Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article today on the Charles Koch Foundation and its higher education grant programs. Formed in 1980, the Foundation last year awarded $77 million, including $50 million in grants to 249 colleges. Some of the Foundation’s operations have been controversial in terms of the nature of the stipulations of its grants. As a result, a number of colleges and universities have declined grants from Koch. A website, UnKoch My Campus, has been created that monitors the Foundation’s activities. Here is an excerpt from The Chronicle article:
“Increasingly the Koch Foundation’s college grants have supported the creation of on-campus academic centers focused on a particular topic. Often that topic involves economics, and often a faculty member seen as sympathetic to Mr. Koch’s vision directs research topics and the selection of faculty and students.
The Foundation’s latest annual filing shows its giving remains robust, especially among more renowned institutions like Harvard and MIT. According to an analysis of the Foundation’s latest annual financial disclosures by UnKoch My Campus, a watchdog group that opposes the Foundation’s campus inroads, the $50 million represents a 49-percent jump from 2015, when the Charles Koch Foundation gave out $34 million in grants. The 249 campuses at which anyone at the institution has received some money represent another record high, up from 222 in 2015, according to the group.
The reputational heft of that list keeps improving. After a period of concentrating its biggest gifts among mostly smaller regional institutions, the Koch Foundation’s top partners — those getting at least $100,000 a year — now include the likes of Purdue, the University of Notre Dame, Harvard, Brown, New York, and Georgetown Universities, the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State, the University of North Carolina, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Duke, UCLA, the University of Chicago and MIT.
On the other hand, resistance has coalesced on many campuses, especially after faculty members from several universities were recorded at a conference last year enthusiastically acknowledging the political power that Koch Foundation money has given them at their institutions. The Foundation ended the year adding only 44 first-time campuses, falling below the average gain of the previous five years for the second straight time. And with 69 campuses dropping off Koch’s list in 2016, it was also the second straight year in which the Foundation lost more campuses than it added.
The declines suggest that some campus efforts to oppose Koch money have borne fruit, said Ralph Wilson, one of the founders of UnKoch My Campus, which secretly recorded the faculty statements at conference sessions and has now compiled summaries of the latest Koch Foundation donor data. Yet over all, Mr. Wilson said, the shifts in Koch’s donor patterns — including its growing inroads among elite institutions — more likely indicates that the Foundation has evolved and adapted, even as opposition toughens on some campuses.
“It makes sense that Koch is expanding on prestigious beachhead campuses to legitimize their programs,” Mr. Wilson said. “But the more that faculty know about Koch’s contracts and strategy, the more they are trying to resist its influence.”
A spokeswoman for the Koch Foundation, however, cautioned against making too much of the Foundation’s list of 2016 grant recipients, as Koch works with “schools of all types and sizes.” The spokeswoman, Trice Jacobson, said that absences of funding for any particular campus in any given year can be temporary, not indicative of a broader strategy. “The shifts in calendar-year giving are part of the natural academic giving cycle,” she said. “Our vision is to support any school that has exciting opportunities for professors and students.”
Mr. Koch and his brother, David H. Koch, own Koch Industries, which operates oil refineries and pipelines and owns an assortment of consumer-goods producers. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political campaigns to advance the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, challenge the science of climate change, and promote smaller government and fewer regulations of all types. They are a guiding force behind Donors Trust, a fund that lets allies anonymously make and coordinate large political donations, and — according to Mr. Wilson’s group — is itself now getting more involved in funding universities.
At the same time, the Kochs extensively finance medical research and the arts, and they promote some political positions that transcend conservative politics or are typically associated with the political left. Those include criminal-justice reform — the Kochs have emphasized high incarceration rates among lower-income youth as a problem — and opposition to U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts.
And while the Foundation clearly courts conservative academics and students, it does not support them exclusively. “I would rely on the scholars to determine best what issues they’re going to pursue, what research they’re going to do, and what they’re going to do with that research,” John C. Hardin, the Foundation’s director of university relations, told The Chronicle last year. “Our place is just to provide the funding so that they’re able to do it.”
Grant recipients are judged, generally, by whether they reach a goal they set, such as numbers of students enrolling in a class or attending a speech, or the number of research publications tied to a grant, Mr. Hardin said. “We do not read the work, typically, that they have produced,” he said. “We might in some cases, but that’s not a standard practice of any kind.”
Interesting article that provides a balanced perspective on the Koch Foundation while alerting the reader to beware.