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.