More than 50 professors attend forum held to address concerns about Charles Koch Foundation donation

As of January 2017, the Charles Koch Foundation had donated to 319 universities. President Daniele Struppa said that the number is now 350. Graphic by Emma Stessman

Some faculty members expressed concerns at a March 29 open forum about donations to Chapman University from the Charles Koch Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has donated millions of dollars to colleges across the nation to help create a “talent pipeline” of libertarian-minded students.

The forum was held for President Daniele Struppa and Provost Glenn Pfeiffer to address a series of “misunderstandings, miscommunications and increasing animosity” among faculty members, said David Pincus, the faculty senate president who helped organize the event.

The organization’s $5 million donation in December 2016 helped establish the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, which aims to combine the studies of humanities and economics. Some professors raised questions about the transparency and integrity of the donation process.

“It’s ultimately the responsibility of the president to ensure that we don’t violate ethical rules,” Struppa told The Panther. “If you don’t think that’s the case, then you should get a new president. I’m not going to work in a university where people don’t trust me.”

Charles Koch and his brother, David Koch, are Kansas-based billionaires known to support conservative efforts and groups that, among other things, deny climate change. The brothers were the subjects of the 2016 book “Dark Money,” in which investigative journalist Jane Mayer revealed how they have pooled their wealth to influence academia and U.S. politics.

Koch

Koch

At least 50 faculty members attended the two-hour forum, and attendees were allowed to submit anonymous questions and comments ahead of the event. Some professors told The Panther that the faculty members who head the Smith Institute and the institute’s new hires – who are partly funded by the Charles Koch Foundation – have been professionally attacked because of their involvement.

“It was rough to watch,” Pincus said. “The faculty are really being mistreated here by the faculty who are opposing them. They’ve had to endure a lot of unwarranted and intense criticism.”

To Dan Kovenock, a professor in the Economic Science Institute, the forum was a failed attempt to make the faculty feel like they have a say in the process. Kovenock said that most of his questions weren’t addressed, and found it “disingenuous” that Struppa insisted he followed the desires of the faculty at the forum.

The $5 million donation, which is combined with $10 million from two anonymous donors, has helped fund between eight and 10 professorships at Chapman, Struppa said. The funding will last five years, and after that, faculty can try to seek more money from the Charles Koch Foundation, or the university will pay the professors’ salaries out of its own budget.

Struppa is confident that the foundation will continue to financially support the university, whether it’s to keep paying Smith Institute professors or fund other projects, he said, adding that he thinks the university has a “good relationship” with the foundation.

“This is the way that (the Charles Koch Foundation) works,” Kovenock said. “If they like what they see, then they generally keep funding. That’s basically how they have some control over what is done with the money that they give, even though they don’t have explicit contractual control.”

But Struppa said there are no real conditions on whether the foundation donates more money – it’s more about developing a relationship with donors, he said.

Graphic by Emma Reith

“Nobody’s telling (the Smith Institute) what to do, and nobody’s telling them who to hire,” Struppa said. “There is nothing odd going on here. There is nothing hidden.”

At Florida State University, a 2017 independent investigation found that programs funded by the foundation pushed a curriculum that matched its libertarian ideologies. Jerry Funt, a Florida State alumnus, told The Panther in November that he felt like some of his professors started to shape his political beliefs.

“I was almost sold on these ideals, even though they were completely different from what I had been taught in the past – until I found out about this funding,” said Funt, who co-founded UnKoch My Campus, a campaign that seeks to expose the “dark money” donated to universities.

When Funt started looking at his classes more critically after his first semester at Florida State, he realized that entire parts of economic theory weren’t covered or were glossed over as wrong, he said.

“Charles Koch has said himself, people who represent the foundation have said themselves: The intent of this giving to universities is for the protection of a certain ideology. It’s not at the benefit of the universities. The universities are merely tools to be used to achieve the means to an end,” Funt said.

Lisa Leitz, the chair of the peace studies department, said she’s “not a fan” of the foundation, and that she’s been calling for more clarity with all faculty who are hired using donations after she found out about the $5 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation.

“I want to keep arguing for process and for transparency, because when you take Koch money, which I would argue is some of the most controversial one could take, it’s really important both for other donors and for the reputation of the university,” Leitz said.

Some professors believe that the university is following in the footsteps of George Mason University, which has received the highest total donations from the foundation, according to tax documents up to 2015. Struppa, Smith Institute Director Bart Wilson, and Nobel laureate and Chapman professor Vernon Smith, who was key in securing the funding from the foundation, are all former employees of George Mason.

I think that it’s fairly clear that the president has in mind a model that’s very similar to what was implemented at George Mason.”

In February 2017, George Mason students filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that the donations came with certain conditions and interfered with faculty hiring. Last month, the university received $5 million more from the organization to hire three tenure-track professors in the economics department.

“I think that it’s fairly clear that the president has in mind a model that’s very similar to what was implemented at George Mason, which means that I think we can see in the future quite a bit of money that’s targeted toward specific policy interests of the wealthy donors,” Kovenock said.

But Struppa stressed that, if faculty are opposed to becoming like George Mason, they “don’t know anything” about the Fairfax, Virginia-located school, which he says has many liberal departments.

“When they say, ‘We don’t want to follow that model,’ what are their worries, then, about that model?” said Struppa, who was the dean of the school’s College of Humanities and Sciences. “Is the worry that you can’t have one department that is conservative? Is that so abominable that you can’t afford to have one department out of 19 (at George Mason) that thinks differently? That’s kind of a mind control that bothers me.”

It’s ultimately the responsibility of the president to ensure that we don’t violate ethical rules. If you don’t think that’s the case, you should get a new president.”

Kovenock believes many of faculty’s concerns weren’t addressed at the forum because it will help Struppa’s case, when pursuing conservative donors, if he isn’t as responsive to “overly liberal faculty members.”

But Struppa said that supporting donations, even from controversial foundations like the Charles Koch Foundation, is an integral part of academic freedom, and is something he’d do regardless of the political ideology of the donors. He believes that everything was discussed openly at the forum – it was that some faculty didn’t agree with his responses.

“I didn’t hold back a single thing. I am not hiding anything. And I told (forum attendees) explicitly, I will take again money from the Kochs,” Struppa said. “Just in the same way in which I will support the right of every faculty to seek money from whatever (legal) funder they find.”