'UnKoch My Campus'

Student groups around the country, led by Florida State University students, protest corporate money and influence in academics, with a focus on the Koch brothers.

November 4, 2014
 

Students on nearly 30 campuses around the country called for a separation of college and corporation in protests Monday. Although the events highlighted financial influence from the Koch brothers, organizers said the campaign is a response to a broader trend of corporate influence.

The idea was spearheaded by students at Florida State University, where past criticisms over the university’s relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation are now intertwined with criticism of choice of a politician without an academic background for university president. 

Outside of Florida, students at colleges from Michigan to Virginia also took steps Monday against their respective colleges' relationship with the Koch brothers.

Libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch have been funneling millions of dollars to universities for several years, generally paying for the hiring of new faculty members and supporting economic centers that focus on capitalism and free enterprise. Critics say that some of the arrangement go beyond philanthropy to influencing curricular or hiring choices in inappropriate ways that colleges should reject.

Groups affiliated with the Koch brothers foundations have repeatedly denied that financial support of colleges infringes on academic freedom and did so when asked for a comment on Monday's campaign. 

“Academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are cornerstones of our philanthropy," said John Hardin, a program officer with the Charles Koch Foundation, in an email. "When we support a school’s initiative, it is to expand opportunity and increase the diversity of ideas available on campus.”

A recently launched “UnKoch My Campus” campaign helped advertise for Monday's events, which aimed to raise awareness on campuses that receive money tied to the Koch brothers and to unite already-existing protests on individual campuses.

Florida State's history with the Kochs

Florida State’s saga with Koch brothers started in 2011, when the details of a 2008 grant agreement between the university and the foundation were made public.

Critics of the agreement said it gave the Koch brothers too much influence in hiring in the economics department. The university revised the agreement in 2013, though that did little to assuage concerns.

Monday’s event, though, focused on the wider issue of "corporatization of higher education" and homed in on state Sen. John Thrasher’s appointment last month as president. He was approved despite strong objections from students and faculty members.

Student activists with the FSU Progress Coalition are asking the state Board of Governors to reject Thrasher’s appointment at its meeting this week. About 80 students walked from campus to the Old Capitol Monday as part of a rally protesting the selection of Thrasher. There’s also a walkout and occupation of the president’s office planned for Thursday while the Board of Governors meets, said Lakey, a graduate student at Florida State who only goes by one name.

The group argues that Thrasher’s appointment gives corporate interests too much control over FSU, especially in light of the university’s ongoing relationship with the Koch brothers, Lakey said.

Without the contract with the Koch brothers, this may have been a more simple debate about ideological problems and a president without academic experience, Lakey said.

But it’s not -- and there are too many powerful political interests in FSU's governance, especially those tied to the Koch brothers, for Thrasher's appointment to be a coincidence, she said.

Thrasher also was chosen multiple times as legislator of the year by the conservative, Koch-supported American Legislative Exchange Council, Lakey said. And Allan Bense, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, is also chairman of the board of directors of the James Madison Institute, a Koch-funded think tank.

Thrasher has denied any sort of relationship with the Koch brothers, although he has received modest campaign contributions from Kansas-based Koch Industries.

Outside of the Thrasher situation, the FSU students are demanding more public access to review the details of all private donations above $100,000. They're also asking students around the country to support them in their fight, which is what led to the day of action.

Other colleges follow FSU's lead

Students at Michigan State University asked for tips from students at George Mason University and Florida State on how to request public records about correspondence or contracts between the university and the Koch-related foundations. The group submitted the request Monday.

At George Mason University, the top university recipient of Koch donations, students are pushing the administration to release information they haven’t been able to get through public records. George Mason President Angel Cabrera has said that the university never allows private donor sway over the hiring process, curriculum or anything that would threaten academic integrity. Samantha Parsons, a student who co-founded Transparent GMU, says students deserve proof. 

On Monday, Parsons and other students handed out fliers and collected signatures for their petition to administrators to release more information.

“People are becoming more and more aware, but there are certainly students who have no idea what’s going on,” Parsons said.

The Transparent GMU fliers compared the amount of money given since 2005 to Florida State and to George Mason, including through its foundation, the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies. Parsons said the total far exceeds Florida State's donations.

"We’re really questioning what $48 million has bought them here at George Mason,” Parsons said.

As part of the day of action, UnKoch My Campus encouraged students to wear red squares pinned to their shirts, to post pictures holding signs that read “We support FSU students in their fight against corruption,” and to tag all their social media posts with phrases such as #UnKoch and #FSUisNotforSale.

For UnKoch My Campus, the goal is increase the number of campuses that are trying to expose the details behind Koch foundation donations to see if there’s anything that blatantly threatens academic freedom, Lindsey Berger, one of the organizers, said.

Berger helped author a report on the Koch brothers' influence on college campuses with another organizer, Connor Gibson. The third founder of UnKoch My Campus, Kalin Jordan, started a Koch Free Zone group to protest donations at Suffolk University.

When asked whether the protests against the Koch brothers was influenced by their conservative ideology, students said that wasn’t the main concern.

Any donor, whether liberal or conservative, shouldn’t be able to make demands of their gifts that let them influence academics, Parsons, from George Mason, said.

“No private donor should have any control over what’s being taught, who’s being hired and what research is being done at a public university,” she said.

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