National News

Revelations Over Koch Gifts Prompts Inquiry at George Mason University

Posted May 1, 2018 8:59 p.m. EDT

The president of George Mason University has ordered an inquiry into whether big-money donors are being given undue influence over academic matters, after documents were released showing that the Charles Koch Foundation had been given a voice in hiring and firing professors.

The university president, Angel Cabrera, wrote in an email to faculty Monday night that he was ordering the investigation after learning of documents revealing “problematic gift agreements.”

Cabrera met Tuesday with the faculty senate to discuss a review of gift acceptance policy, “and there were a lot of interesting proposals from the faculty,” Michael Sandler, a university spokesman, said. Sandler said the review would cover every gift agreement, no matter how small, that supported faculty.

In response, the Koch foundation released a statement saying that the hiring agreements in question had expired and were no longer used, and that in any case, they had allowed the foundation only to recommend candidates for positions, not to make final appointments.

The newly released documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Samantha Parsons of UnKoch My Campus, a group that seeks to expose the influence of the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch over colleges and universities.

“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that Koch really demonstrated the way in which any big donor could have influence over academia if the university is willing to agree to those terms,” Parsons, a former George Mason student, said.

In a Friday message to the university staff, Cabrera said that he had just learned that the university had entered into agreements with donors from 2003 to 2011 that gave them the right to participate in faculty selection and evaluation. “Except for the most recent one, these agreements have expired,” he said. Sandler said the one that had not expired had been voided.

“All but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures,” Cabrera said.

His message came as UnKoch My Campus publicized agreements regarding Koch-funded professorships in economics that it had received through the Freedom of Information Act. Cabrera did not specifically name the Koch Foundation as the donor he was referring to, but Sandler confirmed that it was.

While the agreements did not give donors full control over academic decisions, Cabrera said, they “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

Parsons said she believed there were other Koch Foundation agreements that had not been released. “If they’re saying the problem is null and void, they need to release all the agreements that haven’t expired,” Parsons said.

The Koch brothers have poured millions of dollars into universities nationwide, money that has gone toward hiring professors, building research that promotes capitalism, and supporting libertarian and conservative political views. George Mason, a public university in Fairfax County, Virginia, has been one of the largest recipients of Koch donations.

According to an analysis of tax records by The Associated Press, the Koch Foundation gave $48 million to George Mason from 2011 to 2014.

In 2016, the Koch Foundation gave $10 million to rename George Mason’s law school in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court, who died that year.

In an open letter to “our current and future university partners,” the Koch Foundation said that the grant agreements were old — from 2006 to 2009 — and that “they have been obsolete for years.”

The letter continued: “These agreements did allow us to have a say in recommending candidates who were considered for the faculty positions we supported. Once the candidates were proposed, the standard university hiring procedures began, and the faculty were free to approve or reject candidates.”

The letter described the procedure as common in the creation of named and chaired professorships, but said that the Koch Foundation’s current grant agreements did not include such provisions.

“To be clear, we champion academic freedom and do not seek to influence the hiring practices of university departments nor have input on curricular or research decisions,” the letter said.