McLEAN, Va. (AP) — The conservative Charles Koch Foundation is dramatically increasing its donations to colleges and universities at a time when its philanthropy is facing increasing scrutiny, according to tax records.
The foundation gave nearly $49 million to more than 250 colleges across the U.S. in 2016, according to an Associated Press review of the foundation’s most recent tax records. That’s a 47 percent increase over 2015.
John Hardin, director of university relations for the foundation, said the increases stem from the fact that the foundation’s philanthropy is becoming more well-known and professors are increasingly approaching them with proposals. He also said the foundation’s relationship with schools has deepened to where some schools that might have only received a few thousand dollars five years ago now receive hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
“We’ve had the opportunity with more and more folks hearing about us to have more and more scholars coming to us,” Hardin said, with proposals for study not just in economics but also in criminal justice and free expression.
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The foundation, though, is finding its philanthropy receiving an increasingly skeptical reception at campuses across the country.
A scandal erupted last month at ground zero for the Koch Foundation’s philanthropy – George Mason University, Virginia’s largest college.
While the foundation gives money to colleges across the country, no university is a bigger beneficiary than Mason. Of the $49 million donated to colleges in 2016, Mason and its affiliated Institute for Humane Studies received more than $19 million of it, far more than any other school.
For years, University President Angel Cabrera and other school administrators had brushed aside concerns from student activists that the money compromised academic independence at the school, which has developed a reputation as a conservative powerhouse in law and economics.
On April 27, Cabrera sent a “Dear Colleague” note to Mason faculty saying he had recently become aware that some agreements between the foundation and the school’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank, “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”
Specifically, the agreements gave the foundation a say in the hiring and firing of some professors by allowing the donor to appoint members to selection committees and advisory boards that would recommend candidates for professorships and review their performance.
The agreements were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, three days after a judge heard arguments in a separate lawsuit about whether other grant agreements should be released under FOIA.
Mason’s links to the foundation stretch back decades and had largely escaped scrutiny until 2016, when it renamed its law school for conservative jurist Antonin Scalia in conjunction with a $10 million Koch Foundation gift.
The Scalia donation, and now the revelations about the grant agreements, have energized activists to pursue changes in how Mason does business going forward. Cabrera has agreed to undertake a review of all the school’s donor agreements to see if they contain problematic provisions like those in the Koch agreements.
Mason is just one among many campuses that are scrutinizing Koch money. Ralph Wilson, research director for unKoch My Campus, said the Koch Foundation’s philanthropy in higher education “has grown exponentially” over the years. But he said more and more campuses are questioning the funding, and that the revelations about the Mason grant agreements are fueling those concerns.
At Chapman University in California, which received $225,000 from Koch in 2016 and is slated to receive $5 million to help establish a Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, students are questioning the school’s president, Daniele Struppa, about the school’s dealings with the foundation.
Struppa is a former dean at Mason.
After numerous articles questioning the deals in the student newspaper, the school and the Koch Foundation agreed this week to let an editor at the student paper, The Panther, see the donor agreement and ask questions about it, but the editor will not be allowed to take written notes about the agreement’s provisions or take any pictures or make copies of it.
In a statement, Struppa said donor agreements are typically private documents. “Showing them to the student paper and faculty senate president was unusual but it was important to me for them to see that the Koch Foundation agreements were very standard and contained no ‘strings,'” he said.
He said that “nowhere in the Koch agreement are the names of the faculty to be hired mentioned; and nowhere are the control and agency of the faculty challenged. There are no strings whatsoever.”
He said he would be violating his own faculty’s academic freedom if he stopped them from seeking grants from the Koch Foundation. “I have always been and continue to be a fierce advocate of academic freedom. This means supporting the pursuit of knowledge across all ideologies, not just those I personally agree with,” he said.
At other schools, resistance to Koch Foundation money was building before the revelations at Mason. At Utah State University, a faculty task force was created earlier this year to monitor a $25 million gift to the school last year from the Koch Foundation to expand the university’s business school and create a Center for Growth and Opportunity.
And at Wake Forest University, the faculty senate voted last year to ask the administration to reject $3.7 million in Koch Foundation funding for an institute to study the nature of “human flourishing.”
Hardin acknowledged that Koch Foundation grants are facing increased scrutiny, and attributed it to “a handful of activists” who he said “find ways to harass and try to censor” academic work rather than debate it on its merits. “We find that deeply troubling, and deeply concerting.”
He said the foundation will remain committed to philanthropy even at schools where some faculty and staff raise objections.