In the midst of the Charles Koch Foundation financing a new institute at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), discussions over the controversial funding and its affect on the future of the school have arisen.
The Charles Koch Foundation recently gifted a $3.5 million startup grant to MTSU in order to help launch the new Political Economy Research Institute. The project was first announced by the university’s president, Sidney McPhee, in January 2017. The goal for the institute is to conduct research in order to better understand business and economic principles and how they impact regional, national and international public-policy issues.
In addition to encouraging undergraduate and graduate students to engage with faculty members, the foundation hopes to provide funding for permanent professional staff, research stipends, marketing and promotional resources and other necessary expenses to operate the foundation on an ongoing basis.
Over the last several decades, the Koch Foundation has made donations to approximately 350 colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale. Polluterwatch, a database that lists every school that has received funding from the Koch Foundation, also includes the location of the school and the total contributions received.
The reason Polluterwatch tracks Koch donations, and the reason why controversy has arisen at MTSU following the announcement of the grant, is that critics of the Koch Foundation have accused the institution of trying to exert political influence through their donations. In fact, Polluterwatch offers a bevy of articles discussing the stipulations that come with receiving grant money from the institute.
Historically, Charles Koch and his brother, David, tend to find and fund conservative and libertarian organizations. As a result, students, faculty and local union members from MTSU have banded together to launch a campaign against the grant because they believe that the funding may be misleading and dangerous to the university.
Six weeks ago, on Feb. 22, a group of students involved in the campaign against the Charles Koch Foundation met with President McPhee to express their concerns about the grant money. The students asked what exactly the Koch grant money would fund and what power it would exert over the hiring process. They also showcased examples of what has happened at similar universities after receiving grant money from the Koch Foundation.
President McPhee has said that the institute will be publicly funded after the startup grant. He also said that he will also be seeking more money from the Koch Foundation in the future.
Opponents of the Koch donations have posted fliers across the MTSU campus to help spread awareness of the perils of accepting money from the foundation. In response, the MTSU College of Business issued a memo stating that the agreement between MTSU and the Charles Koch Foundation is under the complete control of MTSU. Nonetheless, students have continued to express concern about the partnership, especially since the Koch foundation has remained explicit about the fact that its goal is to promote the interests of Koch business ventures.
Once students discovered that MTSU would be accepting grant money from the Koch Foundation, critics of the decision filed three separate freedom of information requests to try to determine where the money is going and how it will affect the campus. So far, there seems to be a lack of transparency in regard to what the new research institute will accomplish, why it is needed and why the Koch Foundation is providing the grant money to it.
David Urban, the dean for the college of business at MTSU, declined to respond to a request for information about the deal. “Regarding the information about the Political Economy Research Institute, all of that communication is coordinated by the University Marketing and Communications Office,” he said over email.
Annie Hobbs, a multimedia journalism student at MTSU, expressed her concern for the lack of transparency regarding where the money will be going and what it will be funding. “I think that it is super sketchy, and if they are using their money for influence that is wrong,” she said. “I would love to see if organizations on campus have actually taken their money and let them influence them. I think that something’s not right with that.”
Elise Bortz, a student at New York University — a school that received funding from the Koch foundation — shared a different opinion, giving an innocuous description of the foundation and its influence. “I know the organization has been involved with our law school in shaping criminal-justice reform and shaping our general policing system to be more democratic,” Bortz said. “I’m not sure where the foundation stands, but normally anything liberal NYU agrees with.”
According to UnKoch My Campus, Koch Industries is a highly diversified corporation, but they have business interests that drive them to oppose regulations that protect public interest. The corporation has not only frequently violated environmental regulations, but has also repeatedly shown a criminal inclination throughout history.
A 1989 U.S. Senate investigation found that, through fraudulent mis-measuring and reporting, Koch Oil orchestrated a scheme to steal oil from Native Americans and other groups. Their plan resulted in the theft of at least $31 million worth of oil from Native American lands.
In 1999, Koch was convicted for negligence and malice in the death of two Texas teenagers due to a faulty gas pipeline explosion. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Koch Petroleum had dumped high-ammonia wastewater and jet fuel in Minnesota and then covered-up the incident.
The Department of Justice found that, in 2001, Koch purposefully concealed the illegal dumping of at least 91 tons of benzene into Texas waterways. In 2016, a historic gas spill took place in Shelby County, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of gas being leaked, as well as several deadly explosions, which claimed one life. Despite being the largest owner of the Colonial Pipeline, Koch Industries avoided all liability for the spill.
Given their tawdry track record, the Koch Foundation seems like the last institution a bastion of higher learning would agree to take money from, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Instead, the foundation works hard to pair with and influence colleges, mostly through its philanthropy program, a strategy known as the “Structure of Social Change.”
The methodology is rooted in a core idea: that by funding universities to produce research and teach curricula that supports ideas that Koch wants to propagate at the local, state and national levels, the foundation exerts a grassroots influence over the mindsets of entire populations.
After their funding bankrolls the initial research process, the Koch Foundation then finances think tanks to turn those ideas into policy papers and AstroTurf organizations to advocate for those policies. Koch Industries also oftentimes provides direct campaign contributions to state and federal representatives, which increases the likelihood that they can manipulate the politicians into voting a certain way.
The foundation will often attach stipulations to their donations in order to ensure that recipient universities operate in a manner that aligns with Koch strategy. For instance, they might request a certain amount of influence over the hiring and firing of faculty, development of new programs and curriculum and research. No political donor should have this kind of control, as such a degree of influence violates the standard academic principles of intellectual freedom and faculty governance.
To combat the organization’s pull, critics have formed groups, such as UnKoch My Campus, to demand transparency when dealing with shadowy political engines. The organization supports students, faculty and community members in an effort to expose and prevent donors like the Koch Foundation from being able to buy an academic institute and use it to advance their political agenda.
— News | MTSUSidelines (@Sidelines_News) March 6, 2018
UnKoch My Campus investigates every investment the Koch Foundation makes in higher education, before then pointing out the ways in which the foundation’s donations violate standard academic principles. They then make that information accessible to campus stakeholders to use how they see fit.
Many of these concerns about the ulterior motives of the Koch Foundation are based on documents exposed by faculty members at Florida State University (FSU). These documents detailed how FSU agreed to give the Koch Foundation influence over hiring, curriculum and research in exchange for a multi-million-dollar donation.
As of now, MTSU has hired a director for the Political Economy Research Institute, who will be starting in May 2018. The initial goals of this program will include facilitating research and the teaching of principles of economics and management as applied to many different organizations.
The new research institute also hopes to leverage the university’s geographical position and previous research to inform public-policy debates on issues of importance to Tennessee, some of which include: cost and availability of health care, quality of the business climate, priorities of K-12 and higher education and the effect of state and local regulation and taxes.
For now, due to the lack of transparency, it is uncertain how exactly this foundation will affect the university in the future. However, many students and faculty members are still concerned about the university’s right to public education, as such transparency seems contrary to the aims of the Koch Foundation.