There has been a fair amount of brouhaha on campuses over the years over contributions that the Charles Koch Foundation makes to universities. At a time when many schools face growing financial constraints, support of private groups like Koch help ease the burden of funding vital teaching and research missions. Moreover, when there is overwhelming evidence that the faculty of most schools have a pronounced left-of-center political orientation, contributions from groups like Koch that support market-driven and non-governmental solutions to problems contribute to a needed dose of enhanced intellectual diversity on campuses.
Full disclosure: this writer has received grants from the Koch Foundation (I am told that nearly 900 faculty, at over 300 schools, received Koch money last year), and currently has a modest-sized grant allowing him and a Florida State philosophy professor to take American students to Prague for a week of intensive study in classical liberal principles important in the emergence of Western civilization (the program, in its seventh year, has been extraordinarily successful in exciting young scholars about the roots of American and European economic, political, and social exceptionalism). It would be a grotesque exaggeration, however, to assert that I depend on Koch for my daily bread.
What are the critics of Koch support complaining about? The argument is that Koch imposes its values on universities, demanding excessive control on how grant money is dispersed. A number of years ago, the battle was waged at Florida State, but more recently attention has turned to the large amounts of grants Koch has made to George Mason University for its Mercatus Center and other initiatives, and to Montana State University (MSU), where Koch made a $5.7 million grant to two faculty members who, in turn, wanted to create a new academic center, a move recently rejected by a 13 to 12 vote by MSUs faculty senate (the grant will continue, however).
One concern is that a violation of academic freedom occurs when Koch imposes excessive restrictions on grant usage, especially when, as apparently was a case with some grants made many years ago, Koch exercises significant influence over the selection of professors funded by the grant. While excessive donor interference is a potential problem, it has been generally overstated. Moreover, donors should have the right to offer to fund various initiatives in keeping with their academic interests. If George Soros (whose generosity I have also benefited from) wants to fund studies on expanding governmental entitlements, I see nothing wrong with it if the institution is agreeable. Koch Foundation funding, of say, studies on the benefits of deregulation, while ideologically quite different, should be treated similarly. As Chairman Mao is incorrectly quoted saying, Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Here is my somewhat contrarian spin on the controversy. Rather than promoting academic freedom, the critics of the Koch Foundation are attempting to stifle intellectual diversity and impose a monopoly of ideas on college campuses. The anti-Koch critics have organized into groups such as UnKoch My Campus, devoted, according to its website, to a cooperative campaign to expose and expel undue donor influence in academia, adding that dark money has undermined democratic institutions.... Somehow Koch Foundation money is dark (whatever that means) but Ford Foundation, National Science Foundation or Tom Steyer money is okay, or at least non-dark.
There is a legitimate question about whether, in public universities, donors should be able to support programs anonymously, since arguably this is a violation of a transparency principle that normally governs public institutions. Yet many donors, regardless of ideological orientation, fervently want to make their gifts without publicity, and if total transparency were required, private support of higher education would decline. Universities can always reject the money if they see a potential problem with respect to academic freedom or a perceived support of something inimical to basic principles of free inquiry. Therefore, it is this writers sense that anonymous gifts should be acceptable if they support the universitys mission.
The Koch funding has expanded academic resources and intellectual diversity at schools across the land. Academics should rejoice that there are public-spirited citizens like Charles Koch, who in the tradition of such great wealthy philanthropists as Leland Stanford, Johns Hopkins, John D. Rockefeller and others want to expand the dissemination and creation of knowledge.