Opinion | Examining undue donor influence at Chapman


Ralph Wilson, co-founder of UnKoch My Campus

Guest column by Ralph Wilson, co-founder of UnKoch My Campus

I was invited to speak at Chapman University about the Charles Koch Foundation on April 24, in light of the recent controversy and tensions surrounding the foundation’s multimillion-dollar support for Chapman’s Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy.

My organization, UnKoch My Campus, has spent years documenting examples of undue donor influence over academic programs, in particular, how the Charles Koch Foundation’s corporate political strategy seeks to “leverage” academic programs for the “implementation of policy change.”

I’d like to credit Chapman’s Koch-funded professors, including Nobel laureate Vernon Smith, for coming to the event and debating the issue of donor influence. The American Association of University Professors recently invited John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, to debate members of UnKoch My Campus this summer. Though he declined, the invitation still stands.

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

At ground zero of the Kochs’ money, George Mason University – which has received the highest total donations from the foundation – President Angel Cabrera reversed the university’s position April 27, conceding that agreements appear to “fall short of the standards of academic independence,” granting the foundation undue influence over hiring in the economics department.

Examining these donor agreements from 2003, we find the signature of Chapman’s president, Daniele Struppa, who was then serving as dean of George Mason’s College of Arts and Sciences, overseeing the Charles Koch Foundation’s donations to the university’s economics department.

These documents show donor influence over tenured professorships required to affiliate with George Mason’s Koch-funded Mercatus Center (where Vernon Smith, who was key in securing Chapman’s funding from the foundation, serves on the board).

During my visit to Chapman, Struppa invited me to meet privately. He described his relationship with the Kochs, including his recent attendance of Charles Koch’s highly secretive donor summit, where the Kochs’ “seminar network” uses their “integrated” strategy to fundraise and coordinate political warfare.

[Related: Opinion | Nothing dark in the support for the Smith Institute]

At least one other donor behind the Smith Institute, Gavin Herbert, has hosted parts of the Kochs’ secretive meetings (Herbert’s son is on Chapman’s Board of Trustees).

In addition to the clear question of political donor influence, there are larger questions involved in affiliating with the Koch family. Not only is the Koch network under investigation for exerting influence on the Trump administration, but a recent report by UnKoch My Campus traces more than $10 million donated from the

Charles Koch Foundation to dozens of professors with ties to white supremacy and neo-confederate ideology.

There is also a growing precedent for abandoning the foundation’s questionable funding. In a December 2017 report with The Chronicle of Higher Education, UnKoch My Campus showed that schools have been increasingly parting ways with the Charles Koch Foundation since 2010. Of the schools funded in 2015, 31 percent stopped receiving Koch funding in 2016.

[Related: More than 50 professors attend forum held to address concerns about Charles Koch Foundation donation]

Some schools, like Whitman College, have cited concerns for the foundation’s reporting requirements, which have included private student information – a potential violation of FERPA laws.

The same week I spoke at Chapman, the faculty senate at the University of Kansas passed a donor policy forbidding financial gifts that come with specific stipulations. Also last week, Montana State University’s faculty senate voted to reject a proposed Koch center and is pushing to revise donor guidelines.

While concerned faculty have called for the release of Koch agreements – and, especially at private universities, been denied – Koch contracts consistently contain secrecy clauses.

At Wake Forest University, a faculty senate committee investigated a Koch center and concluded that, “due to the Charles Koch Foundation’s unprecedented effort and documented strategy to co-opt higher education for its ideological, political and financial ends, the Committee moves (to) prohibit all Koch network funding for any of its centers or institutes.”

Given the broad evidence available (and award-winning reporting by Chapman student journalists), it is clear that the concerns are well-founded and deserving of a good-faith administrative response, including transparency surrounding agreements, proposals and reporting expectations required by the Charles Koch Foundation.