The Koch Brothers have an image problem. They know it, and they're working on it.
And so it isn't a huge coincidence to hear proponents and detractors alike point to their recent support of anti-cancer and criminal justice reform causes and say, "See? They're not that bad."
Earlier this year, a piece published in the New Yorker—not a sympathetic publication to the Kochs by any stretch—looked at how their recent philanthropic efforts, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform, are part of an "extraordinary exercise in rebranding," according to David Axelrod, the former political adviser to President Barack Obama.
Which brings us to the Charles Koch Foundation's recent $3.5 million gift to Southern Methodist University, which will launch the new Deason Family Criminal Justice Reform Center in its Dedman School of Law. The gift seems to suggest that the brothers' rebranding effort shows no signs of abating.
Now, you may sense a whiff of cynicism, but let's promptly end that line of interpretation. The Koch Brothers, regardless of their two-headed Sauron-like image, are deeply committed to criminal justice reform.
For example, as we noted late last year, an unlikely group of funders—Ford, MacArthur, Arnold, and, yes, Koch Industries—put up $5 million in funding to back a newly formed group, the Coalition for Public Safety, which supports new legislative and community initiatives to reform criminal justice and end what ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called our "40-year addiction to incarceration."
And so the Charles Koch Foundation's gift to SMU fits a predictable and promising pattern of giving. SMU's new center will let scholars "undertake independent research and develop educational opportunities on topics such as the causes of wrongful convictions and over-incarceration, and ensuring the fair and ethical treatment of individuals at all stages of the criminal justice process."
What's more, unlike some of the Kochs other, more controversial spending habits, folks from all political stripes can agree on the need for criminal justice reform, a sentiment best articulated by Jennifer Collins, the Judge James Noel Dean and Professor of Law at Dedman School of Law:
Policy makers across the ideological spectrum are talking about the need for criminal justice reform. From the adequacy of defense counsel, to police uses of force, to wrongful convictions and the racial disparities in the criminal justice system—these are the huge issues of our time. This new center will work well with our existing criminal clinic and innocence clinic, and build on our existing faculty strength in criminal law.
The gift was complimented by an additional $3.5 million from the Deason Foundation, a Dallas-based grantmaker that supports Christian agencies and churches, education, and medical research. Its namesake is Darwin Deason—and therein lies some irony, as Charles Darwin effectively disproved certain tenets of Christianity, like original sin. He is the founder of Affiliated Computer Systems, launched in 1988 to handle business processes for clients such as E-ZPass, 7-Eleven, and UPS.
What's next for the Koch Brothers' ongoing rebranding efforts?
Well, in addition to recent news that Charles said it was "possible" he'd support Hillary Clinton for president, inside sources also tell us to expect an exclusive photo spread in People magazine of the brothers nuzzling kittens and making balloon animals for kids.