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Koch Bros., Ayn Rand, and Florida State

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Conservatives sometimes rail against the liberal left dictating the curriculum at universities. But to my knowledge, no rich leftie has endowed a professorship with the stipulations that they get a say in who gets hired in it and they get to require that a particular book be taught in the curriculum. (Anticipated neo-conservative response: see how bad things have become? We must take drastic measures!) Fill in the blanks with “Koch brothers” and “Atlas Shrugged” and you have the situation at Florida State. Michael Ruse muses here. Ruse: “What I find more troublesome is that the dean of the College of Social Science and the chair of the Department of Economics seem bewildered that there should have been any controversy.” The Onion should take note: FSU is outdoing them.

CORRECTION: I was wrong; the Koch Bros. haven’t insisted on Atlas Shrugged. That’s another course at FSU, sponsored by a bank.

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13 Comments

  1. Seems to be a very broad brush to say that no left of center donor has ever explicitly stated that they could defund the endowment to the university if the university went in another direction than the donor agreed with.

    This issue is summarized under the idea of “donor intent” in the charity world.

    I am clearly biased on this issue, and it colors the rest of my comments.

    I will be happy to discuss this in detail since I know many of the donors and recipients both at FSU and the many other universities that receive money from a variety of private donors with free-market agendas.

    But, let us first consider that donors do make decisions on who to fund. Many are not as explicit as the ones Koch and Allison have made. That doesn’t change the outcome, except that there are more teeth in implicit threats than in explicit contracts. I read your above statements in this post as opposing that any private funder ever be explicit about the conditions to renew funding. The only outcome that I can see here is that funding would dry up or be changed to the type that is more prevalent now, the kind that is directed by heavy handed political threats behind-the-scenes.

    Some history: At Virginia in the 1960s James Buchanan and Ronald Coase both future Nobel laureates in economics were run off the campus by a faculty that accused them of being fascists (people being unable to see the difference between Mussolini and libertarians). The charges against them were very similar to the ones being leveled at FSU (quick and dirty guilt by association). I think we have to be very careful about politicizing an methodology that has consistently performed at the top of the economics profession and has been rewarded with many Nobel prizes for innovative thinking contributing to progress in social sciences. No methodology is flawless, but to associate Koch and Allison with nefarious attempts to corrupt education seems very rash considering how little substance is in the charges against them.

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  2. Maybe a more tractable question:

    Is Aristotle fundamentally flawed for taking money from Phillip of Macedonia?

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  3. Huenemann says:

    From what I read, the applicants for the endowed position at FSU are vetted by a committee consisting of two FSU employees and someone appointed by the Koch foundation. Yes, private donors can be explicit about the sort of specialist they want – statistician, philosopher of religion, etc. – but when they want to reach this far into the appointment process, I think the university – particularly a public university – should reconsider the deal. And when a donor wants to dictate what gets read in the curriculum, they definitely should reconsider!

    If someone wants to set up a private school, with their own money, and appoint whomever they wish and select the curriculum, then of course they may do so – but the resultant school shouldn’t get much respect, and won’t. That’s why, I take it, even private universities are generally leery of the sort of arrangement FSU has accepted.

    The ideal of the university is to allow ideas to flourish without distortion from special interests. That’s what makes a university valuable. Going along with that ideal, an endowment has to be risky: “Here’s my money – do with it what you think best, given the ideal of the university.” Given the same ideal, from the story you tell, it sounds like Buchanan and Coase should have been protected.

    Maybe some lefties have done the same thing as the Kochs – I just haven’t heard of it. Certainly oil companies and pharmaceuticals are violating the ideals of the university in many colleges of science. And the result is that many scientists view the funded “findings” skeptically.

    Yes, to the extent we can see Aristotle’s philosophy as skewed with the aim of maintaining Phillip’s support, his philosophy is certainly flawed. But it’s a harder case to judge, since Aristotle wasn’t in a university. And, for what it’s worth, my bet is that Phillip, unlike the Kochs, didn’t much care what the designated scholar came up with.

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    • First, It might interest you to make a further distinction in your assessment of “The Kochs” Charles Koch is the one in question. David Koch, to the best of my understanding is not involved. Just like the conflation of Charles Koch and John Allison, it seems opportunistic.

      Second, I think you hit the exact point I wanted to draw out of you in your response to the Aristotle question, but I am not sure that you are applying it consistently. The merit of the arguments are judged by the merit of the arguments, not the funding source. I don’t think you get around that point with the dichotomy of private and public universities. There is nothing sanctified about getting money from taxpayers that makes it unlike money from Charles. The issue in question is how would arguments without merit persist?

      I think the entire academy would have no reason to exist if we are so confused that we judge merit on who has the biggest war chest.

      Considering political bias exists all the way across the political spectrum in a way not reducible to one vector of commensurability, it seems odd that you will place unique bias at the feet of Charles Koch and not any other organization.

      I am unsure what you are charging FSU with — Are you saying that a member of the hiring committee is a Koch Foundation member? That seems wrong.

      It seems that every single endowed chair responds to the wishes of the donor. Again donor intent. This is normal, and should occur on the left as well. If you will let me know about any living donor who has endowed a chair you consider to be left-wing, I will be happy to investigate so we can have a fair comparison.

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  4. Huenemann says:

    Michael, your note led me finally to read the explanation offered by the president of FSU. (Ruse links to it, and I should have read it earlier.) It does make it sound like I and others are being quite unfair. Here, in part, in what President Barron wrote:

    “We also know that the faculty of the Department of Economics had significant debate about accepting the gift specifically because of the potential that external influence might compromise the integrity of the department, especially if that influence was not focused on bringing true scholars to Florida State. But members of our department, in expressing concerns about outside influence, also committed themselves not to accept any candidate that they would not be proud to accept as a member of their faculty. In addition, the two FSU Eminent Scholars in Economics who represented two-thirds of the advisory board worked together with that very same level of commitment to quality and integrity. The faculty went into the process ready to reject the gift if it meant compromising the department.[…]

    “Further, the economics department controlled the search. It made the first cut on the applications — reducing the list to approximately 50 candidates. Yes, faculty did send this list of 50 potential candidates to the three-person advisory committee, and the advisory committee narrowed the list to 16. Yes, the KCF representative weighed in on who on the list of 50 candidates she thought were qualified. The three-person advisory board had to be unanimous in its choices of finalists, so yes, any one of the board members could have denied a candidate. And yes, members of our faculty worried out loud about what criteria the KCF representative might apply. But the faculty interviewed some of the 16 recommended by the advisory board, and they also interviewed others not on this list.

    “In the end, the faculty offered the job to one individual of the 16, but that person took a job at Cornell University instead. The faculty also proposed hiring one person who was not one of the 16 from the list of 50 candidates, and no objection was offered by the advisory board. At the same time, the faculty had a separate candidate search going on involving a position funded by the university’s Pathways of Excellence hiring initiative. The faculty proposed to offer a position to an individual from this group of candidates using KCF funds, and this too received no objection from the advisory board. So in both cases, the choice of the faculty was honored.”

    (CH again): okay, if this is all true, it sounds like the ideals of the university were preserved in this case. The role of the Kochs’ representative wasn’t as great as I had feared.

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  5. At the end of the day, the attack on Charles Koch should be narrowly defined to whether or not his interests are being promoted by lobbying activity though any of his organizations. If so, are they invalid intellectually, ipso facto?

    Just like the Synthese issue on evolution, a small victory is won every time a bigot, radical fundamentalist, or idiot consents to put their writings in journal article form with references and clear logical statements. What more could we want from academics but to have every possible argument formulated in this way so that it can be measured and evaluated? I think we lose nothing by thinking critically about “irreducible complexity” knowing that argument teaches about science just as much as a valid theory does, as long as it is clear what is being argued.

    I guess I don’t feel that public reason is manipulated by adding arguments to the mix, only in accepting ones without scrutiny.

    David Koch made the unfortunate choice to fund political organizations at the Tea Party events. [Historical Footnote, the tea party was a money bomb for Ron Paul in 2007 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moneybomb — A distinction should be made between this and the Sarah Palin Tea Party, which is not, should we say academic]

    Combine this with the Citizen’s United decision and you have a legitimate concern with corporate influence. But, it makes no sense to leap from political posturing and tea party rallys (David Koch – explicit links) to funding professorships at FSU (Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, different mission statement). FSU has been forced to cut professorships drastically during the recession. Adding professors at this time seems uncontroversial, unless you think that people making academic arguments that are not politically vetted is toxic.

    I don’t think the case has been made that Koch politically vetted FSU’s hires, which seems to be the only substance that would justify an ethical breech allegation.

    What I think is the real issue here is that people are upset about the success of the tea party, that is no secret. I am disgusted that a brilliant campaign idea for Ron Paul turned into book deals for Palin. The mileage that Fox News got out of dragging George Soros through the mud naturally leads to looking for funders on the “other side.” It should be clear that while the Kochs have unfair influence as a result of being born very very rich, Charles Koch is no more Republican than than George Bush was a turtle. It is really tempting to see the world in terms of academic liberals vs. everyone else (Republicans), especially in the days of rigging elections and gerrymandering to maximize political tensions.

    I just think we, as academics, have a higher standard. I understand the appeal of conspiracy theory, but perhaps actually finding the substantial problem created by Charles Koch and subjecting it to scrutiny would convince me that there was some substance to this latest news cycle event.

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  6. Kleiner says:

    Interesting discussion. I think my initial reaction to the news (which was negative) was colored by my general lack of respect for the work of Ayn Rand.

    To Huenemann:
    You express concern about donors meddling in the area of what gets read in the curriculum. So I am curious: Suppose donor Franky Elitist has a lot of money he wants to donate to USU. What he wants to do is fund a great books program. His endowment will pay for x number of endowed chairs, and those people will be charged with running and teaching the great books program. When pressed on what he means by a “great books program”, Franky Elitist provides a big list of canonical authors and works. He says he’ll only give the money if the university promises that the endowed chairs will teach from this list.

    Is that a bad deal, a deal you would want a public university to refuse?

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    • Just to be clear on where I stand, Any Rand is a novelist, and not a particularly interesting one in my estimation. I think her “movement” is somewhat interesting only in a historical and political sense. That being said, 1 / 1000 faculty members being Randian would make the world a more interesting place.

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  7. If Jon Haidt is right in his critiques of academic groupthink, there is a very good reason to believe that the academy responds to issues about markets, and the role they play in society, with the same open-mindedness that a southern Baptist church holds for Catholics. (I am starting to buy the link between the academy and a particular moral perspective of the world). The types of students that are encouraged, the opportunities revealed, and the natural gravitation of professors to certain students, all would suggest necessary conditions for bias (perhaps sufficient conditions would only require ignoring this bias).

    For these reasons, I think we, as academics, have to stand up and assert what makes our respective professions something that is intellectually rigorous rather than something politically corruptible. I think this is the essential common ground between myself and Huenemann, and I do not want to do anything that might imply a shrinking of common ground. This is why I think it is essential to force a concrete epistemological and methodological commitment from free-market types so that we avoid Wittgenstein-ian private language problems within that group.

    Haidt talks about the misunderstanding by academics of religion here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html

    While it is not directly related, I think some of his assertions about group think in the article are helpful to the direction I am going with my critique.

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  8. Razor says:

    The Memorandum of Understanding between FSU and the Koch Bros. Educational Foundation states that Koch will appoint all 3 members of the supervisory committee monitoring hiring of the Koch Grant professors and their work output. It just so happens that currently, 2 of those members are FSU libertarian faculty members. Any decision of the 3 member panel must be unanimous, so all 3 have veto power. This entire agreement between FSU and Koch has been referred to the FSU Faculty Senate, to my knowledge, by the FSU President.

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  9. Is the NAACP ethical?

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56660.html

    Rather than advocating general free-market policy, they only argue in the specific case for the company which donates money to their organization.

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