Charles Koch’s Assault on Academic Freedom

John Murray

Billionaire Charles Koch, one half of the hugely influential Koch brothers duo and the CEO of Koch Industries, has splashed tens of millions of dollars to promote his freemarket, libertarian ideology. His charity has funded freemarket think tanks around the country, from the powerful Cato Institute in Washington. DC to state-level outfits pushing privatization and deregulation. Now, Koch is taking heat for a more controversial ploy: leveraging a donation to a major university in order to handpick college professors that agree with his worldview.

Koch’s charity, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University to fund new hires in the economics department. But as the St. Petersburg Times reported, this was hardly a no-strings-attached gift. Koch representatives had considerable control over the hiring process:

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.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors—one retired, one active—criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.

Rasmussen said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. “I’m sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,” he said. “But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it.”