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Protecting Academic Freedom with Transparent Funding

Challenging harmful donor influence.
By Avital N. Nathman and Jake Lowe

This article is part of an online supplement to the fall 2022 special issue of Academe, which focused on the theme of “revolutionizing higher education budget and finance.”

State funding for higher education has declined over recent years, particularly since the 2008–09 Great Recession. While funding sources and their allocation vary across states and institutions, most colleges and universities have turned to private philanthropy to compensate for increasing state disinvestment. These private donations have allowed universities to build new classrooms, appoint additional staff, offer new programs, and expand their research capacity—but too often within criteria set by donors rather than by the campus community or in accordance with the institution’s educational mission. Outside sponsorships can introduce a variety of new threats to the principled independence of our academic institutions. Colleges and universities exist to serve the common good, and the preservation of this mission requires that the academy remain independent from outside influence. Yet some private donors have taken advantage of inadequate funding policies and practices to determine programming, dictate research outcomes, and gain power to appoint faculty and staff. Such actions violate academic freedom, pose an institutional conflict of interest, and undermine the academic legitimacy of universities. Fossil-fuel billionaire Charles Koch and the larger network that he heads are glaring examples of how some donors can navigate university funding structures to maximize their influence through philanthropy. 

Robust funding policies that protect academic freedom and guard against conflicts of interest are one of the most effective means of preventing donors like Koch and his network from co-opting higher education. Upholding academic freedom and preventing corporate capture of the academy are driving forces behind the creation of the model funding policies we at UnKoch My Campus have researched and drafted. Along with faculty activism, these more detailed and transparent policies are a significant way to protect colleges and universities from harmful donor agendas. 

The Dangers of Donations with Strings Attached

In April 2015, Charles Koch projected that roughly two-thirds of his political network’s 2016 spending—then estimated at $900 million—would go to “research and education” rather than direct political expenditures. In fact, Koch has overseen more than $458 million in grants to over 550 universities and higher education–adjacent nonprofits since 2005. Through our research, we have uncovered what Koch has accomplished with his hundreds of millions of dollars in higher education donations. From influencing curricula (including textbooks chosen and courses offered) to faculty appointment and dismissal, selection of research fellows, and more, Koch has been able to realign academic departments and centers at campuses across the country to serve his group’s ideological and economic interests.

Koch has made it no secret that he believes in the power of funding higher education. He is part of a network of right-wing economists and investors who have worked for the past fifty years to mainstream free-market ideas and to change public policy in support of their legislative goals at the state and federal levels. As early as 1974, Koch declared that “there are basically four ways in which [the procapitalist businessman] can fight for free enterprise—through education, through the media, by legal challenges, and by political action. . . . I do maintain, however, that the educational route is both the most vital and the most neglected. . . . We should [support] only those programs, departments or schools that contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.”

Rather than allowing departments and educators to use grants to meet research, teaching, and hiring goals as determined by the faculty, Koch has exerted control through his funding, using carefully worded contracts. His specific objectives frequently include mandates to appoint on the tenure track any professors whose positions he funds. These controversial contracts—many of which are not readily available for public perusal—are widely regarded by professors as a threat to academic freedom and shared governance and validate widespread student and faculty concerns about undisclosed corporate influence in higher education. 

Koch-funded professors have helped legitimize Koch Industries’ lobbying efforts by adding their names and the institutional credibility of their employer universities to Koch’s efforts. One  example is George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center (RSC), which we consider as a case study in our recent “Killing Our Climate” report and RSC report

The RSC has repeatedly acted as a front for fossil-fuel interests and has a history of using GW’s standing to provide credibility to climate deniers, fossil-fuel cronies, and other discredited backers of pseudoscience. The center consistently advocates against environmental regulation and relies on researchers with ties to Koch-funded groups. The RSC has received over one million dollars from both ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundation—part of a fossil-fuel empire that profits from the deregulation of the industry. There is no way to truly know what role these funders play, owing to the lack of transparency with RSC’s donor agreements, but we know these donors have funded climate change denial.

In June 2020, however, thanks to the hard work of student organizers, the GW administration committed to full divestment from fossil fuels, carbon neutrality by 2030, and reversing the university’s entire two-hundred-year carbon footprint. In response to the student organizers, its leadership appeared to align with science and acknowledge the need to transition off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Yet, contradicting these commitments, the university allows the RSC to continue to operate according to the mandates of Koch network donors.

George Washington University is not alone. Koch has spent millions of dollars over many years to ensure that his flagship beneficiary—George Mason University—is heavily reliant on his funding. As of 2020, the Koch network had donated over $135 million to GMU, steadily increasing its investments over the last few years; GMU received over $60 million between 2017 and 2020 alone. The influence and control that Koch has exercised in exchange for this financial support is staggering. 

In 2018, an internal review committee at GMU looked at hundreds of agreements for evidence of donor influence and released a report that confirmed the long-standing concerns of students and faculty. The report revealed a widespread pattern of donor influence that spanned many programs and donors, with twenty-nine agreements being “marked” for further review. An examination we conducted of the report and corresponding documents showed several instances in which donors were granted the sole discretion to withdraw funding from a program. 

Along with this ability to withdraw funding at will, we uncovered numerous other disturbing examples of extensive donor influence at GMU:

  • Some agreements allow donors to vet guest lecturers and directly influence programming. Here is an example from the law school: “Grantee will work in consultation with the Foundation to finalize the law professor workshop agenda. . . . Grantee will provide the Foundation with a list of confirmed lecturers no later than sixty (60) days prior to each judicial symposium.”
  • Other agreements provide donors with influence, sometimes broadly defined, over the selection and retention of faculty. One agreement specified, “The donors will be represented on the search committee, and the broad thematic rubric under which the position will be established is ‘Islam, Globalization, and World Civilization.’” Others call for the presence of specific personnel as a condition for continued funding. Another agreement warned, “Notwithstanding any other term or language in this Agreement, should Bob Inglis, Director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative leave his current position at any time during the term of this grant, the Foundation reserves the right to terminate the grant and recover any unspent funds as of the key person’s departure date, or to renegotiate the grant prospectively for the remainder of the term. Throughout the term of this grant, the Foundation also reserves the right to make all award payments contingent upon the Foundation’s approval of the new appointment if key person is replaced or if there is redistribution of staff responsibilities.”
  • Finally, some agreements include requirements that professors serve overtly ideological or political ends. Such language includes, for example: “The objective of the . . . Chair is to increase understanding and acceptance of economics based on the principles of free markets, private property, limited constitutional government, the rule of law, and individual freedom with responsibility and to expand public support of these principles . . . . The Energy and Enterprise Initiative provides educational programming and resources to advance public understanding of free-enterprise approaches to solving climate change.” The agreement continues,
    • The Grant shall be used by Grantee’s Law & Economics Center for the sole purpose of hosting the following: (i) Two (2) judicial symposia on the economics and law of public pension reform; (ii) Two (2) workshops for law professors on the economics of public pensions; (iii) One (1) symposium for state attorneys general on the economics and law on public pension reform; (iv) One (1) research roundtable on solving the public pensions crisis; and (v) One (1) public policy conference on solving the public pensions crisis. This initiative is part of a broader effort to expand the accessibility of public sector retirement research (collectively, the “Purpose”).

Unfortunately, GMU and GW are not the only universities manipulated by Koch money. UnKoch My Campus released a 2016 report on academic violations (updated in 2018) that examined a number of institutions that experienced similar instances of donor influence. 

At Florida State University (which received almost $13 million from Koch between 2005 and 2020), the 2008 and 2013 memoranda of understanding (MOUs) gave the Koch Foundation veto power through a donor-appointed advisory board: each stipulated that the board’s “periodic assessments” acted to “ensure compliance with the terms of this Memorandum through appropriate administrative or legal channels.” This board retained the ability to withhold funding for any part of the program at any time. It also retained the ability to review employee performance and decide annually whether to renew or withhold the next year's funding: “The Parties intend that the Teaching Specialist Position will be funded by payments consisting of five installments. . . . Each of the subsequent four payments for the Teaching Specialist Position shall be payable on each of the next four anniversary dates of the first installment described herein with annual renewal dependent upon satisfactory evaluation of the FSU Economics Department and the SPEFE-EEE Advisory Board that the individual is advancing the Objectives and Purposes set forth in Section 1(a).”

Also at FSU, a faculty senate investigation “determined that the Koch Memorandum of Understanding as currently written allows undue, outside influence over FSU’s academic content and processes.” The senate report revealed extensive interference in the early stages of the hiring process, including prior approval of the job posting and parallel interview activities by Koch at the professional conference where the FSU search committee was interviewing applicants. The report describes in further detail how Koch officials overstepped the expressed will of the FSU Department of Economics: “At the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January of 2009 in San Francisco, [Koch] donor officers requested personal participation in the interview sessions, which the department appropriately refused. But then members of the departmental interview team learned by coincidence that a donor representative was nevertheless making independent contact with candidates at the convention for lunch or similar informal conversations, without notifying the FSU interview team.”

Over the years, similar MOUs have prevailed at institutions across the country, including Arizona State University, Ball State University in Indiana, Clemson University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Michigan State University, Montana State University, Suffolk University, Syracuse University, Texas Tech University, Troy University, University of Kansas, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Utah State University, Wake Forest University, Western Carolina University, and West Virginia University. 

Faculty Mobilization as a Strategy

In response to the number of colleges and universities lending their names, legacies, and credibility to donors like Charles Koch, university faculty across the country are pushing for more transparent donor policies that don’t infringe upon academic freedom and integrity.  

Faculty members at Koch-funded universities should exercise their shared governance power to fight back against influences that undermine academic freedom. For starters, faculty can demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Koch funding through the faculty senate by voting on resolutions against the formation of Koch-funded centers, or against Koch funding in general. This is precisely what faculty members have achieved at Wake Forest University. Similarly, faculty at George Mason passed motions demanding that faculty be included in reviewing prospective funding agreements.

Although faculty senate resolutions can be more than symbolic acts when they are used as effective tools for mobilizing faculty, staff, and students, there is no guarantee that they will lead to positive administrative action. On many campuses, faculty members also have the ability to amend the policies governing the acceptance of university funding. When Western Carolina University administrators ignored the faculty’s vote to abandon the creation of a new Koch-funded center on campus, faculty successfully developed a comprehensive gift acceptance policy and a policy governing funding at centers and institutes, severely restricting the capacity of Koch funding to limit academic freedom. Similarly, UnKoch My Campus collaborated with the local AAUP chapter to develop proposed changes to George Mason’s gift acceptance policy, including improved measures for conflicts of interests and faculty voting power for gift acceptance.  

Faculty mobilization against prospective Koch-funded centers and institutes has proven especially successful. At Montana State University, the faculty senate voted to reject the development of a Koch-funded research center. In a more recent and ongoing struggle against such a center, faculty at Brown University have played an indispensable role. In February 2022, 60 percent of university faculty turned out, voting by a two-to-one ratio to postpone the creation of the Koch-funded Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics; a few months later, faculty voted narrowly in favor of the center only after Brown amended its funding acceptance policies to better protect the university against donor influence. 

A common thread running through all the compelling examples of faculty mobilization against Koch influence is that organizing efforts became stronger as a result of close collaboration with students. Effective coordination between students and faculty can mobilize a broad base of opposition to Koch funding across the university community, increasing the likelihood that campus activism will translate into tangible action by university administration.  

The Role of Model Policies

Donor influence is a national problem for higher education, but no two universities handle the acceptance of external funding in the same way. Each has its own unique bureaucratic structures, procedures, and offices. Such a degree of heterogeneity can be challenging for activists. There are nonetheless some overarching themes that are generally applicable to the acceptance (or rejection) of university funding. Our report on model funding policies, which offers a collection of general policies that can be tailored to the specific funding structures of each university, can serve as a starting point in the face of daunting bureaucracy. 

It is clear to academics familiar with the undue donor influence characteristic of Koch network funding that it violates the most basic tenets of intellectual freedom. Free inquiry cannot exist when a donor exerts financial pressure in hopes of reaching a particular research outcome. This is especially true for research centers, institutes, and other isolated units within a university that rely on external funding to survive. Our model institutional conflict of interest policy addresses this fundamental precariousness of Koch funding—offering a way for universities to acknowledge formally the potential for such conflicts and the need to avoid them—and highlights the importance of transparency and faculty input.

As we have shown, the Koch network has a history of infiltrating universities through gifts with strings attached. Our model gift-acceptance policy template outlines the first steps any university should take to protect against this form of undue influence. It delineates what types of gifts are acceptable and which ones are not, including a laundry list of stipulations that ought to be prohibited under any gift agreement—a list directly inspired by funding provisions that Koch and other donors have imposed in the past. Crucially, this model policy also outlines a governance structure for gift acceptance to ensure that both faculty and student representatives have voting power. Institutions can also rework the policy to apply to grant acceptance. 

Attempts to reform university funding are situated in the specific political and bureaucratic context of a particular university, and sometimes the overarching reforms to university funding procedures that we recommend in our gift-acceptance and conflict-of-interest policies may seem unattainable. In such instances, policies that focus on only a narrow aspect of university funding may be more politically feasible. Our template for disaffiliation with Koch offers an example of a funder-specific policy, which universities can easily adapt for funders other than Koch. 

When broad funding reform is not an option, university centers and institutes are a strategic starting place. As mentioned earlier, the relative structural autonomy of centers and institutes, paired with their outsized reliance on external funding, renders them especially vulnerable to undue donor influence. Our model policy for oversight of centers, institutes, consortia, and other special initiatives offers detailed templates for this targeted approach, aiming to ensure that centers and institutes remain accountable to students and faculty, as well as to university values. 

By their investment in the destabilization and privatization of institutions like George Mason University, dark-money donors such as Koch and his larger network harm the institutions they purport to help. They capture our institutions of higher education and leverage them to launder donors’ images, produce procorporate or otherwise biased research, and spread disinformation, all of which should be reason enough to sever ties. The time is now to evaluate how donors leverage cooperating universities’ prestige and academic legacies to serve, and obscure, their outsized influence on US democracy and their distortin of the pursuit of knowledge.

Avital N. Nathman is a writer, editor, and organizer with UnKoch My Campus, a national project that works with and trains students, faculty, alumni, and community allies in campaigns to expose and prevent undue influence by donors like Charles Koch and his network. Her email address is [email protected]. Jake Lowe, a recent graduate of George Washington University, is a lead coordinator of Fossil Free Research, where he advocates for universities to reject fossil fuel money for climate-related research. His publications include articles for the Nation and Inside Higher Ed and reports for UnKoch My Campus.

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