A gift too far? Questions are asked about donor's terms

Academics claim that big corporate giver is allowed to vet professors, reports John Morgan

May 19, 2011

Private corporations are focusing on US universities "to further a political ideology of free markets and diminished government regulation", according to critics of a libertarian billionaire's $1.5 million (£920,000) donation to a public educational institution.

The question of whether the charitable Charles G. Koch (CGK) Foundation's donation to Florida State University infringed academic freedom has stirred up intense debate on blogs and in the Florida press.

The controversy highlights some major issues for US public universities as falling state funding continues to drive a search for alternative income.

Mr Koch heads Koch Industries with his brother, David, and their organisation is said to be the second-largest privately held firm in the US.

The brothers are seen by political opponents to have played a key role in the growth of the Tea Party movement.

The agreement on the donation to Florida State's economics department, made in 2008, attracted attention after it was revealed in a recent newspaper opinion piece by two of the university's academics, Ray Bellamy and Kent Miller.

The "memorandum of understanding" between the CGK Foundation and Florida State relates to the establishment of a "Program for the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise" - including five professorships - a "Program for Excellence in Economic Education", and an undergraduate course.

The CGK Foundation committed to providing $1.5 million, while the university was to find the remainder of the required $6.59 million budget over six years.

A three-person "advisory board", selected by the CGK Foundation, was created to discuss appointments to the professorships and make "periodic assessments" on the performance of the courses.

For the professorships, the agreement states that the executive committee of the economics department would select a shortlist of candidates, then the CGK Foundation's advisory board would "review the list and make a recommendation as to which candidates are qualified to receive funding".

The agreement also covers the "purpose of the affiliated programs and positions", specifying that this is to "advance the understanding and practice" of principles including "individual freedom, opportunity and prosperity".

Eric Barron, Florida State University's president, has said that "if there is anything (in the arrangement) that affected academic freedom" he would "put an immediate stop to it", and the university insists that its academics retain the right to select professors.

However, Dr Bellamy and Professor Miller, who levelled the charge that the CGK Foundation was using money as a way of furthering "ideology", write: "From our reading of the memorandum, the Koch Foundation has some say over who is hired from the grant and what will be taught."

The two academics see the agreement as part of a broader trend towards corporate influence over the US academy via donations, singling out the examples of the Koch brothers and US bank BB&T, which has made donations to several institutions. They warn that the "pursuit of unbiased information and the projection of an ideology are two starkly contrasting goals".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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