‘Every dollar has a string attached’: UnKoch My Campus co-founder talks donations

UnKoch

Ralph Wilson, the co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, a campaign that seeks to expose the Charles Koch Foundation’s “dark money” donated to universities, spoke to about 40 Chapman students and faculty April 24. Photo by Maya Jubran

Amid faculty tensions regarding donations to Chapman University from the controversial Charles Koch Foundation, co-founder of UnKoch My Campus Ralph Wilson spoke to about 40 students and faculty in Argyros Forum April 24.

He detailed the years he’s spent combing through contracts between universities and the foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to colleges across the nation to help create a “talent pipeline” of libertarian-minded students. UnKoch My Campus is a campaign that seeks to expose this “dark money” donated to universities.

“(The foundation is) not just paying to get their self-interests out – they’re also training and recruiting the next generation of corporate-funded free-market activists,” Wilson said at the event, which was organized by the Chapman University Democrats. “Every dollar has a string attached and the contract allows the donor to pull that string.”

[Related: Opinion | Examining undue donor influence at Chapman] 

The Charles Koch Foundation donated $5 million to Chapman in December 2016 to help fund the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, which aims to combine the studies of humanities and economics. At least three professors in the Smith Institute attended the April 24 event.

Chapman’s partially Koch-funded institute joins others at schools across the nation, like like Florida State University and George Mason University, which combine economics with other disciplines.

“(The foundation is) spending on think tanks. They’re spending on politics,” Wilson said. “This is one fully integrated political operation. The way that it works is (that) it’s a process of production.”

Keith Hankins, a professor in the Smith Institute who attended the event, told The Panther that he doesn’t understand some of the concerns about the donation.

He asked Wilson several questions during the 90-minute forum, prompting Wilson to clarify the difference between faculty members who independently seek research funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, and the foundation making a donation to create an institute – which is where Wilson believes the problem lies.

After a March 29 forum, during which about 50 professors questioned the transparency and integrity of the donation process, faculty expressed concern to The Panther about the timeline of the foundation’s donation, which was combined with an additional $10 million from two anonymous donors. The funding will last five years, and after that, faculty can try to seek more money from the foundation, or the university will pay the professors’ salaries out of its own budget.

To Wilson, who has studied about 12 contracts between universities and the foundation, this is part of the danger attached to the strings. Wilson said that the foundation can withdraw its funding at any point with as little as 15 days’ notice, which was a standard stipulation that he saw in every document he examined.

But Hankins told The Panther after the event that he and his colleagues were given money for ideas that they already wanted to pursue.

“We’re not worried about them cutting off the funding. We have ideas to do what we want to do with the money, and we know how much money we got to do it,” Hankins said. “I’m frankly more concerned about our academic freedom being limited in terms of who we can seek money from, because some funding sources are maligned as being tainted by political influence.”

Wilson also described a shift in capitalism from the industrial age to modern day. Instead of goods and services, knowledge is the new capital, he said.

“We’re in a knowledge economy,” he said. “When these large corporations have gained as much influence and political power as they can, they own as much of the means of production as they can. The universities are the production of knowledge. If I was a real capitalist, I would look to control a university.”

The talk was held on the same day that Transparent GMU, a student group that aims to expose the influence of donors at George Mason University, entered proceedings for a lawsuit against the school to access donor agreements between the Charles Koch Foundation and the university – the same type of document Wilson has been studying for years.

Smith Institute director Bart Wilson, President Daniele Struppa and Nobel laureate Vernon Smith, who was key in securing the funding from the foundation, are all former employees of George Mason, which has received the highest total donations from the foundation, according to tax documents up to 2015. Last month, the university received $5 million more from the organization to hire three tenure-track professors in the economics department.

Hankins and Smith stayed after the event to continue the conversation, something Wilson said doesn’t happen often with Charles Koch Foundation proponents. They usually don’t subject themselves to this type of criticism directly, let alone engage in it, said Wilson, who has spoken at about four college campuses this year about the issue of external funding.

Struppa was not able to attend, but he and Wilson met privately April 26 to discuss the donations.

“There’s obviously a lot of contention on campus,” Wilson told The Panther. “It was good to see that and get a feel for it. Another reason (I like) to travel to campuses is because it’s hard for me to get involved in such a contentious issue but not actually experience the fallout (if I’m not there).”