by Mario Rizzo
Recently, there has been a ruckus, as discussed in today’s Wall Street Journal, over some grants to Florida State University from Charles and David Koch to support professorships in economics. The objections seem to be that the Koch money will be used to support right-wing ideologues who, presumably, will indoctrinate the students. Furthermore, this would seem to be a violation of academic freedom – or so the critics argue – because the Kochs like to promote free-market ideas and not pro state-control ideas.
We could easily criticize people on the left for not objecting to money coming from George Soros and the like. But let that pass. What is the critics’ notion of academic freedom?
Do they object to the state using tax money to support research and institutions of higher learning? Clearly not. (If so, Florida State University would be down the tubes.) But this process involves the state choosing to give some people and institutions in the “marketplace of ideas” privileged status over others. It is as if the state were to subsidize some newspapers and journals and not others.
Do they object to grants by the National Science Foundation (a government entity) to fund economic research? The money empowers a certain group of mainstream academics to reproduce themselves and their ideas. If you wish to pursue other approaches to economics – for example, more humanistic style analysis – you are completely out of luck. In the absence of other sources, you can go on the street with a cup.
It is true that the Kochs have specific interests – an agenda, so to speak. But as long as the people appointed to the professorships they sponsor or endow pass the usual tests of academic competence, the process ensures a greater variety of ideas and approaches than otherwise would be the case.
I know some of the individuals in the Florida State case and I know them to be honest, competent and devoted to the best standards of the academic life.
Just to make my position clear: I also welcome the activities of George Soros and entities he has financed because, once again, opportunities are created for a greater variety of viewpoints and approaches than would be the case if only established-approved sources of funding were available.
Finally, what about the students? In my years as a professor I have found that students thrive when they are exposed to different ideas – homogeneity kills their spirits. Unless the whole department is of one view students will get challenged with a variety of approaches. That is all to the good.
The Koch brothers and those at Florida State who accepted the grant are in the best tradition of academic freedom.
Disclosure: Let me first say that I have never been the direct recipient of money from any of the Kochs in sponsoring my research or paying my professorial salary. I have received small honoraria here and there through organizations that have been partly funded by the Kochs. In 1977 I received a grant of about $16,000 to fund a conference at NYU. More recently, I have been involved in setting up a fellowship in legal studies at the NYU Law School sponsored both by the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust.