Last December, Chapman received a $5 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation to help establish the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, which aims to combine the studies of humanities and economics.
The Charles Koch Foundation is a philanthropic organization that has donated millions of dollars to colleges across the nation to create a “talent pipeline” of libertarian-minded students, according to findings by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative news organization. Charles Koch and his brother, David Koch, are billionaires known to support conservative efforts and groups that deny climate change. The brothers were the subjects of a 2016 book called “Dark Money,” which revealed how they have pooled their wealth to influence academia and U.S. politics.
The $5 million donation, which is part of the $15.8 million that established the Smith Institute, adds to about $177,000 that the foundation donated to Chapman between 2009 and 2015, according to tax records. The money has been used to fund professorships in departments across the school, mainly in economics and philosophy.
“(The foundation wants) to fund positions that will represent a conservative, right-wing, libertarian viewpoint, and that is exactly what the Koch brothers stand for,” said Nubar Hovsepian, the chair of the political science department at Chapman. “I have no problem with people who hold these ideals getting hired. I have a problem when money corrupts the university.”
Hovsepian, whose department has not yet been approached by the institute, said that he would rather step down as chair than accept professors funded by the Charles Koch Foundation.
George Mason University and Florida State University have received the highest total donations from the foundation’s contributions to higher education, according to tax documents up to 2015. In February, George Mason students filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that the donations came with certain conditions and interfered with faculty hiring. At Florida State University, an independent investigation found that programs funded by the foundation pushed a curriculum that matched its ideologies.
Jerry Funt, an alumnus of Florida State University, co-founded “UnKoch My Campus,” a campaign that seeks to expose the “dark money” donated to universities. Funt said he felt like some of his professors were shaping his political ideology during his first semester at the school.
“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,” Funt said. “That’s when I started to look at my classes more critically. I realized that there were whole parts of economic theory that weren’t being covered or were being glossed over as wrong.”
“I have a problem when money corrupts the university.”
When it comes to economics, libertarians generally believe that free-market approaches are the most effective, and that people should have the right to freely offer goods and services without government intervention, according to the Libertarian Party’s website.
University President Daniele Struppa said that the brothers aren’t the kind of conservatives that most people may have in mind, denying that the donations are “dark” and “unethical.”
“Unethical is when you take money and people don’t know that you are taking it. Unethical is when people tell you what to do and you pretend that’s not the case. Unethical is when there is money that is being exchanged under the table,” Struppa said. “Here, everything is completely on the table.”
But not all Chapman professors agree with Struppa.
In late October, a committee in the Argyros School of Business and Economics voted to hire two tenured professors – the highest form of professorship – funded by these donations. While this is only a recommendation to Provost Glenn Pfeiffer, who will make the final decision by the end of this month, Dan Kovenock, a professor in the Economic Science Institute, resigned from his position as chair of that committee, concerned that there was not an open search for the candidates, and that there was a “lack of objectivity” coming from the university, he said.
The candidates recommended for hire are Michael Moses, a contributing editor at libertarian magazine Reason, and Katharine Gillespie, an English professor, who are married to each other. Representatives from the Smith Institute first presented Moses and Gillespie to the English department in September, which voted 15 to six against hiring them.
Before the faculty members voted, English professor Ian Barnard asked Moses during a research presentation in September about the ethical implications of the foundation’s donation. Moses answered the question, but when the video of the presentation circulated among English faculty members, Barnard’s question had been edited out.
“Such a question during a job seminar was rude,” Director of the Smith Institute Bart Wilson wrote to the English department in an email obtained by The Panther.
Later, the video was re-published on YouTube and included Barnard’s question at the end, but the initial censorship was enough for Barnard to vote “no.”
“I don’t want anything to do with this,” Barnard said. “The whole thing is doing a lot of damage to faculty governance at Chapman, that faculty aren’t having a say in this. It’s doing a lot of damage to free speech and critical discussion. If universities aren’t the place where we can have this discussion, then we’re doomed.”
English professor Lynda Hall voted against hiring these professors because she didn’t believe they would add anything new to the department, she said. It was an English faculty member who discovered that the funding had come from the Charles Koch Foundation, Hall said.
“There are always ethical issues if something is hidden,” Hall said. “The foundation’s goal was to change the perspective of liberal higher education, and change the thinking of young people, so they would vote in a way the Koch brothers wanted. That is stopping academic freedom. There is enough balance on campus to counteract this if it comes here, but it can be a cancer, in a sense – where it can filtrate other organs.”
“Unethical is when you take money and people don’t know that you are taking it … Here, everything is completely on the table.”
In response to faculty concerns about the openness of the candidate search, Wilson wrote in an email to The Panther that some senior faculty members in the university are “stretch hires,” which he described as candidates with well-established records and reputations, similar to Moses and Gillespie. There has been one case of a stretch hire in the English department.
In these cases, Wilson wrote, someone from the department brings the candidate to the university’s attention.
Patrick Fuery, dean of Wilkinson College, wrote in an email to The Panther Nov. 14 that he has expressed opposition “numerous times” to hiring these professors in Wilkinson College.
The donations to the Smith Institute have also been used to fund two professor positions in the philosophy department.
Michael Pace, the chair of that department, said he was not aware that part of the money had come from the Charles Koch Foundation until the interview process had already begun last year. The department voted unanimously to hire one of the professors, Bas van der Vossen, who specializes in political philosophy and is a co-editor for the “Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism.”
“I’m a Democrat, so there was an initial ‘ick factor’ when I first thought about it,” Pace said, although he said that he became more comfortable with the idea after vetting the professors and ensuring they weren’t politically biased.
“You’re never going to accept money from a donor with which you agree about every issue, right?” Pace said.
Economics professor Vernon Smith, who was key in securing funding from the foundation, said the sociology department voted against hiring professors funded by the donations.
“We do have faculty that are nervous about the Koch money because we have certainly seen, as you look at things the Koch brothers have funded across the country, that there is a specific political agenda that they want to push,” said Ed Day, chair of the sociology department.
When deciding whether to hire these candidates, Pfeiffer said that where the money comes from “doesn’t matter,” and the school doesn’t consider an organization’s agenda.
“What I consider is the quality of the candidates,” Pfeiffer said. “I’ve never talked to the donors, in this case, the Charles Koch Foundation. I’ve never had any communication with them whatsoever. I’ve never met them … I don’t think we want the politics of the candidates – it’s illegal to consider the politics of the candidates – influencing the hiring decision.”
Smith, a Nobel Prize recipient who grew up near the Koch family in Wichita, Kansas, describes his relationship with the brothers as “acquaintances.” Smith first met Charles Koch, one of the brothers, at a conference in the late 1970s.
When Osborn and Wilson hatched the idea that would eventually lead to the Smith Institute, the foundation was one of the donors on Vernon Smith’s mind, although the foundation was the last to add to the pool of $15.8 million that ultimately funded the institute.
The idea for the Smith Institute was sparked by a popular “humanomics” freshman foundations course, which combines the studies of humanities and economics. The Smith Institute is named for Scottish economist Adam Smith, a proponent of laissez-faire economics, which is a philosophy that opposes government interference. The institute aims to challenge “the perceived tension between economics and the humanities,” according to the institute’s website.
When Vernon Smith sent the initial proposal to executives at the foundation, they liked the idea of humanomics so much, they pledged $5 million, he said.
“It wasn’t like anything else (the foundation was) doing. It was completely different. And they just latched onto it,” Smith said.
Pfeiffer said that the other donors of the Smith Institute wanted to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to get “caught up and have people accusing them of things and being associated with this.”
The schools that receive donations from the Charles Koch Foundation tend to vary in size and prestige, but it has donated the most by far – more than $86 million – to George Mason University, a public school in Fairfax, Virginia. Struppa, Smith and Wilson have all held positions at the school.
“The way that Koch has historically given to universities with specific intent that violates academic freedom and faculty governance, I don’t think there’s a positive there,” said Sam Parsons, a George Mason University ‘16 alumna and co-founder of “UnKoch My Campus.”
At Florida State University, Funt noticed that his classes emphasized only one economic theory, he said. One instructor consistently showed videos from a known libertarian economist. Other economic theories and viewpoints were completely left out of the curriculum.
“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.
Smith said that he doesn’t understand why students wouldn’t be open to understanding the study of economics, something he sees as a “basic tool.”
“If their political view can’t stand the study of another point of view, then it’s not a political view. It’s an ideology,” Smith said. “In other words, you’re so committed to it, you don’t want to expose yourself to any other ideas. What are you afraid of?”
Kate Hoover contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a committee voted to hire the couple as full, tenured professors. However, this specific committee voted only to hire them as tenured professors. This information has been corrected.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented Patrick Fuery’s viewpoint on the hiring of these professors, as it included incorrect information provided by a difference source. The Panther had not contacted Fuery about this issue. The article has been corrected to reflect Fuery’s opposition to hiring these professors in Wilkinson College, and the previous incorrect information has been removed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information provided by a source about stretch hires in the English department. The English department has only one stretch hire, not many. The Panther had not interviewed Joanna Levin, chair of the English department. This information has been corrected.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Thomas W. Smith Foundation as one of the three founding donors for the Smith Institute. That foundation has donated to the humanomics program at Chapman, not the Smith Institute. This information has been removed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified which brother economics professor Vernon Smith met to in the 1970s. It was Charles Koch, not David Koch.