Can Koch Money Come To Campus Without a Fight? Ask Catholic University

The Koch brothers give astounding amounts of money to colleges and universities every year through a fleet of foundations. But before going after this money, consider the potential consequences. A case in point: Catholic University of America’s business and economics school recently accepted a $1 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. Leery of the foundation's politics and reputation as a bossy university donor, CUA faculty and several advocacy organizations have urged the administration to reconsider their decision to take the money.

50 professors and theologians recently sent CUA's administration an open letter outlining the argument. The letter, released by Faith in Public Life, says that at least some of Koch's anti-government, anti-union, anti-poor, climate change denying, pro-Tea Party agenda opposes Catholic teachings. Furthermore, the method by which this foundation pursues that agenda "is simply not academic in nature." The letter even accuses CUA of misrepresenting the Catholic Church by accepting this foundation grant. 

Those 50 signatories "raise legitimate concerns about the message that is sent when Catholic institutions provide an imprimatur of moral legitimacy to those funding a radical libertarian assault on the common good," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. "In contrast to the advocacy of Catholic bishops," he continued,

the Koch brothers bankroll attacks on unions, thwart efforts to address climate change, fight prudent safeguards on markets and lobby to block Medicaid expansion. A political theology of extreme individualism and free-market fundamentalism stands in stark contrast with the communitarian values of Catholic social teaching.

The letter also alleges that the Koch Foundation meddles with “academic content and the hiring process of faculty” at schools to which they donate. Consider a recent incident at Florida State University. In 2008, Florida State accepted $1.5 million from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation—not to be confused with the Charles Koch, sans G—Foundation of present concern.

Documents outlining the donor’s original intent would have given foundation representatives some say in both faculty hiring decisions and evaluations, according The Tampa Bay Times. Florida State violated those terms, refused to grant Charles G. Koch Foundation representatives that leverage, and thus saved face. The debate in that case over accepting money from the Koch family is virtually identical to the current one at CUA, minus the religious component.

President John Garvey and Andrew Abela, dean at CUA’s business and economics, responded to criticisms for taking the grant by way of The Wall Street Journal. They point out that the "Koch Foundation has made gifts to 270 universities in the U.S., including 25 Catholic ones.” Why, they wonder, has the “social justice movement” chosen to seize upon this one instance of private grant making?

The CUA administrators go on to argue that Faith in Public Life’s open letter calls for "a litmus test that neither we nor they would want to apply to other cases.” Fifteen of those 50 signatories "list affiliations with colleges and universities that receive Charles Koch Foundation support," claims a corroborating statement on the university's site.

CUA Associate Vice President for Public Affairs Victor Nakas, who sounded quite finished with the entire issue, last week said the

University will independently select all faculty and staff related to this grant in accordance with existing University hiring policies… I don’t know how we can state this any more clearly. The University has a contractual agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation that stipulates we will follow all our normal University procedures.

Not every university incurs negative publicity for taking Koch money. Consider George Mason University, which has accepted enormous amounts from the foundation and heard little about it from disgruntled faculty. Foundation Center data from 2003 to 2011 show the extent of Koch giving to the school:

  • George Mason University and its affiliated foundation received a total of about $18.6 million from them.
  • Mercatus Center, a conservative think tank at Mason, received about $7.7 million in Koch dollars compared to $883,000 from other sources.
  • The Institute for Humane Studies, which is basically a conditioning program for young libertarian scholars at Mason, received a total of $11.4 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Institute has received about $8.9 million in non-Koch support.

And plenty of other schools are also getting Charles Koch's money and seeing little recourse. The foundation last week committed $5 million to West Virginia University: funds that will sprout yet another “free enterprise scholarship” mushroom in the soil of yet another economics department, replete with Ph.D. fellowships, spots for visiting faculty and a directorship.

The rule of thumb seems to be this: If you have a conservative climate on campus, Koch cash can often come without a fight. If not yet, you may end up reinvesting some portion of that grant in PR damage control.