Dear Commons Community,
There have been concerns for years that the Charles Koch Foundation was overly involved in the selection of faculty related to donations it had made to George Mason University. In response to an open-records request, George Mason released a series of agreements between the institution and donors to fund the appointments of economics professors between 2003 and 2011. The agreements show that the Koch Foundation and other donors had room to influence the selection and work of the professors whose positions they spent millions to support. Last Friday, Ángel Cabrera, the university’s president, sent an email to faculty members saying that the agreements, which were signed before he took over at George Mason, “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“On Monday (yesterday) night, Cabrera announced in an email to faculty members that he had requested a review of “all active donor agreements supporting faculty positions throughout the university to ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters.” He also ordered a review of the university’s gift-acceptance policies and said that one gift agreement that is still active would be voided and the remaining $67,935 would be transferred to the university for “general support.”
As the Koch Foundation has nurtured relationships with colleges and universities across the country, it has found an especially close partner in George Mason. From 2011 to 2014, the foundation gave nearly $48 million to the university, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. The money aided George Mason’s ascent as an influential voice for conservative, free-market principles in law and economics.
But it has also left faculty and students speculating about the extent to which the foundation has used its gifts to dictate the direction of the law and economics programs. Samantha Parsons, a George Mason alumna, developed concerns in 2012, when she was a freshman at the university. She said in an interview that Cabrera’s email was validating. She’d spent years trying to shed light on the relationship between her university and the Koch Foundation and had been rebuffed, she said.
“They painted a lot of the faculty and students asking about this as conspiracy theorists,” Parsons said. “As they kept refusing our questions, saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here,’ my curiosity got best of me.”
Parsons, who graduated in 2016, now works full-time at a campaign she helped create, called UnKoch My Campus, which seeks to reveal the details of the Koch Foundation’s agreements with various universities that have received its funds.
Parsons filed her first open-records request in 2013, but it was one she filed in March that prompted the university to send her the gift agreements that she received on Friday. (The institution also sent the agreements to The Washington Post, which first reported on their contents and Cabrera’s email.) Parsons also helped found a group called Transparent GMU while she was a student. The group is currently involved in a lawsuit meant to pressure the George Mason University Foundation to release gift agreements, the Post reported.
Among the agreements released on Friday were some that outline a relationship between the university, the Koch Foundation or other donors, and the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank that is based at George Mason, employs many of its economics professors, and supports some of the department’s graduate students, but that operates independently of the university.
Some of the agreements contained stipulations allowing the donors to appoint members of a committee that oversees the professorships. Donors were also involved in the creation of advisory boards that would assess the professors’ performance.
An agreement from 2003, for example, outlines the terms for a faculty-chair position at the Mercatus Center. The chair, supported by a pledge from the trust of the St. Louis businessman Menlo F. Smith, was created “to increase understanding of economics based on the principles of free markets, private property, limited constitutional government, rule of law, and individual freedom with responsibility and to expand public support of these principles,” according to the document.
The agreement stipulated that five people would serve on the selection committee to name a chairholder: the president of Mercatus, the chair of the economics department, two people chosen by George Mason officials, and one “member designated by Menlo F. Smith or his descendants.”
Cabrera’s email on Friday said that the agreements “raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.” He noted that they did not give donors control over academic decisions and said that all but one of the agreements had expired — the agreement that on Monday he declared void.
“Since I arrived at Mason in 2012, I have made it a priority to have all gift agreements clearly uphold our commitment to academic independence,” the email said. “Gifts may be earmarked for programs, scholarships, or faculty support, but donors may not determine what is taught, what student is funded, or what professor is hired. If these terms are not acceptable to donors, the gifts are kindly declined.”
John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, said in a statement that the agreements are old and were not unusual for the time in which they were written. He noted that the foundation has removed clauses that gave it a say in proposing candidates from its more recent grant agreements with universities.
“We champion academic freedom and do not seek to influence the hiring practices of university departments nor have input on curricular or research decisions,” the statement said.
On Monday, UnKoch My Campus also published more than 700 pages of largely redacted documents that were sent in response to an open-records request made by a 2004 graduate of the university’s law school, Allison Pienta. Pienta was seeking information on the source of an anonymous $20-million gift that was made to George Mason’s law school as part of a decision in 2016 to rename it the Antonin Scalia Law School. (The Koch Foundation gave an additional $10 million.) The documents show that the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a conservative membership organization, was involved in the donation, Pienta said.
The new disclosures may rekindle a debate over donations that had ignited after the plan to rename the law school was announced. (At the time, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution protesting what it saw as the administration’s lack of transparency about its donor agreements.) Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science, said the gift agreements are “textbook violations of academic freedom.”
When she asked about the university’s relationship with the Koch Foundation, Letiecq, who serves as president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, she said she heard the same line as Parsons.
“President Cabrera has been reassuring us for years, ‘Saying trust us,’” Letiecq said. “It’s getting harder and harder to believe that we should be trusting him.”
There is no shame among the Koch Brothers and other vulture philanthropists who smirked at the way they can buy influence with college presidents.