Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth – unless, of course, it’s a Trojan horse. That’s the somewhat contradictory dynamic at play in a string of recent controversies involving grants and possible grants from brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch. The libertarian philanthropists have earned both praise and ire for their Tea Party-friendly politics and their extensive donations to higher education causes, which critics say come with too many strings. Others say the brothers are generous and simply insistent that their donations be put to best use.
In the most recent case, a professor business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York says that his institution squandered an opportunity to engage the Charles G. Koch Foundation about a multimillion-dollar grant for fear of blowback from the college’s liberal faculty.
"The foundation didn’t make any kind of commitment, but they were certainly entertaining these kinds of things,” said Mitchell Langbert, a libertarian associate professor of business who pursued the possible Koch grant.
At a healthy institution, Langbert continued, “if there’s some possibility of obtaining outside resources, the administration will support it. They will sit down with you and encourage proactive, creative problem-solving that will facilitate the acquisition of the resources.”
He added: “You wouldn’t think the administration would act in a devious way and develop a political stance.”
The professor said that in the summer of 2013, he was in unofficial but promising talks with representatives from the Koch Foundation about a $4.3 million grant to advance market-based economics at Brooklyn College. The grant would have funded the hiring of multiple faculty members and graduate students, and established an honors program and an institute on markets at the college.
He said he approached the foundation with the idea because his dean, Willie Hopkins, previously had said the college intended to make multiple new hires to support its Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools International accreditation bid. Because business professors in certain disciplines earn high salaries, in line with the outside market, a sizeable grant would have allowed the college to afford top faculty, he said.
Langbert said he tried repeatedly to engage Hopkins on the matter, but that he largely did not respond to his phone calls or emails. When they did talk, Hopkins allegedly “negated” every idea about the proposal.
The professor said that in January, after more months of administrative “dithering,” he tried again to talk to Hopkins about creating an institute for the study of financial regulations on campus – this time funded by a possible $9.7 million grant from the Kochs.
He said he was largely ignored, until earlier this month, when the dean told him via email – a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed – that he would have to “cut bait” on the project to focus on getting the business school accredited.
That email was sent just days after the Koch foundation and Koch Industries announced a $25 million grant to the United Negro College Fund, to immediate criticism. Those opposed said that the Koch brothers' record of taking political stances antithetical to those held by many African Americans and the foundation's role in selecting scholarship recipients under the programs being created were at odds with important values at many black colleges.
In another email to Langbert and several other colleagues, Hopkins commented on several news reports about the controversy, saying: “Some of the fallout.”
The United Negro College Fund donation isn’t the first of the Kochs’ to be questioned. Faculty at Florida State University in 2011 were upset to discover that a grant to its economic department contained guarantees about involvement in hiring and alleged curriculum creep, including mandatory Ayn Rand in some courses.
Hopkins did not return a request for an interview through Brooklyn College. Jason Carey, spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that college has “neither received an offer from, nor submitted a proposal to the Koch foundation for a multimillion-dollar grant at this time.”
A faculty member in the School of Business did receive a $5,000 grant from the Koch Foundation for a fall 2013 research project that the dean signed off on, he said.
Carey added: “Any large proposal for any school at Brooklyn College requires significant discussion and time for review to insure alignment with our institutional mission."
The Koch Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Langbert said that he was neither speaking for the foundation or the college, but that he feared academic freedom was at stake because Brooklyn had failed to at least investigate a funding opportunity from a source because it clashed with the college’s “ideology.”
The Koch brothers have donated millions upon millions of dollars to conservative political causes and candidates over several decades. Many of their current causes run directly counter to Obama administration initiatives.
It’s unclear if the hypothetical Brooklyn College grant would have included any “strings.” Langbert said discussions simply never got that far.