Not Just Koch Money: The Larger Debate About Donor Clout and Transparency in Campus Gifts

photo:  John M. Chase/shutterstock

photo:  John M. Chase/shutterstock

The foundation dedicated to raising money for George Mason University is a private institution and not required to reveal donor agreements under Virginia law, a judge ruled recently in a lawsuit brought by students against the foundation. Students sued the foundation and the university—which was dropped from the lawsuit earlier this year—for access to the school’s agreements with the Charles Koch Foundation.

The ruling was a win for donor privacy, but is unlikely to stem the growing calls for greater transparency when it comes to philanthropic gifts to universities and the hidden strings attached to them. Various stakeholders—including students, faculty, and alumni—often feel they have a strong interest in knowing what campus donors expect in return for their money. 

Additionally, though the court’s decision affirmed the privacy of the foundation, the public university’s records were still subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, the judge said. That includes any communications between the foundation and GMU, according to reporting from the Washington Post.

Related: A New Challenge to Koch Gifts on Campus Raises Larger Issues About Transparency

Earlier this year, GMU President Ángel Cabrera released agreements the school had made with the Charles Koch Foundation from 2003 to 2011. The details that emerged confirmed the fears of Koch’s critics.

The 10 agreements released by the school allowed the foundation to influence hiring and evaluation of professors at the school’s Mercatus Center for free-market research. Under deals from 2007 and 2009, a five-person selection committee would evaluate candidates for a professorship. The foundation was allowed to choose two of the committee’s five members. GMU also allowed the Koch Foundation to influence evaluation of professors’ performances through advisory boards.

In a statement provided to Inside Philanthropy for an earlier story on this lawsuit, John Hardin, the foundation’s director of university relations, stressed universities’ “independence to define their vision and to fulfill it.

But GMU’s President Cabrera said that the released agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet,” in an email to staff obtained by the organization UnKoch My Campus. Cabrera took office in 2012, after the donations were made.

The stipulations attached to Koch’s gifts were outside the norm of donor behavior, according to Inside Higher Ed. It’s not unusual for donors to support professorships in fields that align with their views, “but academic values have long held that donors don’t get to pick who holds chairs or evaluates them,” reporter Colleen Flaherty wrote.

Though GMU has been a favorite for Koch’s higher ed giving, it’s not the only school where the Koch Foundation has tried to make this type of agreement. Back in 2007, the foundation tried to negotiate a similar deal with Florida State University. In exchange for more than $1 million in funding, the foundation wanted influence over the curriculum, and hiring and department chair decisions, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The pattern is troubling for Koch’s critics in part because the foundation gives to so many colleges and universities, typically to support work by right-leaning scholars who advance free market views in line with Charles Koch's libertarian ideology. Koch has said the donations he’s given for ideas and policy work have been far more effective than his political contributions.

In an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May, John Hardin wrote that while many institutions actually do allow the kind of donor involvement that occurred in the GMU case, the Koch Foundation has since revised its grantmaking process to "make our commitment to academic independence absolutely clear." (You can see its standard grant agreement template here.)

Gifts to higher ed from the foundation have been on the rise the past several years and are only likely to increase. As of January 2018, the foundation gives to more than 300 colleges and universities. It is unknown how many of those gifts, if any, came with caveats similar to those negotiated at GMU. The larger picture is that nearly all major campus donors expect certain outcomes from their gifts. It's hard to imagine that Charles Koch would give tens of millions to universities without a strong interest in how that money is being used. 

While Koch is a popular target when it comes to criticizing this type of influence philanthropy on campuses, he's not the only donor that merges academic giving with their ideology. On the right, the Olin Foundation was a top conservative donor to higher education until it closed its doors in 2005. The foundation supported professorships, research and student leadership programs. The Bradley Foundation is another that fills this niche.

On the left, George Soros’ Institute for New Economic Thinking invests in progressive-leaning economic research. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth and the Russell Sage Foundation both support academic research looking at inequality. Traditionally, funders like the Ford Foundation have also backed progressive scholarship on campuses.

What sets the Charles Koch Foundation apart is the scale of its grantmaking, which has more than doubled in recent years. However, it's important to note that not all of this money goes to conservative scholars and centers. As we've reported, the foundation has become a leading funder of academic work on criminal justice reform, as well as on national security, where it's backing prominent thinkers who are challenging U.S. military intervention overseas. 

The ongoing controversy around Koch money on campus comes amid rising worries about the influence of wealthy philanthropists in many areas of U.S. life. 

Earlier this year, a $25 million gift from Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone group’s CEO and co-founder, to a public high school in Pennsylvania faced backlash when the public discovered the demands the school district agreed to in order to secure the funds.

As part of the donation, Schwarzman wanted to rename the school after himself and christen parts of its campus in honor of family members and classmates. He also wanted a say in the curriculum and to oversee the school’s renovation. When constituents learned of the deal the school district had struck without voter input, they sent the district back to renegotiate the terms.

The decision in the GMU case may narrowly favor donors, foundations and their privacy, but it will do little to silence the increasing clamor for transparency across the education system.