In Defense of the Koch Brothers and Academic Freedom

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.

12 thoughts on “In Defense of the Koch Brothers and Academic Freedom

  1. Donations (large ones, with ideological strings attached, like those attached to gifts from George Soros and the Koch brothers) are turned down by the likes of Harvard when they come from Arabs or others with pro-Palestinian agendas.

    Harvard, alma mater of Marty Peretz.

  2. Every donor has an agenda (i.e., ends) in offering a grant — including, especially, government officials. There is no free money. Period.

    I’ve had various relationships with the Koch family over the years, similar to what Mario described. The only agenda I’ve observed is a commitment to individual liberty.

  3. Good post.

    I wonder why people are troubled at all. Everybody has an agenda. The Kochs do not take money from people. They redistribute their own profits voluntarily. This allow for an additional position (not replace one) and thereby improves conditions at universities without additional tax money. Everybody wins.

    Of course a donor can decide on whether this has to be a chair for monetary economics, environmental economics or enterprise studies. When people fund cancer research, they often have family members that have cancer and find that the state does not do enough. But I do not see how this is problematic.

    The problem is that the state is considered something neutral and external to the system with no self-interest. And companies not.

    But it would be ridiculous to assume the state would be able to decide exactly what kind of research is needed. At least it is voluntary. I wonder how many people would be willing to accept a tax increase for an additional chair in econ departments.

    Not too many, otherwise state universities would be funded much better. This is true for both the US and Germany.

  4. While hunting for a doctoral fellowship, the only organization I have met that actually wanted to dictate the direction, and to some extent the content of the research, have been unable to find any student willing to sign for their program. And there are a lot of prospective PhD candidates that are desperate for a fellowship, so that probably says something important about academic freedom and ethics…

    It is true that every donor has an agenda, private or otherwise. But at the same time, there is a lot of myths surrounding the funding of scientific research, at least in economics. As someone who has received money indirectly through organizations that I believe are, or have been in the past, partly funded by the Koch brothers (but then again I don’t really know), and also through government funded programs (not in the USA), the level of freedom in your research from both kind of funding is enormous. From my experience the funding is always unconditional to the results, for different reasons.

    In the private sector, I really feel like the dominant characteristic of most programs, Koch or Soros or others, is just fostering discussion, with the optimistic belief that their worldview will prevail in the end. There is a screening process, looking for the presence of the seeds of what can lead to “their agenda”, but it is wrong to think that they select the most radical or ideological people to work with, or that they have, or even that they would like to have, a tight control over what the guys say or write.

    With public funding, you usually have to demonstrate that you are “one of them” to the comity awarding the funding. That’s because most of these programs end up being dominated by the research group that is the most effective at rent seeking. If you pass the screening, you’re pretty much free to do whatever the hell you want until the end of your contract. The people in charge don’t really know what you’re doing, and by the time you have results the people on the commissions have changed, there are new elected officials, and no one really has incentives to look deep into what has really been done. And they trust their screening process. You just have to have results to show by the end. The focus being now almost exclusively on publications, publications you must have, whatever the ideological penchant.

    So I really think that what people should really be looking at is how jobs and scholarships are actually awarded, not the origin of the money.

  5. Right on Mario.

    However, you do sidestep the piece I think has troubled critics the most: the role of the donor in the hiring process. Though it does make me a tad queasy, I completely understand the Koch Foundation’s desire to solve the principal-agent problem and ensure that their intent is carried forward. (Having annual reporting and renewal is a very effective way for the Foundation to do so too.)

    If we are going to defend the Kochs in the FSU case, we are going to have to address the question of the hiring process, even if it’s just to say it’s no big deal.

  6. Of course Steve has an important point. But I have witnessed many selection (hiring) processes that have nothing to do with “outside” money. People need to keep in mind that there is nothing immaculate about that. In fact, often the letters of support that are solicted for a candidate are done so with the prior knowledge that will be positive or negative. So the faculty can claim to have consulted “objective” outside judgment. Ideology can play a role here in reinforcing the existing prejudices of the department.

    But as long as there is sufficient diversity across universities and an openness to the creation of “research clusters” within departments, I think — in the big picture –the precise hiring proceedure (absent outrageous violation of academic standards) is noise. That is why I think that diversity in the sources of funding is a very good thing.

    Just think of how terrible it would be if the only money available were pro-establishment or from some centralized objective-scientific planning committee.

  7. None of the professors who gave me the A grades resulting in my summa cum laude baccalaureate would write letters of recommendation for graduate school. They could not fault my work, but they did not want me to be a peer. As it was, I had taken a grad class as an undergraduate and I returned to my alma mater for a master’s. With different professors, I did find some supporters. Interestingly, they are generally of the same political leanings as the others, but, for a variety of personal reasons, far different in how they value open discussion.

    My degrees are in criminology and social science. Broad theories are nice – we have so many of them – but it always comes down to individuals.

  8. Many people sincerely believe “I am objective, you are ideological.” Those with a different perspective are either bad or stupid. Thus, the Koch money is some mix of stupid and evil and very much to be avoided, whereas the NSF or Soros or whatever is just trying to illuminated the unwashed. People can find is hard to recognize the asymmetry at work here.

  9. Though I appreciate Steve Horwitz’s point about donor sign-off on the hiring decision, I don’t feel as bothered as he does. Besides Mario observations in response to Steve, may I suggest that “someone” will have to participate and decide on who gets hired.

    Too often donors for university or college chairs or programs have been “burned” with the money taken on a set of promises or understandings that have later been unfulfilled or even turned into its opposite.

    If I were to give money for cancer research, I would expect the money to be used for cancer research — not some other area of scientific investigation.

    There have been too many cases in the past in which some one donated money either while they were alive or in their will for, say, a “chair in free enterprise.” Yet, either from the start or at some point, the chair holder and activities undertaken by the chair holder have had little to do or in fact philosophically opposite from what the donor had expected or been promised.

    How I got on the email list I have no idea, but I occasionally get contribution requests from “The Nation” magazine. The latest saying they need “my” money to fight the good fight to preserve entitlement programs against profit-seeking “business interests” trying to destroy America’s “progressive” accomplishments.

    I would like to see the reaction from a “progressive” donor who made a contribution to help fund such articles, and then saw that the content of the articles actually published called for the abolition of the welfare state.

    When millions of dollars are sometimes being given, I see no problem with some role for donor participation and acceptance in filling a chair (or in funding a research project) that their money is paying for.

    The fact is, that accept for a very small number of universities or colleges, or some departments at some university or college, the academic world is dominated and controlled by (broadly defined) “the left.”

    And since many on “the left” implicitly assume the Marxian idea that the “exploiting business class” has no intellectual honesty but merely wishes to manipulate ideas to maintain their property power position (the ideological social “superstructure”), they have few (or at least fewer) qualms about denying supporters of classical liberalism or free markets a fair hearing in academic arena. Including taking other people’s money and then using it for their “causes” and ideas.

    Thus, people like the Koch Brothers better hold on to the purse strings to make sure the money is going for what has been promised.

    Richard Ebeling

  10. I don’t recall the source, but someone recently observed that American liberals are the only pepole who believe they have no ideology. All other groups understand that everyone has an ideology.

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