, UnKoch My Campus, that painted the university as trying to cover up a corrupt deal, transforming the school into a fully purchased puppet of the Koch network’s libertarian agenda.

On May 6, the Post’s editorial board weighed in, declaring that “The Charles Koch Foundation paid to pull strings at George Mason. It’s time for transparency.” The editorial cited “documents showing the conservative Koch Foundation had been given a voice in faculty selection and evaluation.”

Except that no evidence has surfaced indicating that the foundation actually selected or evaluated any faculty. The agreements, accepted from 2003 to 2011, and all expired except one, allowed the Koch Foundation to appoint members to a search committee who could also serve on a separate advisory board for personnel decisions for the Mercatus Center. And this is 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.”

Meanwhile, the relationship between the Mercatus Center and George Mason is not easy to summarize. The center is led by a faculty director, currently the economist Tyler Cowen, who is appointed by the provost of George Mason. The center offers fellowships for undergraduate, MA, and doctoral students, and organizes conferences, seminars, workshops, and reading groups. But the Mercatus Center does not receive financial support from George Mason University or any federal, state, or local government.

For what it’s worth, university officials vehemently deny that the Koch Foundation had any direct say in personnel decisions.

Donald J. Boudreaux, who chaired the George Mason Economics Department from August 2001 until August 2009, told the school’s faculty senate that “all economics faculty hiring, and decisions on promotion, tenure, termination, and pay-raises – as well as all faculty support with university funds – has been driven exclusively by the economics faculty in accordance professional principles of competitive search and vetting, and all with standard university input and oversight from the office of the provost and other university administration.”

It’s a similar story at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, where Dean Henry Butler offered a similarly sweeping and emphatic statement: “While we are pleased to receive recommendations from many sources, decisions on faculty hiring and student admissions and scholarships are independent and strictly the purview of the law school’s faculty and administrative leadership,” he wrote. “There are numerous misleading and inaccurate statements in the press coverage.”

An embarrassing “clarification” to the Post’s editorial a day later stated that, “in agreements with George Mason University, the Charles Koch Foundation could name members of a selection committee whose appointees could also serve on an advisory board that had the power to recommend dismissal from the school’s Mercatus Center, but had no power over faculty retention or promotion.” Whoops.

Perhaps there is a case to be made that in the name of academic independence, no donor should ever have any role in selecting faculty. But UnKoch My Campus isn’t upset about any other donors on any other campuses.

It’s a familiar story: Figures villainized by progressives — in this case, the Koch brothers — take an ordinary, legal, charitable act, and it’s deemed unusual and menacing.

The group’s primary personnel all previously worked at precisely the institutions a cynical conservative would expect, such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and express interest in topics such as “academic white supremacy.” It’s a free country, and the group is free to argue that George Mason University and its related think tank should not accept money from anyone connected to the Kochs. But that kind of ideological closed-mindedness would come with a considerable cost, and not merely to the value of diversity. For example, in February 2016, an unidentified donor called up the George Mason law-school dean and, in Butler’s words, offered “to provide us with $20 million in scholarship dollars for the naming the school after one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever [Antonin Scalia], as long as the Charles Koch Foundation provided an additional $10 million for scholarships — no strings attached.”

The folks at UnKoch My Campus are free to argue Butler should have told that donor to get lost. Of course, they aren’t exactly full of ideas about how to find an alternative $30 million for scholarships.

It’s a familiar story: Figures villainized by progressives — in this case, the Koch brothers — take an ordinary, legal, charitable act, and it’s deemed unusual and menacing. This kind of chicken-little panic over routine donations and agreement language is a good way to ensure no one pays attention when there’s a real academic scandal.


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