Newly public documents reveal the details of donor contracts between the Charles Koch Foundation and George Mason University, which has received millions of dollars from the organization. These agreements “fall short of standards of academic independence,” President Angel Cabrera wrote in a school-wide George Mason email April 27, which UnKoch My Campus provided to The Panther.
But Chapman President Daniele Struppa, who was previously dean of George Mason’s College of Arts and Sciences, disagrees, saying that Cabrera acknowledged the contracts did not give control to the Charles Koch Foundation.
“Now, (Cabrera is) under political pressure, so he’s probably saying, ‘But I wouldn’t do this (if I had been president at the time),’” Struppa told The Panther. “That’s fine – he should say that. The reality is that he acknowledged that … the ultimate decision rests within the university.”
The George Mason documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from Sam Parsons, a co-founder of UnKoch My Campus who told The Panther in November that these donations have targeted intent that violates academic freedom and faculty governance.
The Charles Koch Foundation has donated millions of dollars to colleges across the nation to create a “talent pipeline” of libertarian-minded students. 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 organization’s $5 million donation to Chapman in December 2016 helped establish the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, which aims to combine the studies of humanities and economics, joining similar institutes at many other schools, like Florida State University and George Mason University.
The donations have been controversial at campuses across the nation. The Montana State University faculty senate voted against a $5.7 million proposed economic center April 25. Matthew Garcia, a former director at Arizona State University, wrote in The Washington Post April 22 that a Charles Koch Foundation investment advanced an agenda that “undermines faculty governance and the integrity of the humanities and social sciences in public universities.” At Wake Forest University, a faculty senate committee moved to prohibit all Koch network funding because of the foundation’s “attempt to co-opt higher education for ideological, political and financial ends.”
But Struppa said he doesn’t care about the impact of these donations at other universities – he can only speak to his experiences at George Mason and Chapman, where he said the Kochs have never behaved unethically. The foundation, he said, has never pulled funding, nor has it placed any conditions on the gifts.
“This is not what happened here, but if it were to happen (at other institutions), I don’t care,” Struppa said. “I do my own deals with the Koch Foundation. I do specific things on different situations … Is it possible that, at some university, they did something that maybe they shouldn’t have done? Maybe. But I can (only) speak from personal experience.”
Struppa’s signature is found on a 2003 hiring contract provided to The Panther by UnKoch My Campus. The contract, which states that the first payment from the Menlo F. Smith Trust is conditional upon a specific person becoming the first holder of a chair of a new economics center at George Mason, was signed during Struppa’s time as a dean there.
Struppa told The Panther that this donation was made specifically to hire a chair for the center, and the department had already agreed to hire Russell Roberts, a well-known economics professor. In a 2015 Q&A with a real estate news source, Roberts described himself as “something of a libertarian.”
This is not what happened here, but if it were to happen (at other institutions), I don’t care.”
“I can see why people would be critical, but the critique lacks the context,” Struppa said. “If you tell me, ‘I want to give you this money for you to have this person,’ that may be more questionable. But the fact that I want to hire this person, then it’s not unreasonable to say, ‘OK, we’ll give you the money, because you want to have this guy.’”
Struppa said that this type of agreement is different from the one Chapman has now with the foundation, as the contract doesn’t include specific names. Administrators have not released the agreement, besides showing excerpts when presenting to faculty.
The release of these documents comes during a period of tensions at Chapman, as some professors raise concerns about the transparency and integrity of the donation process. On March 29, more than 50 professors attended a faculty forum held to address the “misunderstandings, miscommunications and increasing animosity” among faculty members about donations from the Charles Koch Foundation. Ralph Wilson, a co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, spoke at Chapman April 24, where about 40 students and faculty – including those part of the Smith Institute – debated the impact of the donations.
In response to the documents that were made public at George Mason, the Charles Koch Foundation released a statement, which said that, while the agreements did not permit the foundation to make curriculum or research decisions, it was allowed to have a say in recommending candidates considered for faculty positions. At the bottom of the statement, the foundation provided a link to a standard grant agreement template.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the nature of the hiring contract for Russell Roberts. His professorship was funded by the Menlo F. Smith Trust, not the Charles Koch Foundation. This information has been corrected.