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George Mason lands $5 million Koch Foundation donation for economics department

A statue of George Mason stands on the university campus bearing his name in Fairfax, Va. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

George Mason University will use a $5 million gift to its economics department to create three faculty positions, the school announced Thursday.

The gift comes from the Charles Koch Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to colleges and universities across the country. The Koch family is known for its support of conservative political groups, and at George Mason, concerns have been raised by some students and faculty about the foundation and whether its generosity influences academic freedom.

“It means a tremendous amount to the economics department,” Dan Houser, the department’s chairman, said of the latest gift. “It allows us to compete for top faculty. The marketplace is highly competitive right now.”

The money will go toward helping the department hire for three tenure-track positions, including a senior scholar, who is a more experienced faculty member with experience teaching and conducting research, and two junior scholars who are at an earlier stage of their academic careers.

“As a result of having these new folks around, we’re going to be able to offer more classes, and provide more opportunities for more students, and be more visible as well, in the research we do,” Houser said.

George Mason faculty members have twice won the Nobel Prize in economics, with James M. Buchanan receiving the award in 1986 and Vernon L. Smith winning in 2002.

The Charles Koch Foundation and George Mason also garnered attention in 2016, when the foundation pledged $10 million to the public institution in Northern Virginia as part of a bundle of combined gifts that led the university to rename its law school for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

In an announcement about the $5 million donation, George Mason’s president, Ángel Cabrera, tried to address concerns some might have about the funding, saying the Koch gifts tend to attract scrutiny.

“I feel compelled to once again affirm that all gifts accepted by the university, including this one, are strictly compliant with our principles of academic independence,” he said. “The Charles Koch Foundation has been a generous donor to the university for many years and has consistently shown deep respect for and support of our commitment to academic independence and free and open intellectual inquiry.”

Samantha Parsons — a staff member of UnKoch My Campus, an organization that focuses on the Koch family and its influence on higher education — said people are worried about gifts from the foundation.

“And, as a public institution, George Mason University is supposed to be accountable to the public,” she said in an email. “The public is demanding proof that the university prioritizes the interests of the common good, not just its private donors.”

Funding from the foundation helps provide resources to schools so they can pursue the visions they have established, said John Hardin, the Koch foundation’s director of university relations. In this case, that vision is to increase the size of George Mason’s faculty.

“And so our role, our responsibility here, is to provide those resources. We’re writing a check so that they can do that,” Hardin said. “Our other responsibility here is to ensure that the university has full academic independence, that it is an environment in which there is free and open inquiry.”

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