A Step Too Far

The modern-day version of the Golden Rule is apparently: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Today, I’d like to consider the application of that axiom to institutions of higher education, and the donors they solicit.

People give money to colleges and universities for a number of reasons, and many of those reasons are laudable. University research is responsible for curing diseases, explicating history and developing philosophies, among many other things. University classrooms introduce students to great literature and art, help them develop critical skills, and deepen their understanding of the world. Making a gift to support those activities is a welcome expression of philanthropic generosity.

Then, of course, there are people like the Koch brothers, whose “gifts” generally come with rather disquieting strings. 

FAIRFAX, Va. — Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.

The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.

University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.

The report from the New York Times, from which the above paragraphs were taken, confirms a  widespread suspicion among academics. There have been rumors about George Mason University for years; those rumors have cast a shadow over the school’s reputation and that of its scholars. When people believe a donor’s “generosity” has purchased a desired research result, the research results will–properly– get discounted.

When it appears that a faculty member has been added not because a search committee, operating under standard academic procedures, determined that the person hired was the most accomplished applicant, but because s/he was the preferred choice of a donor–especially a donor like Koch– looking askance at that new hire shouldn’t be surprising.

The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.

The Koch Foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend firing a professor who failed to live up to standards.

To label this state of affairs “unacceptable” is to state the obvious. It’s hard enough, in today’s toxic and polarized environment, to find sources of unbiased information. The reputation of a university is inextricably tied to its demonstrated  intellectual honesty. That doesn’t mean that all of its research results are sound, or all of its teaching Socratic, but it does mean that the inevitable flaws and missteps are honest errors, not purchased propaganda.

The activist group UnKoch My Campus noted that the George Mason documents evidencing the arrangement are strikingly similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University–agreements that recently caused an uproar at that institution. (There’s a lesson here for Ball State University, here in Indiana,  which has  accepted Koch dollars to establish an economic Institute.)

Cabrera’s admission that the agreements fall short of standards for academic independence is a stark departure from his earlier statements on the issue. In a 2014 blog post on the issue, he wrote that donors don’t get to decide who is hired and that “these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.”

In 2016, in an interview with The Associated Press, he denied that the Koch donations restricted academic independence and said Koch’s status as a lightning rod for his support of Republican candidates is the only reason people question the donations.

Right. And if you believe that, I have some underwater land in Florida to sell you. It’s going to take some time and effort to restore the reputation of George Mason University–assuming it can wean itself away from the “gold” that has ruled it.


  1. The Koch’s make gifts to over 150 universities, so what does that say about the academic profession as a whole?

    The Koch’s minion and former CEO of Papa John’s made the $3 million donations to build an “entrepreneurial center”, but their tentacles were already deep inside Ball State. BSU sold out like George Mason did and don’t forget the champion Supreme Court Justice who brought us Citizens United, Scalia, had the law school at George Mason named after him.

    For their donations, the universities and think tanks produce the junk studies used by Republican politicians and newspapers to propagandize the population. Why do you think Hoosiers have been so easily suckered into believing in “trickle-down” economics despite all the evidence to the contrary for decades?

    And the state lawmakers will hand over Muncie Community Schools to Ball State today and remove collective bargaining rights (it will be optional-left up to BSU) and all rules which impact public schools so they can be “innovative”.

    In case you’ve been busy watching CNN and MSNBC and missed it, our two political parties are Wall Street and the Libertarians whose businesses are privately owned. It’s the two versions of capitalism and none of it benefits workers. None of it.

    The only effective resistance the DNC has built is aligning itself with Wall Street under Bill Clinton. It might have made economic sense, but workers were abandoned. It’s been unfettered capitalism ever since and Trump/Pence uses “academic research” produced by Koch funded universities to justify their dismantling of the federal government exactly like the Koch’s have done in 24 state capitals.

    When I say the anti-Trump movement is a joke or the #Resistance, it’s because voting Democratic means absolutely nothing today. It’s easy to poke holes at the white supremacists, but supporters of the Wall Street party need to look in the mirror as well. 😉

  2. Jane Mayer wrote about George Mason and many other universities accepting Koch money in her book “Dark Money”. They set up “schools” or “endowed chairs” in order to influence economics and law classes. Their intention is to teach young minds to believe in their idea of free markets and to mold law school minds that will rule in their favor as future judges.

    When they donate money you can count on it being dirty. Didn’t John Schnatter, of Papa John’s Pizza, join the Kochs in the Ball State donation? Or was his donation entirely on his own? Either way, John Schnatter’s money was also donated with a specific purpose in mind. He most likely attends the Kochs’ conferences and fund raisers.

    Has anyone wondered how Mitch Daniels keeps maintaining Purdue’s tuition at the same level for several years? Is there dirty money involved?

  3. Political Patronage is the repayment in the form of a job or “favors” to those who supported and/or made large money donations to a political candidate. Collegiate Patronage is no different and generally ends with an unqualified, inexperienced person awarded a position with requirements beyond their abilities to educate young minds. With Political Patronage it is usually the taxpayers who suffer from inefficient governing caused by these decisions; with Collegiate Patronage it is the students who suffer lack of quality education at extremely high rate of student loans today. That lack of quality education carries over to their ability to perform in their chosen field and beyond.

    In both cases money is paid to gain power and control which in turn earns the “donor” more money. At every turn it is always, follow the money.

    I feel the need to add that; in addition to the “Koch level” money coming into institutions of higher learning, there is too often the money going out of some to pay off contracts of sport coaches who cannot fulfill their commitments (number of winning games) or due to personality deficits such as that of Bobby Knight at Indiana University a few years ago. Their contracts require payment of the full agreed upon salary no matter the reason for departure or how brief their time on the job; if I remember correctly it took Indiana University approximately two years to pay off Bobby Knight’s contract after numerous questionable headlines regarding his volatile outburst on the court.

    Either way; it is the students who ultimately pay the price, in lack of quality education or the high cost of their student loans.

  4. Jane Mayer pretty much laid all of this out in her book, “Dark Money” over two years ago. Every billionaire who meets for the annual Koch conference pledges millions to influence whatever they decide is the target for that year. What we have seen is forty years of coordinated attacks on our everyday lives, most of which goes unnoticed by a large majority of voters.

    This is just food for thought, if the Republicans keep the Senate, the courts will be packed with unqualified jurists hand picked by the Federalist Society. The pace of selection has been mind boggling to those who care enough to watch. This is the greatest danger we currently face as a country.

  5. like donations are the mainstay?,if the univ are so hard up for a cash infusion,maybe a accountablility standard should be made. like the docu, hiest who stole tha american dream, the issue of kochs donations to steer the unis to a conservative ticket,is like the fight for right wing judges,in all,branches of goverment…..this admin has obviously been whetting thier teeth for this for a long time,trump is a puppet of this regime, and answers to the money(maybe now some american banks will loan him money). he never had any political clout,much less knowlege of how,it works. other than screwing someone and tax avoidance. mitch and ryan are the running pack of vultures with agent orange flying close by. now with iran being sanctioned again,and the congress apporving the export of our oil for the first time since 1979, obviously the working class again will get a punch in the face for owning acar.i recently thanked my sen. hietkamp for voting to export,my latest thaked her for costing the working class while congress plays its games with war.. again,no one is listening in congress…. now, are we tired enough to stand in the streets and say NO…???

  6. This funding energy from the Koch brothers and other billionaires is straight out of the Powell Manifesto written in 1971 by Lewis Powell, a former corporate lawyer who was eventually appointed to the SCOTUS by Nixon. Powell addressed this paper to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – a virtual rubber stamp for fascist corporatists. In that paper, that Sheila referenced in her blog a few days ago, Powell made a call to arms to corporate/banking America to do exactly what today’s blog and comments describe. Thanks again to Sheila for citing this document in my latest book, “Why Angels Weep: America and Donald Trump.”

    These financiers of propaganda and destroyers of democracy are the people Karl Marx warned the world about in 1850, or thereabouts. They are pure greed and pure self-interest. They are the type of creature that lives only for themselves and their perceived way of life.

    Todd is right is positing that just saying one is a Democrat is insufficient, but unless the great number of slothful voters get off their asses, put down their Bud Lite and become active, demonstrate and vote sensibly, we are doomed to the return of lords v. serfs….just as Powell envisioned.

  7. I harped about The Koch Brothers for years. All it did was I had to double up my antidepressant. The Kochs have these front groups. I’ll try to read DARK MONEY and see if there interested. Most other are too busy trying to earn a Living.

  8. As a Bernie Bot, he had called Wall Street’s business plan a fraud. He was also in favor of Universal – Enhanced Medicare for All, Pro-Union and Free Higher Education for all. These were exceedingly dangerous positions. The real threat to Crony-Capitalism and Steroid Capitalism establishment by Bernie was when his popularity surged as demonstrated by his large rallies and winning several states in the primaries. Taking the profit out of Health Care and Higher Education (via student loans) was a frontal attack by Bernie.

    Now we still have the for Profit Model of Health Care, which delivers the highest cost per person in world and millions still uninsured and under insured.

    This is an interesting article:
    DeVos ‘Corruption Racket’ Continues as Education Dept Shuts Down Probes Into Predatory Colleges. “The U.S. Department of Education sells out to the for-profit college industry.”

    Continuing her policy of turning a blind eye to the predatory behavior of private colleges at the expense of defrauded students, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has reportedly derailed a special investigative unit within her department that was tasked with probing abuses by for-profit schools.

    According to the New York Times, which first reported on DeVos’s efforts Sunday, members of the team—established at the tail-end of the Obama administration—”have been marginalized, reassigned, or instructed to focus on other matters, according to current and former employees.”

    “The unwinding of the team has effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges where top hires of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had previously worked,” including DeVry Education Group, the Times reports.

    As it currently stands, the investigative team only consists of three employees—it previously had around a dozen—and is supervised by Julian Schmoke, a former dean at DeVry.

    Acting CFPB director Mick Mulvaney moved to shut down what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) described as “the only federal office fully focused on protecting student borrowers from predatory companies.” https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/05/13/devos-corruption-racket-continues-trump-education-dept-derails-probes-predatory

    It is not the first time the fox has had access to the hen house. Robert Rubin United States Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration

    Per Wiki – During the Clinton administration, Rubin oversaw the loosening of financial industry underwriting guidelines which had been in place since the 1930s. Before his government service, he spent 26 years at Goldman Sachs, eventually serving as a member of the board and co-chairman from 1990 to 1992. After his “government service” Rubin soft- landed at Citigroup. From November to December 2007, he served temporarily as chairman of Citigroup[ and resigned from the company on January 9, 2009. He received more than $126 million in cash and stock during his tenure at Citigroup, up through and including Citigroup’s bailout by the U.S. Treasury.

    The Trumpet (aka Agent Orange) has boldly moved forward – instead of Foxes we now have Wolves in the hen house. I would like to think the Democrats could resist, but we here in Indiana are saddled with Joe Donnelly a true DINO.

  9. Theresa,

    That’s what Karl Marx implied in “Das Kapital”. Capitalism, left to its own devices will destroy itself (and the society in which it presides) from within. Everyone but the most greedy see this happening in our country today.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  10. I may be wrong, but if my memory serves me correctly, I believe Michael Hicks of Ball State University is in a Koch funded position.

  11. Total corruption, corrupts totally. We have made a step too far, and Dr. Kennedy: we are living in those ‘interesting times.’ I hope there is someone around to read the record when all is said and done.
    But do remember: corruption can only corrupt that which IS corruptable.
    From what I read, you stand on that which seeks to undo corruption. Keep writing!

  12. The “rumors” about George Mason have been an open secret since the ’90s at least.

    It’s well known that donors have significant influence over the direction of a University, but normally these are nudges only, that have gradual long-term effects. It’s the quid-pro-quo nature of the donations at GMU that is unusual; the net result is that no one takes anything that comes out of there seriously. Nonetheless, press releases & position papers from the Far Right will be able to use “respected Professor and Chair” when supporting fringe opinions.

  13. Democracy has lots of symptoms of distress these days and as expected all of us blind people feel the elephant differently. This person reports the elephant feels like a giant snake; this one opines more like a tree trunk; over here someone else says a giant wall; while the one in the rear is sure that it’s a little snake. We can only agree on one thing and that is that the past is crumbling and we have yet to start building a future. Our intellect tells us that time is a one way street to our senses but we are so afraid of change our timid hearts quake because we just don’t know anything anymore.

    As we used to say at work, it’s time to paint. The prep time is over. The color may not be perfect but the walls will remain imperfect until we try it. Open the bucket.

    I have always believed that the people here at Sheila’s place are those among us who worry the most and that’s good and bad. Good because we have an acute sense of trouble. Good because we can everyday diagnose many possible causes for each symptom. Bad because until we can agree on a color we can only keep preparing and never painting.

    We know that in a democracy the only thing that we each are given to act by is a couple of votes. How can such a simple thing solve a large and spreading mess? But though the fear of such an uncertain future creates much doubt I think we know that voting is not our weapon, consensus is and that’s is what is in inadequate supply.

    My solution seems too simple but it’s a decisive brush stroke on the wall which will reveal the next flaw for renovation. Vote D’s and through that act fire R’s. That’s a might rumble portending change from the status quo and freeing us from some of our current burden. Is it enough? Not by a long shot. It’s the first step in a journey to the future. It’s a step that necessarily transfers some of our fear and doubt to the Koch’s now overconfident army.

    Just do the damned thing.

  14. Want to know who the The Trumpet (aka Agent Orange) invited to “bless” the opening of our new embassy in Jerusalem???

    Jeffress is the leader of a Dallas-area Baptist church and a spiritual adviser to Trump. So what does a “spiritual advisor” for Agent Orange think??? If you said Toxicity – You would be Right.

    Pastor who prayed at embassy opening is ‘a religious bigot’, says Mitt Romney
    Robert Jeffress has made offensive remarks on Judaism and Islam.

    An evangelical pastor who former presidential candidate Mitt Romney denounced as a “religious bigot” delivered a prayer at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on Monday.

    Romney, a Mormon, wrote on Twitter on Sunday: “Robert Jeffress says ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell’. He has said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States embassy in Jerusalem.”

    Jeffress responded to Romney on the same platform, writing: “Historic Christianity has taught for 2,000 years that salvation is through faith in Christ alone. The fact that I, along with tens of millions of evangelical Christians around the world, continue to espouse that belief, is neither bigoted nor newsworthy.”

    Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both senior White House aides, were present.

    Concurrently in Gaza, health officials said 41 Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces opened fire at protesters rallying against the embassy opening. Officials who spoke to Reuters said at least 900 were injured, about 450 by live bullets.

    I wonder if Pastor Jeffress blessed the bullets that killed the Palestinians. Where was Pastor Pence, when a grovelling, smiling bobble head is needed??? He is usually there.

    You know it is one thing to think salvation is through faith in Christ alone as Pastor Jeffress says. However, it is repulsive to think everyone else is going to hell and proudly say it. I suppose all the bible thumpers are raising their hands and shouting out Amen.

  15. We were warned by those who were paying attention that as soon as Trump was in office the courts were already on the list to be flooded with extremely young and very Evangelistic conservatives who will determine the direction this country will go for the next 50 years or so. As we, on a daily basis, hear of both obvious and not so obvious damage done by this administration and its supporters I am waiting for someone to convince me the thorough job being done by Mueller will make any difference at all. Strategy aided by dark money has proven effective for those wanting and demanding the destruction of rule of law and everything else we hold dear so what is left?

  16. A friend of mine summarized the dilemma as :

    NO + $$ = YES

    He appears right on.

  17. About 50 years ago, I read “The End of An American Era” by Andrew Hacker. Opening up his book again, it looks like he called it just about right.

    We’re now in a new era, I wonder how it will be titled?

  18. Having a leading ANTI-SEMITIC Southern Baptist Convention minister giving the prayer for opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, should give us a hint to what America’s “New Era” will probably look like.

  19. Marv, pastor Jeffress hate is all inclusive – he’s described Roman Catholicism as a “cult-like pagan religion,” which represents “the genius of Satan”.

    He will probably start selling over priced tours to Israel.

  20. Monotonous,

    This is a WAR AGAINST DEMOCRACY. I believe you understand it better than anyone on this blog. You were in Viet Nam. You understand what a real war looks and feels like. The “tools of democracy” are not enough. That includes FREEDOM OF SPEECH, which are the weapons of reporters like Chris Hedges, and those who report for The Guardian.

    It takes much more than “SPEAKING TRUTH to power.” You have to be willing to “STAND UP to power.” That’s a whole different “Ballgame.” You can’t play it unless you are willing to ASSUME THE RISKS INVOLVED. The possibility of DEATH is one of the risks of a REAL WAR.

  21. Being a Koch means being as vile and despicable as Trump, but better educated. To the Kochs, the planet is their trash heap which they pollute in pursuit of profits. They, like Trump, personify the concept of “billionaire bullies”.

Comments are closed.