Prior to 3/5/2008 the newsclips are available in a PDF archive.
News Clips 05/02/2011
LETTER: Universities deal with political economics
Source: Tallahassee Democrat, 05/01/11
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By: Ray Bellamy is a practicing physician and on the faculty of the Florida State University College of Medicine; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kent S. Miller is professor emeritus of psychology at Florida State University; contact him at email@example.com.
These headlines recently appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat: "FAMU to lay off 200" and "Florida State University struggles to retain top faculty." Hard times have pushed public universities to find new ways of partnering with the private sector, particularly with corporations and wealthy individuals. The results have not always been pretty.
The ideals of the university call for academic freedom, the search for truth, the right to be led by the data wherever they go, open debate of all sides, faculty control of the classroom, a strong role in governance in academic matters, and the right to speak out without reprisal or fear of having your emails demanded by someone whose politics differ from yours. (The people who requested the emails of a Wisconsin history professor should be punished by forcing them read the entire batch.)
Recently a number of corporations have focused on universities in order to further a political ideology of free markets and diminished government regulation. They are less interested in creating new knowledge than in getting their message out and improving their bottom line.
The pursuit of unbiased information and the projection of an ideology are two starkly contrasting goals and can meld only if one of the parties compromises on some basic values.
Two of the more visible corporations making substantial contributions to universities are the Koch brothers and BB&T. The brothers are owners of the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S. and are much in the news because of efforts to influence public policy, elections, taxes, environmental issues, unions, regulations, etc. BB&T is a large financial services corporation that frequently teams up with Koch.
Both corporations have worked out agreements with colleges and universities across the country, many of them being controversial. James Mason University received over $23 million from Koch brothers foundations to hire seven libertarian professors, subjecting the college to the charge that the university had been "bought." Guilford College accepted a 10-year, $500,000 grant from BB&T, along with the following strings: an upper-level interdisciplinary course requiring the assignment of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" in its entirety, and the commitment of the college to annually (until the year 2019) give a copy of the book to every student who majors either in business or economics when that student enters his or her junior year. Meredith College faculty rejected a $420,000 "gift" that the college president had negotiated with a BB&T foundation on the grounds that the college needed to retain control over course curricula. Incidents of this latter kind abound, but fall far behind the number of instances in which the corporations have gotten the traction they wanted with the schools.
We turn now to an agreement between Florida State's Department of Economics and the Charles G. Koch Foundation.
In 2008, the foundation signed a memorandum of agreement with FSU in which they committed to a proposed budget of $6.5 million over a period of six years, with most of the effort to be located in the economics department. The provisions called for the hiring of five professors and other staff; establishing a program for the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise (SPEFE) and a program for Excellence in Economic Education (EEE); and the development of educational programs for undergraduate students.
A careful reading of the memorandum reveals a number of strings attached to the "gift."
In order to preserve and safeguard the philanthropic and educational intent of the CGK Foundation … an advisory board will be created consisting of three members … chosen by CGK Foundation.
The three senior professors must come in with tenure, and FSU must continue to fund them for at least four years past the project period.
The Advisory Board of SPSFC and EEE is allowed to review all publicly provided material submitted by applicants for the Professorship positions.
The Advisory Board will determine which candidates qualify to receive funding.
No funding for a professorship position or any other affiliated program or position will be released without the review and approval of the Advisory Board.
An undergraduate program will be devised and funded for $30,000 per year for three years. The committee responsible for the program will report to the Advisory Board.
Other strings spell out the right of the CGK Foundation to annually review the work of funded professors, publications, publicity, etc., and to pick up their marbles and go home if not satisfied.
We see all of this as seriously damaging to academic freedom.
David Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, sees the Koch grant in a different light. He noted that the university has not hired anyone it would not have hired otherwise; and that the grant has facilitated the recruitment of two excellent assistant professors, as well as higher quality doctoral students and postdoctoral opportunities.
If things have indeed turned out well for FSU it has to have involved some skillful maneuvering. From our reading of the memorandum, the Koch Foundation has some say over who is hired from the grant and what will be taught. It gets academic cover and access to large numbers of students for a purely political effort. (Selected students earn $200 from the DeVoe Moore Center for reading certain books and attending four meetings over a semester.)
We should make it clear that we do not know the FSU economics professors and we are not impugning them or their qualifications, competency or motivations. Nor do we know what other departments at FSU have made similar arrangements with donors, but we are told that strings are common. The faculty senate should be watching the store with an eye to identifying and making transparent donor efforts to influence the curriculum and faculty selection.