FSU Trades Academic Freedom for Billionaire Charles Koch’s Money

Professors at Florida State University object to the school's new contract which allows Koch reps to green light new hires.

By Jamilah King May 11, 2011

The billionaire Koch brothers — no strangers to throwing millions at conservative causes — made headlines last month for bankrolling Wisconsin’s all-out assault on public workers. Now, professors at Florida State University are criticizing the brothers’ rolls in allegedly interfering in faculty hiring at the school — a publicly funded university — and raising larger questions about how universities are protecting academic freedoms in times of economic uncertainty.

The $1.5 million deal was signed in 2008 and allows representatives from one of Koch’s foundation’s to screen and sign off on any hires to a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise" in the school’s economics department. But two professors have recently revived the controversy, criticizing the contract as an assault on academic freedom in the Tallahassee Democrat.

From the St. Petersburg Times:

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates.

FSU isn’t the only university in the country where the Koch brothers have made their mark. The Times also notes that they’ve also shelled out money under similar agreements to Clemson University in South Carolina and West Virginia University to Florida Gulf Coast University and George Mason University in Virginia, and made sizable donations to Florida Gulf Coast University and George Mason University.

"The Kochs find, as I do, that a lot of regulation is actually detrimental and they’re convinced markets work relatively well when left alone," Bruce Benson, chairman of FSU’s economics department, said. Benson noted that six out of 20 economics professors at FSU fall into Koch’s free-market thinking.

The Times also notes that most universities strictly limit donors’ influence over the use of their gifts. Notably, back in 1995 Yale University returned $20 million when the donor demanded power to veto potential academic appointments. At the time, the university called that type of control "unheard of."

Though academic freedom shouldn’t be for sale, like many public colleges and universities around the country, Florida State is facing tough economic times. In 2008, the Orlando Sentinel reported on the university announced plans to cut enrollment, eliminate 250 jobs and reduce student services to cover a $32 million shortfall. The Tallahassee Democrat reported last month that the university has cut more than $85 million since 2007, and the legislature is asking for another $19.3 million in the near future.