Tag Archives: Koch brothers

A Step Too Far

The modern-day version of the Golden Rule is apparently: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Today, I’d like to consider the application of that axiom to institutions of higher education, and the donors they solicit.

People give money to colleges and universities for a number of reasons, and many of those reasons are laudable. University research is responsible for curing diseases, explicating history and developing philosophies, among many other things. University classrooms introduce students to great literature and art, help them develop critical skills, and deepen their understanding of the world. Making a gift to support those activities is a welcome expression of philanthropic generosity.

Then, of course, there are people like the Koch brothers, whose “gifts” generally come with rather disquieting strings. 

FAIRFAX, Va. — Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.

The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.

University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.

The report from the New York Times, from which the above paragraphs were taken, confirms a  widespread suspicion among academics. There have been rumors about George Mason University for years; those rumors have cast a shadow over the school’s reputation and that of its scholars. When people believe a donor’s “generosity” has purchased a desired research result, the research results will–properly– get discounted.

When it appears that a faculty member has been added not because a search committee, operating under standard academic procedures, determined that the person hired was the most accomplished applicant, but because s/he was the preferred choice of a donor–especially a donor like Koch– looking askance at that new hire shouldn’t be surprising.

The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.

The Koch Foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend firing a professor who failed to live up to standards.

To label this state of affairs “unacceptable” is to state the obvious. It’s hard enough, in today’s toxic and polarized environment, to find sources of unbiased information. The reputation of a university is inextricably tied to its demonstrated  intellectual honesty. That doesn’t mean that all of its research results are sound, or all of its teaching Socratic, but it does mean that the inevitable flaws and missteps are honest errors, not purchased propaganda.

The activist group UnKoch My Campus noted that the George Mason documents evidencing the arrangement are strikingly similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University–agreements that recently caused an uproar at that institution. (There’s a lesson here for Ball State University, here in Indiana,  which has  accepted Koch dollars to establish an economic Institute.)

Cabrera’s admission that the agreements fall short of standards for academic independence is a stark departure from his earlier statements on the issue. In a 2014 blog post on the issue, he wrote that donors don’t get to decide who is hired and that “these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.”

In 2016, in an interview with The Associated Press, he denied that the Koch donations restricted academic independence and said Koch’s status as a lightning rod for his support of Republican candidates is the only reason people question the donations.

Right. And if you believe that, I have some underwater land in Florida to sell you. It’s going to take some time and effort to restore the reputation of George Mason University–assuming it can wean itself away from the “gold” that has ruled it.

Attacking The Teachers

There are lots of lessons we can learn from the wave of teachers’ strikes that have erupted around the country. To the extent those strikes have been “wildcat” efforts, we can see the extent to which public sector unions have been neutered by anti-union lawmakers. To the extent that we have become aware of the grievances that prompted these actions, we see the effects of the steady erosion of adequate public funding for public education.

Paul Krugman recently reminded us of the connection between that erosion and Republican tax-cut orthodoxy. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force, and “at the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers.”

The GOP’s fixation on tax cuts, together with its anti-union ideology (and a particular hatred of teachers’ unions) and in some quarters, a desire to divert public funds to religious schools via vouchers, has resulted in an unremitting assault on public education.

Thanks to a recent report in The Guardian, we learn that opponents of public education fully intend to intensify their ideological attack on public education and the teachers who provide it.

A nationwide network of rightwing thinktanks is launching a PR counteroffensive against the teachers’ strikes that are sweeping the country, circulating a “messaging guide” for anti-union activists that portrays the walkouts as harmful to low-income parents and their children.

The new rightwing strategy to discredit the strikes that have erupted in protest against cuts in education funding and poor teacher pay is contained in a three-page document obtained by the Guardian. Titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, it provides a “dos and don’ts” manual for how to smear the strikers.

Top of the list of talking points is the claim that “teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families”. It advises anti-union campaigners to argue that “it’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

According to the Guardian, the “messaging guide” has been developed by an organization called the State Policy Network (SPN). SPN is an alliance of 66 rightwing “ideas factories,” that evidently includes members from every state in the nation. SPN also has an $80 million-dollar” war chest” – funded (no surprise) by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos family. (If there was any doubt that Betsy DeVos is the antithesis of a person rational lawmakers would install as an education secretary…).

SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to “defund and defang” public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers….The SPN document urges its followers to attack the walkouts stealthily, rather than criticising them directly. A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would “sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries”, it says.

If moral people find meaning by acting in ways that will benefit future generations–if, as the saying goes,“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit”-how immoral is this effort?

It isn’t just that these people are refusing to adequately fund the public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of American children. They are also busily polluting the environment and endangering the planet on which those trees must be planted. They are despoiling public lands originally set aside for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. They are presiding over the decay of the nation’s infrastructure, and they are intentionally encouraging the tribalism and bigotry that undermine the social cohesion necessary for communities to thrive.

I assume they derive satisfaction from the extra dollars these measures are intended to bring them.

I wish I believed in the existence of hell.

 

What the Hell is Happening at Ball State?

For those readers who don’t live in Indiana, Ball State University is one of the state’s public universities–and lately, the source of some disquieting events.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I only know what I read in the media, and I do understand how easy it is to get a distorted picture from what the media chooses to highlight. Still, there are some very troubling signs coming from Muncie, Indiana.

First, there was the Professor who reportedly championed creationism in a science class.  The course itself was unobjectionable, once you got beyond the incredibly turgid description; “a seminar investigating physical reality and the boundaries of science for any hidden wisdom within this reality which may illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life.” However, there were reports that the instructor was actively proselytizing and endorsing a Christian viewpoint rather than discussing scientific inquiries. Since Ball State is a public university, such endorsement–if verified– would violate the Establishment Clause.

The controversy made the news again when the professor was awarded tenure.

Eric Hedin, the associate professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University who was investigated in 2014 for allegedly teaching intelligent design, has earned tenure. That’s despite claims that he was proselytizing in a science class and the university’s strong affirmation of the scientific consensus around evolution in light of the allegations.

Despite the concerns–and negative publicity– raised by the allegations, the university subsequently hired Guillermo Gonzalez,  who had written a book in support of intelligent design, to teach astronomy and physics classes.

Intelligent design is religious doctrine; it is not science. Hiring two advocates of a doctrine overwhelmingly rejected by science to teach science is, at best, worrisome.

Then in January of this year, the Muncie Star-Press announced the sudden resignation of the University’s President.

 Ball State University’s board of trustees accepted the mysterious, sudden and unexpected resignation of President Paul Ferguson during a special meeting at the university’s Indianapolis Center on Monday.

The suddenness of the resignation–and the Board’s unwillingness to offer any explanation for it–generated a number of damaging rumors, including rumors of University financial problems. To date–unless Google and I missed it–there has still been no explanation.

Now, we have news of a major grant to the University by the Koch Brothers and Papa John Schnatter of Papa John’s Pizza notoriety.  In March, they donated $3.25 million to Ball State to create the John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise.

A student group concerned that the grant will purchase influence over curriculum and the Presidential search issued the following statement:

We have reason to believe this will lead to the appointment of a Koch-connected official, as the situation at our university is frighteningly similar to what happened at FSU (Florida State University) where there was an open (presidential) search the same time they were setting up a Koch institute in their department of economics.

The students charge that the Kochs spend millions promoting discredited anti-environmental positions under the aegis of a free-market agenda in order to protect their vast interests in fossil fuels.

George Mason University, Florida State University, Troy University, all of these have been infiltrated by the Kochs. George Mason is now the number one climate-denying institution.

I work at a university, and I know how attractive big grants can be, even when there is no fiscal crisis. Most grants come with no strings attached, and support important research–my own university, like many others, has policies against taking funds unless the accompanying documentation protects academic independence. The stories from Ball State thus far, however, do not describe any conditions that Ball State has attached to its acceptance of the grant.

One would hope that establishment of an Institute on free enterprise would not operate to distort or even affect the teaching of science, including climate science, on the same campus.

Of course, a science department willing to hire creationists may be willing to “adjust”…..

 

 

Ideology versus Scholarship

One of the most irritating aspects of contemporary policy debates is the lack of respect for evidence, and the willingness–even eagerness– to cherry-pick information. (This intellectual dishonesty can be treacherous for academic researchers who are increasingly approached by ideologically-motivated funders wanting to buy specific results rather than honest analyses.)

In Indianapolis, we are seeing an example of this tactic in connection with the proposal to improve our public transportation system, beginning with a bus rapid-transit project called the Red Line.

Let me be clear: people who oppose the project may have perfectly good reasons for that opposition. I happen to support the Red Line, but I am certainly not suggesting that all opposition is dishonest or disingenuous.

Some, however, is.

The Indianapolis Star reports that opponents of the Red Line commissioned a “study” from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Cato, of course, is a libertarian think-tank opposed to much of what governments do. I find them congenial on issues of civil liberties, but disagree with their resistance to virtually all regulatory efforts and social welfare programs. (I might note that the largest financial supporters of Cato have been the Koch Brothers.)

Mr. O’Toole comes with a “point of view” and a reputation as an opponent of mass transit; he makes his living speaking and writing as an “anti-transit expert.” That wouldn’t disqualify his argument if he had tendered an accurate report, but apparently this was a “cut and paste” job. It certainly displays a lack of familiarity with Indianapolis.

A few observations:

  • He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile. The Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, which tracks these numbers, finds that in just the 2.8 square miles around the Circle, there are more than 120,000 workers  (an employment density of 42,000 per square mile). The total number of downtown workers is actually 137,000.
  • He says that IndyGo has “not made any effort” to determine the feasibility of this effort or the possible alternatives. Had he done even a cursory investigation, he’d have found that this proposal is the end result of decades of study–including a 2013 analysis of alternatives.
  • He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now, and the additional thousands who are flocking to new housing options in the urban core (in contradiction to his assertion that there is “little demand” for urban living). Ten percent of those moving into the booming downtown housing market do not own cars, and have expressed a preference for public transportation.
  • His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient. (As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority  supporting this facile dismissal.)
  • He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.” (If you don’t happen to be one of those lucky folks, well, tough. File that one under “let them eat cake.”) Actual scholarship supports a rather different thesis: current routes and too-long headways discourage use by people who would opt for transit if it was more frequent and dependable.
  • He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal. He has only been in Indianapolis twice in 30 years, so perhaps he didn’t hear that IPL’s Harding Street plant recently switched from coal to natural gas. Or that IndyGo has access to solar arrays to power its electric fleet.) It’s just more of those pesky facts about Indianapolis that are inconvenient for his “analysis.”

I could go on. And on.

Suffice it to say that Mr. O’Toole is a propagandist, not a researcher. (Interestingly, O’Toole recently argued against light rail with a commentary titled “Rapid-Bus Systems a Smarter Investment Than Light Rail in U.S.” Blatant inconsistencies were easier to hide before Google.)

What O’Toole does provide is an example–as if we needed another one–of today’s “spin it to win it” approach to policy argumentation. It’s an approach that can be particularly effective when, as here, an honest debate requires accurate data and background information that most citizens are unlikely to have.

What was that famous line from Pat Moynahan? We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. Someone should tell Mr. O’Toole.

 

 

 

Why Nobody Trusts Anything They Read Anymore…

Newsweek recently ran an article arguing that wind power really costs more than people think. The story’s italicized tagline identified the author thusly: “Randy Simmons is professor of political economy at Utah State University.”

A respectable (and presumably reliable) credential. As the Daily Kos reported, however,

The Erik Wemple Blog yesterday asked Simmons whether his Newsweek blast at wind power should have contained more information about his ties to some key players in the U.S. energy sector. For instance, between 2008 and 2013, Simmons served as the Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy from 2008 to 2013, in what he terms a “fixed-term professorship.” And Simmons currently supervises a program known at Utah State University as the “Koch Scholars” program, which runs on an annual grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. It’s a “reading group” that meets on Tuesday evenings. “The Koch Foundation grant buys the books, and food and provides a scholarship for each of the 15 students chosen that semester,” writes Simmons in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Surely the Koch’s major fossil fuel holdings and generous underwriting had no effect upon Simmons’ research conclusions. (If you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you.)

When special interests can “buy” (or at least influence) presumably objective research results, is it any wonder that all research is viewed with skepticism?

In an environment where everything is suspect, it becomes so easy to engage in “confirmation bias”–to believe those sources that confirm our preferred worldview, and to dismiss contrary evidence.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style, arguing that constant revelations about corrupt practices in so many major institutions of American life–not just government, but also major league sports, the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals, big business (Enron, Worldcon, et al)–had eaten away the fabric of trust needed in order for society to function. That was before the ubiquity of cell phone cameras had given us evidence of pervasive police misconduct, before stories emerged about phony FBI forensic testimony, before the “banksters” and the Great Recession they triggered…the list goes on.

Democratic governments require a robust civil society in order to function properly. Civil society requires social capital. Social capital–our connection to one another–requires trust and reciprocity.

That trust is hard to come by these days.