By James Piereson
There is an old saying in politics that "They don't scream unless you hurt them." When your adversaries scream, it is a good sign that your measures have been effective. Judged by this standard, the Koch Brothers (David and Charles) have been very effective in recent years in advancing their causes of limited government and classical liberalism, much to the discomfort of liberal foes promoting business regulation, higher taxes, and ObamaCare.
The Koch brothers have been on the receiving end of non-stop attacks from liberal journalists and academics ever since Jane Mayer published a hit piece on them last year in The New Yorker purporting to show that their contributions were behind the rise of the "Tea Party" movement. This wildly exaggerated claim was meant to cast the Koch brothers as great villains, but villains possessed of a satanic combination of power and tactical brilliance. In a predictable course, Mayer's fairy tale was circulated by the columnists and editorial writers of the New York Times and from there through a network of second-level columnists and political magazines until at length it came to the attention of the credulous foot soldiers of the liberal-left who have kept the pot boiling in recent months with ever more inventive and exaggerated versions of the original lie.
The latest controversy surrounding the Kochs arises from an article published last week in the St. Petersburg Times titled, "Billionaire's Role in Hiring Decisions at Florida State University Raises Questions." The author insinuates that the Koch Foundation was trying to "buy off" the Economics Department at Florida State University through a $1.5 million grant (paid over six years) to hire new faculty and to support graduate fellowships under a program in "political economy and free enterprise." Under the grant, a three-person faculty committee was set up to review candidates for the positions, including one member designated by the Foundation. The paper suggested that by designating a member of the review committee the Foundation was undermining academic freedom by interfering in the faculty's right to appoint colleagues on the basis of professional competence.
Fortunately, the president of the university and members of the Economics Department have stepped forward to set the record straight and to defend the grant. The faculty of the Economics Department unanimously approved the grant and viewed it as a vehicle for expanding and strengthening its undergraduate course offerings. The complaints about the grant originated from two faculty members at Florida State who are not even affiliated with the Economics Department and whose motives were political and not academic. The faculty screened applicants and then passed a short list of 50 candidates to the review committee, which recommended a final list of 16 candidates. In the end, two assistant professors were hired, but neither came from that final list of candidates but from an expanded list recommended by the faculty and approved by the committee. It is obvious that this layered process protected the faculty’s responsibility to make appointments while also protecting the donor’s intent in awarding the grant.
The Economics Department at Florida State is one of the nation’s best and includes many eminent scholars on its faculty roster. To suggest they could be “bought off” by a donor, or that the Koch Foundation would even want to “buy them off,” is a slander both against the Department and the donor. It may be safely predicted that this particular controversy will soon pass away for want of substance, no doubt to be succeeded by another equally implausible.
This kind of grant is in no way unusual in higher education. Donors constantly enter into agreements with colleges and universities to make gifts for particular purposes, often with detailed conditions attached, which affect the hiring of faculty or the kinds of research undertaken on campus. If donors could not attach such conditions, then they would not make the gifts This is well understood by both parties to the transactions.
Occasionally these agreements are broken, leading to disputes or litigation between donors and universities. Some years ago the Bass family asked Yale University to return a substantial gift when it became obvious that the faculty had no intention of implementing a liberal arts curriculum as required by the deed of gift. Academic freedom, while an important principle in academic governance, should not be expanded to mean that faculties have a right to misspend a donor’s money.
For decades now liberal foundations and the federal government have been trying to use grants to shape college and university faculties in a left-wing direction. They have done so by forcing institutions to adopt gender and racial preferences as conditions for grants and by requiring faculties to adopt new programs in gender and racial studies – all of which have a pronounced left-wing bias. For decades the Ford Foundation has pushed gender and racial studies in college curricula as a means of turning the college campus into a base for left-wing politics. These efforts have largely succeeded in part because the funds available for left-wing causes dwarfs the funds controlled by conservative or libertarian donors. Recent studies show that liberals and leftists outnumber conservatives on academic faculties by a ratio of about 10 to 1. In many fields, there are hardly any conservatives to be found at all.
For years at the John M. Olin Foundation, we asked academic partners to run the names of faculty candidates by us before attaching John Olin’s name to them. This was always done in an informal way. We rarely rejected any candidate put forward on this basis (I can recall only one such occasion). The point of this exercise was not to tell faculty who and who not to hire but only to make certain that the Foundation’s funds were spent in a manner consistent with our aims. In many cases this was done to protect our partners against the influence of colleagues who wanted to re-direct the funds to other purposes. I always trusted the judgment and the competence of the faculty members with whom we worked and so always gave them a wide berth in running their programs as they wished. If we did not like the way things were going, we could always terminate the grant after the initial period, which occasionally happened.
In the past I have served on an advisory committee for a prestigious New York foundation that awards grants to colleges and universities for professorships and graduate fellowships. The program, while neither liberal nor conservative, does have an “agenda” of sorts. One of the requirements of its grants is that recipient institutions must submit the resumes of candidates to the advisory committee for approval before allocating the designated funds. The institutions that have received grants under this program include many of the most influential and prestigious in the country. This program has operated smoothly for more than two decades with nary a peep of protest heard from any institution about academic freedom, the independence of faculty, or underhanded efforts by a foundation to “buy off” academic departments.
The controversy surrounding this particular grant by the Koch Foundation has nothing to do with the substance of the case and everything to do with the high profile the Koch brothers have achieved in the political imagination of the American left. Kudos to them for putting their money behind their principles! Those screams you hear are evidence of success.
James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of the Center for the American University.