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Koch brothers pour millions into education to promote libertarian ideals

Koch funding to higher education institutes part of broader campaign to push free-market principles

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, Calif., 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.

Charles Koch appears in a video promoting a partnership between Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.
Koch Industries

“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The Center for Public Integrity obtained a previously unpublished audio recording of the meeting, which focused on the Kochs’ higher education funding strategy, from liberal activists who produce The Undercurrent, an online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.

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.

Free-market 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 their billions leading private oil, chemical and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., were dominant forces in recent election cycles. They’re now poised to rank among 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, along with 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. 

A still from a video by the Charles Koch Foundation entitled "Economic Freedom in 60 Seconds."
Charles Koch Foundation

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.”

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.

Hazel Hall, home of the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies on the George Mason University Arlington campus.
Wikimedia Commons

“[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.”

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.”

For a more in-depth look into Koch funding into higher education, click here.

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.

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