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In defending its financial ties to the Charles Koch Foundation -- some $50 million worth, as of 2016 -- George Mason University has cited its academic independence from donors.

Yet George Mason is less independent than it has let on, according to documents released last week via an open-records request, and amid an ongoing suit about donor transparency brought by student activists.

Angel Cabrera, university president since 2012, shared the news with faculty members in an email, saying, “I was made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.”

The gifts, in support of faculty positions in economics, "granted donors some participation in faculty selection and evaluation,” Cabrera said, noting that one such agreement is still active (the rest have expired).

All 10 of the now-public agreements relate to the university’s Mercatus Center for free market research, a locus of Koch-funded activity. Three of the agreements involve Koch. The two most recent, from 2007 and 2009, stipulate the creation of a five-member selection committee to select a professor, with two of those committee members chosen by donors. The other Koch agreement, from 1990, also afforded Koch a role in naming a professor to fund. 

George Mason also allowed Koch a role in evaluating professors' performance via advisory boards. And while the agreements assert that final say in faculty appointments will be based on normal university procedures, the 2009 agreement says that funds will be returned to the donor if the provost and the selection committee can’t agree on a candidate.

It is of course common for donors who support professorships to specify the academic field or subfield. So while the Koch family's extensive giving to antiregulatory causes in politics is controversial, it is not necessarily controversial that they fund professorships in economics and even free-market economics. But academic values have long held that donors don't get to pick who holds chairs, or evaluate them.

Such details are similar to those in a now-defunct agreement with Florida State University, from 2008, that defenders of Koch have said was a one-off. It was previously revealed that Utah State University’s grant agreement with Koch from around the same time had similar language, however.

George Mason’s agreements mean that Koch’s insistence on a role in faculty hiring -- at least earlier in its involvement in higher education philanthropy -- represent a trend. Rumors about such requirements at other universities have led faculty members to be dubious of Koch money.

Student activists are currently in court in Virginia, arguing for their right to view agreements made between donors and the university’s foundation, saying they, too, should be subject to state open-records laws for public institutions. In particular, the students -- and many faculty observers -- have questions about the identity of an anonymous donor who agreed to give $20 million dollars to rename George Mason’s law school after the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2016.

The university has consistently said that the foundation is a private entity and that compromising the confidential nature of donations through that avenue by releasing such documents could chill giving. Koch was a joint, $10 million donor on the law school deal.

The new documents were released as part of an open-records request by Samantha Parsons, a former student at George Mason who is now involved in the lawsuit through her organization, UnKoch My Campus. In addition to the approval-based agreements, emails released name Leonard Leo, executive director of the Federalist Society, as a representative of the anonymous donor to the law school.

John Hardin, Koch’s director of university relations, said in a statement that “while our grant agreements have evolved over time, we have always been committed to the highest standards of academic integrity and freedom.”

The George Mason agreements at issue are from 2006 to 2009 “and they have been obsolete for years,” he added (the 2011 agreement Cabrera mentioned refers to an agreement with BB&T, which also has donated extensively to higher education with free-market curricular directives). “There are no current grant agreements between the Charles Koch Foundation and any university that include provisions for selection or advisory review.”

The foundation also has released a template for current donor agreements.

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