WHEN STUDENTS and faculty at George Mason University first started to ask questions several years ago about the university’s relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation, they were turned aside. “Nothing to see here” is how one student characterized the school’s response to concerns about possible undue influence in academic matters. Turns out, the worries were not ill-founded. Thanks to the persistence of these activists, the school has now launched an inquiry into agreements involving big-money donors.
In agreements with George Mason University, the Charles Koch Foundation could name members of a selection committee whose appointees could also serve on an advisory board that had the power to recommend dismissal from the school’s Mercatus Center, but had no power over faculty retention or promotion. This version has been updated.
Prodded by a Freedom of Information Act request from UnKoch My Campus, the university has released documents showing the conservative Koch Foundation had been given a voice in faculty selection and evaluation. The agreements released by George Mason showed the Koch Foundation enjoyed the right to name members of a selection committee that could recommend appointment of professors at the school’s Mercatus Center for free-market research. Those appointees could also serve on an advisory board that had the power to recommend faculty dismissals from the Mercatus Center. It is common for donors who support professorships to specify an academic field or speciality for their funding, but long-standing academic principles bar donors from being able to influence who teaches, and by extension, what is taught.
In an email to faculty, George Mason President Ángel Cabrera acknowledged that the agreements, signed between 2003 and 2011, before he took office, and mostly since expired, “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” He ordered a review of all active donor agreements and has met with the Faculty Senate, which is pressing for public disclosure of all donor agreements.
Those are clearly steps in the right direction. But it is worrisome that Virginia’s largest public university, an institution supported with tax dollars, had for so long defended its agreements with the Koch Foundation as not impinging in any way on precepts of academic freedom. Those raising questions were painted as conspiracy theorists, Samantha Parsons, a George Mason alumna who helped found UnKoch My Campus, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Trust us” was the university’s stance, said Bethany Letiecq, president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, noting that absent more details about donor agreements, it is getting “harder and harder” to believe assurances from university officials.
More transparency is needed — including a better accounting of the anonymous $20 million donation that, along with $10 million from the Koch Foundation, renamed the law school for the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Let’s hope then that activists who have brought a lawsuit to get the George Mason University Foundation to release all gift agreements succeed in their efforts.