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Last summer, a top lieutenant of Charles and David Koch’s vast network of philanthropic institutions, laid bare the billionaire brothers’ strategy to evangelize their gospel of economic freedom.
Political success, Kevin Gentry told a crowd of elite supporters attending the annual Koch confab in Dana Point, California, begins with reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power.
“The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,” he said.
“So you can see how this is useful to each other over time,” he continued. “No one else has this infrastructure. We’re very excited about doing it.”
The Center for Public Integrity obtained a previously unpublished audio recording of the meeting, which focused on the Kochs’ higher education funding strategy, from liberal activists who produce The Undercurrent, an online video program.
Higher education has become a top Koch priority in recent years. And their funding — as well as pushback against it — is increasing.
During 2013, a pair of private charitable foundations Charles Koch leads and personally bankrolls combined to spread more than $19.3 million across 210 college campuses in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Internal Revenue Service tax filings.
That represents a significant increase from the $12.7 million the Koch foundations distributed among 163 college campuses in 41 states and the District of Columbia during 2012. It’s also exponentially more than what the Koch foundations together spent directly on higher education a decade ago.
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed hundreds of private documents, emails and audio recordings that, along with interviews with more than 75 college officials, professors, students and others, indicate the Koch brothers’ spending on higher education is now a critical part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.
Spreading the gospel
It is no secret that the Kochs’ network has invested hundreds of millions of hard-to-track dollars in conservative political nonprofits that influence elections. The brothers, who earned theirbillions leading private oil, chemical and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., were dominant forces in recent election cycles. They’re now poisedtorankamong the most influential Americans shaping next year’s presidential and congressional vote.
Much less well known: their activities on college campuses.
The Kochs are among many wealthy political patrons who give money to education, including conservative Robert McNair, independent Michael Bloomberg and liberal billionaire financier George Soros. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)
The Kochs’ giving, however, has a laser-like focus on a specific, politically relevant discipline — free market economics — unmatched by other political mega-donors. Koch officials routinely cultivate relationships with professors and deans and fund specific courses of economic study pitched by them.
Since the '60s, they've been imbued with the sense that the world would be a better place if the country instituted their libertarian values.
Detractors argue the Koch brothers’ college-focused money, by helping advance a philosophy of economic liberty, is eroding a fundamental aspect of higher education: academic freedom.
But some conservatives and libertarians consider the Kochs’ investments in higher education a much-needed counterweight to an American higher education system that historically tilts leftward.
And they explain the Kochs’ decision to influence education most certainly does not spring, as many liberal partisans would like the body politic to believe, from the compulsions of steel-souled industrialists more concerned about fortune and power than, say, protecting the environment or helping the poor.
“Since the ‘60s, they’ve been imbued with the sense that the world would be a better place if the country instituted their libertarian values,” author Brian Doherty said of the brothers.
“For Charles, his time horizon, as he gets a little older, has become a little shorter. He has lots of money, and he wants to see action in his lifetime,” continued Doherty, the author of “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” and senior editor at Reason who’s interviewed both Koch brothers.
“I’m not doing anything I’m ashamed of,” Charles Koch himself told Forbes last month. “You’ve got to change the hearts and minds of the people to understand what really makes society fairer and what’s going to change their lives. And it’s not more of this government control.”
The Kochs educational giving, while rarefied, isn’t nation’s largest. With his wife, Betty, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, this year pledged $100 million to the California Institute of Technology — and allowed the school to spend it as it sees fit.
Koch defenders also note, accurately, that the pair has donated generously to educational causes not necessarily animated by political considerations: the Smithsonian, public television, media organizations, music scholarships, medical research and a variety of others. David Koch, for his part, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into medicine and the arts over the years.
But it’s clear where there is an ideological bent to their giving: Tax returns, as well as emails and private documents exchanged among Charles Koch Foundation officers and various college and university officials, indicate the foundation’s commitment to funding academics is deep and growing. Koch education funding, which is almost singularly focused on economics, also sometimes comes with certain strings attached.
Recruiting new believers
At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit — and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.
It sought, for one, the names and email addresses — “preferably not ending in .edu” — of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship. The stated purpose: “to notify students of opportunities” through both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
And the foundation certainly did not want the College of Charleston to speak to news reporters about its Koch-funded programs without prior consent from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“[I]f you intend to engage in press releases or other media outreach associated with programmatic activities, please notify us in advance,” Charles Koch Foundation officials Charlie Ruger and Derek Johnson wrote Peter Calcagno, director of the College of Charleston’s Center for Public Choice and Market Process. “We consider media outreach a collaborative effort and would appreciate the opportunity to both assist and advise.”
Donors are often sent unpublished press releases about programs they fund “as a courtesy so that they will know the contents,” school spokesman Mike Robertson said.
At Florida State University, one of the nation’s top educational recipients of Koch foundation money this decade — about $1.38 million from 2010 through 2013 — a similar request is more direct.
“FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of CKF,” reads a memorandum of understanding signed between the university and foundation in 2013.
Such provisions aren’t new at Florida State University: the Center for Public Integrity last year reported that the Charles Koch Foundation first attempted in 2007 to place specific conditions on its financial support of the school, when it initially considered providing funding.
Among the proposed conditions: Teachings must align with the libertarian economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the Charles Koch Foundation would maintain partial control over faculty hiring and the chairman of the school’s economics department — a prominent economic theorist — must stay in place for another three years despite his plans to step down.
Florida State University ultimately didn’t agree to the initial requests when, in 2008, it reached a funding agreement with the foundation. It’s also tightened and clarified policies that affect private donors’ contributions to the university.
Relationships between certain school officials and the Charles Koch Foundation personnel nevertheless blossomed. One gatekeeper to Charles Koch’s riches practically became family — if not by blood, then money.
“Thought you might want to see our ‘nephew!’” wrote executive assistant Tonja Guilford to David Rasmussen, her boss and dean of Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.
Attached to the October 2014 email were photos of this “nephew” — the tow-headed toddler son of John C. Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation.
Hardin and his family had previously visited with Florida State University officials in Tallahassee. Talk of future get-togethers, and more pictures of Hardin’s son in a Superman costume, aloft in his father’s arms, would follow.
“I was just thinking this morning I needed new pictures to post outside my door,” Guilford fawned to Hardin in an email. “He is just way too cute in his superman costume. He’s my ‘little’ superman – I just love him!”
Rasmussen, who routinely pursues private funding on behalf of his department, declined interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity, as did Guilford.
Florida State University spokesman Dennis Schnittker described the email exchanges as “friendly correspondence between individuals,” adding that collegial communications are a valuable part of school culture.
“Most university presidents would tell you before you can fundraise, you have to ‘friend raise,’” Schnittker said.
Today, the Kochs’ friendship with Florida State University appears stronger than ever.
An email written in September 2014 by Jesse Colvin, Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy development director, indicates the Charles Koch Foundation is committed to funding the work of economic department doctoral students “during 2015-2016 and in subsequent years.”
A series of other meetings and conversations between Hardin, from the Charles Koch Foundation, and Florida State University officials followed, documents indicate.
In November 2014, Florida State University officials huddled in the office of newly installed university President John Thrasher for a meeting entitled “Koch briefing.” Schnittker, the university spokesman, said the meeting was an “opportunity for our new president to be briefed by university staff about a gift agreement that obviously preceded his tenure.” Hardin of the Charles Koch Foundation was not present, Schnittker said.
Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal justice reform to corporate welfare.
The Koch brothers, after all, were telegraphing their intent to make criminal justice reform a personal priority, reasoning that “overcriminalization,” like overregulation of industry, is resulting in more Americans enjoying fewer economic freedoms.
Not everyone at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice appeared thrilled at pursuing Koch cash.
“I know you really hate them, but we really need to send them some stuff,” then-Chairman Allison DeFoor wrote Executive Director Deborrah Brodsky late last year. “They have money. We don't.”
Reached separately by phone last week, DeFoor, an unabashed conservative, and Brodsky, a Canadian whose politics point more leftward, both laughed off the exchange as comedic banter between longtime colleagues.
But they confirmed they had pursued the Charles Koch Foundation. It hasn’t yet funded the project but did provide the organization “strategic support,” including co-hosting a forum on criminal justice.
DeFoor would conclude, following presentations in Washington, D.C., to both the Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, that Koch interest in issues the project researches “is sincere, potentially aggressive and deep.”
As a small, three-year-old “research- and evidence-based” program, the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice will gladly take money from most anyone along the ideological spectrum who’s dedicated to its study of and work on criminal justice system reforms, Brodsky said. She counts liberal lions such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Watch as partners.
The Charles Koch Foundation executives declined to be interviewed individually. Trice Jacobson, a foundation spokesperson, instead provided a statement that she said “captures what we all hope to share for this piece.”
“Like many charities, the Charles Koch Foundation recognizes the importance of supporting a diversity of ideas so scholars and students can continue to push the frontiers of knowledge and help people discover new and better ways to live fulfilling lives,” the statement read. “Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal justice reform to corporate welfare.”
In a separate statement of its “academic giving principles,” the Charles Koch Foundation asserts that it is “committed to advancing a marketplace of ideas and supporting a ‘Republic of Science’ where scholarship is free, open and subject to rigorous and honest intellectual challenge.”
It also notes that scholars and students “who are free to teach, learn, research, speak, critique and receive support for their work without interference” are in the “best position to discover the advances that will help improve well-being.”
Koch university funding for "educational programs" (2013)
What the money really goes toward
George Mason University
Programs at the Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies, which are closely tied to the Koch brothers. Also funded building renovations at campus building Mason Hall. "We appreciate the generosity of our donors including the Koch Foundation and are excited about all gifts we receive," George Mason University spokesman Michael Sandler said.
Florida Southern College
School officials did not respond to questions. "The Science of Success" by Charles Koch is on the book club reading list of the school's Center for Free Enterprise, which is led by Derek Yonai, who received his doctorate at George Mason University.
Florida State University
Economics Ph.D. fellowships to candidates, a faculty salary in the economics department, undergraduate student research and guest speakers for a registered student organization, said university spokesman Dennis Schnittker. A memorandum of understanding signed in April 2013 by Florida State University and the Charles Koch Foundation indicates a $1.5 million foundation commitment to help fund several professorships, a teaching specialist, undergraduate and post-doctoral programs and administrative costs.
Texas A&M University
"These are gifts to support the mission of the university. We do not disclose donor information, typically," said Monika Blackwell, a Texas A&M University Foundation spokeswoman. Political science professor Joseph Daniel Ura did list on his resume $9,700 in Charles Koch Foundation funding received in 2010.
The Catholic University of America
District of Columbia
Part of a $2.75 million commitment over several years to "bolster the school's goal of advancing the study and practice of principled entrepreneurship." The money "puts our school far along the path of creating a cadre of faculty dedicated to research exploring how we can make business and economics more humane," Andrew Abela, dean of the university's School of Business and Economics, said in a press release. "That's not only the vision for our school; it's also a moral imperative that Pope Francis has been championing with great passion." University spokesman Victor Nakas declined further comment.
Southern Methodist University
University spokesman Kent Best says the money does not go to a certain department, institute or program and does not affect how it teaches. "SMU values freedom of speech and diversity of opinion within the university and respects the diversity of opinions among our many supporters," he said.
"Research and support of graduate programs in the Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business," spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said. Recent doctoral graduate Christopher Bissex now works as the Charles Koch Foundation's program manager for academic careers.
Utah State University
An even $100,000 went toward "faculty support," while another $45,000 funded the Koch Scholars Program - an "opportunity to meet on a weekly basis to discuss an assortment of select books, movies and podcasts." Said spokesman Tim Vitale: "We looked closely at the agreement and made absolutely clear that if at any time we perceived any kind of outside pressure whatsoever, we would end the relationship."
Funding for the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, the Department of Economics and the Charles Koch Annual Fellowship for an economics student, university spokeswoman Robin Denny said. "Gifts are for educational purposes that are clearly defined prior to receipt," she said.
Ohio State University
An even $100,000 went toward salary and benefits for an economics department instructor who will teach an estimated eight courses a year in "on topics related to economic freedom and competitive markets, such as the history of thought, public finance, industrial organization, and micro and macroeconomic principles," university spokeswoman Amy Murray said. The rest went toward "various department activities as identified by the chair to enhance the department, including seminar presentations, graduate student research and travel and faculty teaching," she said. The school also received $132,000 during 2014, she said.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Half of "a pledge for the Charles Koch Visiting Scholars Program in UNC-Chapel Hill's Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program. This program is conducted in collaboration with Duke University," university spokesman Jim Gregory said.
Texas Tech University
The school's Free Market Institute and the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, spokesman Chris Cook said.
Brooklyn Law School
Faculty support under the control and supervision of Brooklyn Law School, said school spokesman John MacKin.
Indiana University-Purdue University Inianapolis
A university spokeswoman directed questions to Kathy Gutowsky, spokeswoman for the university's nonprofit fundraising arm, the Indiana University Foundation. "We will not provide specific details with regard to the Charles Koch Foundation or other donors," Gutowsky said.
Oklahoma State University
"Oklahoma State University and the OSU Foundation maintain the confidentiality of gifts made by donors," spokesman Gary Shutt said. The university's Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise does, however, advertise a "Koch Internship Program" and "Koch Summer Fellow Program."
George Washington University
District of Columbia
The university's Regulatory Studies Center received $50,000 and School of Business received $12,000, university spokesman Jason Shevrin said.
College of Charleston
Support for the College of Charleston's Center for Public Choice and Market Process in the college's School of Business, spokesman Mike Robertson said. "The College of Charleston considers many factors before it partners with a particular group or organization," he added, noting that the school strictly adheres to an established gift acceptance policy.
The university's Prague Study Abroad Program in Economics received $35,000, while $15,000 went to speakers and undergraduate research fellowships at the George Washington Forum - a "civic education initiative which aims to promote intellectual diversity and civil public debate," university spokeswoman Katie Quaranta said.
School officials did not respond to questions. In 2014, spokesman Andy Ellis said a previous contribution "provided gifts to establish the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy within the Sorrell College of Business." The center is led by Stephen C. Miller, who earned his doctorate at George Mason University and "received a five-year grant to support free enterprise educational activities by the Charles Koch Foundation."
Loyola University, New Orleans
"The gift from the Koch Foundation helped to fund a program/speaker series within the College of Business," spokeswoman Patricia Murret said.
"Faculty research, as well as student life," spokesman Patrick McKiernan said. "Many of our donors are politically active across a wide range of perspectives, but they share in common support for Harvard."
University of Arizona
Graduate students in the UA Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, spokesman Chris Sigurdson said. He added that the university doesn't take into consideration donors' political leanings, just the gift itself. "Political speech should never be a litmus test for academic philanthropy."
University of Central Arkansas
"The money was used to bring in a featured speaker, pay student assistants to write papers that were presented at a conference (one student used that presentation to help him earn a fellowship to grad school), pay for travel, conference registration and hotel for two students and two faculty members," spokeswoman Christina Munoz Madsen said.
Internal Revenue Service tax filings,
Center for Public Integrity interviews,
contracts between Charles Koch Foundation and various universities,
Notes: Funding covers calendar year 2013 for schools receiving $40,000 or more in money from private foundations led by Charles Koch and/or David Koch. Two Koch-backed foundations that directly fund universities — the Charles Koch Foundation and the Fred C. & Mary R. Koch Foundation — provide explanations of university funding in annual tax reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
George Mason, aka Koch U
Nowhere is expanded Koch involvement in higher education more evident than at George Mason University, which receives more funding from the Kochs than any other school.
The large, diverse public school in northern Virginia, about 20 miles from the White House, today houses and lends its name to what’s effectively Charles Koch’s personal academic workshop. The Charles Koch Foundation in 2013 donated more than $14.4 million to George Mason University and the research centers it hosts. That’s on top of tens of millions in Koch dollars that George Mason University and the affiliated research centers have collectively received in recent years.
Charles Koch himself is a George Mason University fixture. He’s the recipient of an honorary doctorate in science from the university, which boasts a student population of more than 33,700. He is a director of the university-based Mercatus Center — Mercatus means “market” in Latin — that Charles Koch Foundation Vice President Ryan Stowers described at the 2014 Koch gathering in California as “critical” to advancing policy priorities.
Koch also enjoys the company of several current and former George Mason University affiliates who play multiple roles across the Koch brothers’ sprawling educational, corporate and political network.
Chief among them is Gentry, who presided over the Koch’s closed-door higher education workshop last year.
Gentry possesses unique knowledge about the interconnectivity of the Koch’s various interests and operations because he embodies its reach. He’s a Charles Koch Foundation vice president and a key fundraiser for the Kochs’ political action arm. He’s a former vice president of both the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. And today, he’s even Eastern vice chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.
Brian Hooks, now president of the Charles Koch Foundation, is another key Koch network player.
Hooks served as the Mercatus Center’s executive director and chief operating officer from 2005 until 2014 and remains a Mercatus Center board member. The year Hooks took over, the Mercatus Center posted $4.9 million in total revenue, according to tax filings. The year he left, it posted nearly $20.7 million.
“Our job is to make sure that we’ve got a strategy for our work to have a disproportionate impact,” Hooks said at the Kochs’ conference in 2014, noting that the Mercatus Center is the “largest collection” of “free market faculty” at any university in the world. “These guys are producing research that groups in this network can rely on to advance economic freedom every single day.”
Scholarly research performed by academics at Koch-funded schools and programs is indeed sometimes used by Koch-backed nonprofit organizations that, in turn, overtly advocate for political candidates and causes.
For instance, to support assertions made in a recent, 67-page policy paper, Koch-supported American Encore regularly cites and quotes Mercatus Center research and mentions the center nearly a dozen times.
Among the academic work American Encore’s paper highlights: a 2014 Mercatus Center study by Keith Hall, a senior research fellow who had previously served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a 2014 commentary about a federal regulations tracking and measurement tool by Patrick A. McLaughlin, another senior research fellow.
“Yet another study has confirmed what we already knew — states with lower taxes do better,” read an article by the Kochs’ flagship nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity, about a study published July 7 by the Mercatus Center. “Overall, the rankings provide more evidence that economic freedom works, and bigger government means bigger trouble.”
And the 60 Plus Association, a retiree-focused nonprofit that’s benefited from tens of millions of dollars of the Koch brothers’ money over the years, for a time tappedWalter Williams, a George Mason University economics professor, syndicatedcolumnist and Rush Limbaugh Show fill-in host, as a member of its “truth squad.” His mission: to “battle” against Democrats wanting to reform Social Security and Medicare programs.
Congress takes notice
Congress is also paying more attention to the Mercatus Center, which from 1999 to 2008 was mentioned by name 32 times in either the Congressional Record or congressional committee reports. Since 2009, it’s been mentioned 93 times, often in reference to Mercatus Center faculty who were testifying before Congress.
Mercatus Center Vice President Carrie Conko, while declining to address critics’ “ad hominem attacks” of Charles Koch, stressed the institution’s work is the product of hard work and high standards — not the whims of some patron puppet master.
“As a university research center, our scholarship is independent and subjected to rigorous peer review,” Conko said. “Our researchers are interested in understanding what shapes societies and economies and that covers a spectrum of research from the history of economic thought to the application of economics to questions of public policy.”
Mercatus Center officials note that the center isn’t part of George Mason University the same way as, say, its chemistry or psychology departments. Instead, it’s organized as a stand-alone nonprofit, and as such, George Mason University isn’t directly responsible for it.
The Mercatus Center doesn’t receive direct funding from George Mason University, Conko said.
But George Mason University and its students do receive millions of dollars in annual financial benefit from the Mercatus Center, according to federal tax filings.
That alone is a major incentive for a public university in Virginia, where state funding of higher education is dwindling, to host a privately funded operation on its campus — today, a fairly common practice among public schools.
The Mercatus Center spent $3.64 million during that time to “support graduate students at George Mason University” by “training future scholars and decision-makers to advance and apply a research agenda for understanding institutions and change,” according to a tax filing.
The Mercatus Center helped fund $1.82 million worth of communication efforts that included promoting its research and ideas “to the media and opinion shapers.”
And it made a $10,000 grant to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which operates a “global network of more than 400 free market organizations.” They include several Koch-backed nonprofit groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Tax Reform.
The Mason-Mercatus-Koch nexus may seem like rich fodder for a Democrat such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose national party brethren makesdemonizing the Koch brothers a central strategy of their electoral and fundraising agenda.
McAuliffe’s own political committee, Common Good VA, bashed the “ultra right wing Koch Brothers” in an email earlier this month, accusing them of working against “expanding health care for all” and “ensuring a living wage.”
But McAuliffe — the outspoken former chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign — declined Center for Public Integrity requests to discuss George Mason University’s relationship with the Koch brothers.
George Mason University’s top undergraduate leader, Student Body President Khushboo Bhatia, also declined comment.
I don't really see what Mason gets from them, and I don't think the situation is healthy or consistent with the university's teaching mission.
Professor of politics, George Mason University
University spokesman Michael Sandler explained that George Mason is among the nation’s most diverse campuses, and “this notion of diversity and inclusion that is so central to our mission applies to our donors, as well.”
Sandler said the university appreciates the Charles Koch Foundation’s donations, as well as those from thousands of other donors.
“While we are grateful for all of the gifts we receive, we value academic freedom above all else,” Sandler said. “This freedom allows our faculty and researchers to ask questions and make discoveries that others wouldn’t otherwise pursue, and we will not compromise that freedom for anything or anyone.”
Jennifer Victor, a George Mason University politics professor who specializes in how individuals and groups influence government, is skeptical.
George Mason University’s marriage to an ideologically motivated donor with a policy agenda to achieve “raises some eyebrows,” Victor said. “I don’t really see what Mason gets from them, and I don’t think the situation is healthy or consistent with the university’s teaching mission.”
No comment on Koch funding
Some college officials such as Sandler are willing to discuss the financial support their schools receive from Koch-run private foundations, with many emphasizing that gifts from donors, whether liberal or conservative, don’t affect coursework or the manner in which students learn. They also note that their schools receive hundreds, and sometimes thousands of contributions each year from individuals, private foundations and the like.
But it’s not uncommon for other school officials to button up.
Take Victor Nakas, a spokesman for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Posed a series of questions about the $215,000 the university received in 2013 from the Charles Koch Foundation, he emailed apair of dated press releases announcing grants.
“We will be unable to provide you with more than links to these announcements,” he said.
Follow-up messages went unreturned.
Michael Schoenfeld, the vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, declined to say how the school used the $37,000 it recently received from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“As a rule, we do not comment on individual donors or contributions without the donor’s permission,” he explained.
Officials at Oklahoma State University likewise offered no details about how the school used the $69,000 the Charles Koch Foundation recently gave it.
Why the silence?
An email exchange between two Florida State University officials, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, offers a measure of explanation.
In it, the officials indicate deep concern about the potential effects of releasing more information about the school’s moneyed donors in response to activist demands.
“[R]equiring donors to disclose more than they already do will likely result in fewer gifts and smaller gifts, and it will impose an additional administrative hurdle for the university,” wrote Thomas W. Jennings, vice president for university advancement, to David Coburn, Florida State University chief of staff.
Revealing donor gift agreements, even for donors who have not requested anonymity, might “have a negative effect on FSU’s relationships with many of its donors, who don’t want that kind of attention,” Jennings continued.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill received $115,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2013, one of nearly 100 schools that year to receive a five-figure contribution from a Koch foundation.
But that’s information not easily accessed by students. Whether by design, happenstance or ignorance, “most individuals don’t know where any of the university’s funds come from,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Student Body President Houston Summers said.
University spokesman Jim Gregory confirmed the school received $110,000 for the Charles Koch Visiting Scholars Program in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, conducted in collaboration with Duke University. Donors are allowed to remain anonymous, if they choose.
However, some universities are facing blowback over scant information about school donors from increasingly organized anti-Koch groups and activists.
The umbrella group UnKoch My Campus, for one, has staged protests, demanded meetings with administrators and launched chapters at George Mason University and Florida State University, among others. The organization accuses the Kochs and their allies of undermining issues many students care about, such as environmental protection, workers’ rights, healthcare expansion and public education.
Its immediate goal, beyond convincing colleges to de-Koch themselves?
“Transparency, because students should have the capability to be more aware of who’s funding their school and their education, and where funding might conflict with student interests,” said Kalin Jordan, an UnKoch My Campus organizer. “The universities — most don’t do a good job of informing students at all.”
Said Colin Nackerman, a student activist at George Mason University: “You should know, if you’re going into a classroom, that $30 million is going into your school from someone who wants you to think a certain way.”
Largely silent in the past, the Charles Koch Foundation has begun to push back at such dissenters.
“They don’t want students and scholars to expand their educational horizons,” Hardin, the foundation’s university relations director, wrote in a May 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Rather than engage in a vigorous and civil debate about the merits of different ideas, they seek to prevent those with which they disagree from ever being heard.”
Liberals give big, too
If George Mason University is Charles Koch’s academic playground, Bard College is that of Democratic bankroller George Soros, often viewed as the Koch brothers’ pre-eminent liberal foil.
The tiny New York liberal arts school nestled along the Hudson River is renowned for both scholarship and hippy-dippyness. It received more than $11.2 million from Soros’ private foundation in 2013 — part of a $60 million, multiyear commitment.
But for Soros, himself a multibillionaire with wealth comparable to the Kochs, his contributions to Bard College aren’t generally earmarked for core academics or domestic political considerations.
Instead, Soros’ money mainly helps fund Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement, which houses a broad portfolio of both U.S. and overseas programs aimed at “advancing the ideals of an innovative, hands-on liberal arts education through a myriad of opportunities across the globe.”
This tracks with Soros’ broader tack on educational giving: The vast majority of his tens of millions of dollars in education-related contributions fund foreign schools and programs, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. (Soros lived his early life in Hungary, where as a Jew, he survived Nazi occupation before emigrating.)
Among the U.S. schools Soros does aid, many of his most sizable grants are earmarked for programs with international goals, such as $500,000 to Harvard University funding a project on economic growth in Albania, and $159,834 to The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to “develop effective and influential public policy leaders in Central Asia.”
Soros’ foundation even gave George Mason University more than $22,500 — not to fund economics programs, but to organize meetings in Mexico and Peru about conflict reconciliation.
“As a general rule,” Soros said in 2011, “I do not support higher education in the United States.”
Soros does make exceptions.
An avowed advocate of campaign finance reform, Soros has used his private foundations to fund certain domestic college initiatives squarely rooted in American politics and elections.
One Soros foundation, for example, gave New York City’s Fordham University $200,000 in 2013 to study the “role of money in democratic process.”
The money is part of a $1 million, multi-year grant to determine how disclosure of campaign money influences voters — an awfully political endeavor by any measure.
But school officials say the research they conduct is free of outside influence and subject to the highest academic and legal reviews and standards.
“None of this work is ‘political’ per se in terms of any ideological dimensions … it is all strictly nonpartisan,” said Costas Panagopoulos, director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, who is leading the program.
Penn State University’s economics department in 2013 benefited from $150,000 in Soros money to help build a research center focused in part on “interactions between new media and society.”
And the Ohio State University Research Foundation received $50,000 to conduct a research project aimed at better understanding the role independent expenditures play in federal elections and “how those expenditures influence the legislative process.”
Bard College officials do hear their share of criticism for taking a massive amount of money from Soros’ private foundation, said Jonathan Becker, the school’s vice president for academic affairs and director for civic engagement.
But, similar to some of the schools that accept Koch money, the school’s tenuous budget situation means that it’d take funding from just about anyone so long as the transaction was legal and wasn’t intended to fund an initiative “antithetical to our vision,” Becker said.
That vision, in the words of its student handbook, imagines a “supportive, intellectually rich environment where students can engage themselves to the fullest while respecting all members of the community.”
So what if the Charles Koch Foundation wanted to donate $1 million to Bard College?
Or $10 million?
“We would say ‘thank you,’ and we would cash the check quickly,” Becker said.
Other conservative donors
Unlike the Kochs, Soros and many other prominent political donors, both left and right of center, have charitable agendas that largely diverge from their domestic political agendas.
Robert McNair, the Houston Texans owner who this year alone has spread $3 million among five super PACs backing several Republican presidential candidates, used his private foundation to give millions of dollars to various medical schools and a scholarship program for doctors performing research in areas such as breast cancer, juvenile diabetes and neuroscience.
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, two other top-shelf Republican donors whom 2016 presidential candidates have endlessly wooed, directed almost all of their university-related private foundation funding — millions of it in 2013 — to medical research.
A private foundation co-run by former World Wrestling Entertainment honcho Linda McMahon, a major GOP donor who herself twice unsuccessfully ran self-funded U.S. Senate campaigns, gave its most sizable, six-figure contributions to substance abuse help group Liberation Programs.
Then there’s one late Republican superdonor whose philanthropy has been at war with his political giving: Harold Simmons.
The Texas businessman bankrolled his eponymous foundation, but his liberal daughters run it. In doing so, they saw to it that Planned Parenthood — the ultimate Republican scourge of late — received more than $300,000 of his money during 2013. It’s also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based money-in-politics reform group also supported in 2013 with $300,000 from a private foundation led by liberal hedge fund manager Jonathan Soros, son of George Soros.
Money the Harold Simmons Foundation did give to colleges in 2013 mostly went toward infrastructure and general operating expenses.
U of Dayton says 'no thanks'
While more schools than ever are engaging with Koch foundations, at least one school — the University of Dayton in Ohio — has seemingly soured on Koch cash, which it has previously accepted in five-figure amounts.
Jay Riestenberg, a research analyst at campaign reform advocacy group Common Cause and University of Dayton alumnus, earlier this year emailed the school’s Interim Provost Paul H. Benson, asking him if the University of Dayton is still funded by, or seeking new funding from Koch foundations.
Attached was an op-ed Riestenberg has written for the school’s student newspaper. In it, he explains that his education at the small Catholic school inspired him to care about other people, protect the environment and fight for social justice.
“UD accepting Koch funding is in clear violation of the institution’s Catholic Marianist values,” Riestenberg wrote in the April 28 email.
Benson replied later that night. His answer: The University of Dayton no longer accepts Koch cash, and it will not in the future — despite the efforts of Koch-backed organizations.
“There have been instances in which other foundations who are funded in part by the Koch Brothers have tried to interest us in establishing centers at UD,” Benson wrote Riestenberg. “We have not supported those proposals, precisely for the reasons you cite.”
Benson declined an interview request by the Center for Public Integrity.
In a statement, University of Dayton spokeswoman Cilla Shindell explained that the school did reject a recent proposal from a “foundation that is in part funded by the Koch family” because it “would have been structured in a way that would limit oversight by the university in such areas as curriculum and faculty hiring.”
She did not name the foundation.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.