‘This is a direct attack on me’: MTSU students, faculty, union members launch campaign against $3.5 million Charles Koch Foundation grant

Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines

Student, faculty and local union members have banded together at MTSU to raise awareness of a $3.5 million grant that they believe may be misleading and dangerous to university.

In MTSU President Sidney McPhee’s State of the University address in January 2017, he announced that the university would be launching the Political Economy Research Institute through a $3.5 million startup grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Charles Koch is a billionaire businessman, political donor and the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, the second largest private American company. Charles and his brother, David, have been known to found and fund conservative and libertarian organizations. And, according to the MTSU representatives who have launched a campaign against the grant, these startup funds often come with stipulations.

“The concern is certainly about the transparency of this funding — how it was acquired, what it will be used for, what kind of influence it will have over MTSU,” said Dana Smith, an organizer with the United Campus Workers MTSU union chapter. “Especially with MTSU being a public institution, it is meant to serve the public and have a mission of education rather than have a mission of the Koch foundation, which is very well documented to be against public education. So, we’re really concerned with how this donation will use the institution to advance that mission, which will ultimately harm the university.”

Smith said that, over the years, Charles Koch Foundation funding has influenced universities to produce research that furthers the Koch agenda and to bring speakers that are affiliated with the Koch family’s political networks to campuses. The Koch foundation has provided support to approximately 350 colleges and universities across the country, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale.

The Charles Koch Foundation awarded $50 million in grants to 249 colleges in 2016. And, according to UnKoch My Campus, an organization that actively tracks and opposes the Koch Foundation educational donations, the $50 million is a 49 percent increase from 2015.

“The Charles Koch Foundation has a pretty extensive history of attaching their specific stipulations to their donor agreements that require the universities to provide the foundation with influence over research and the curriculum associated with the centers that they are funding,” said Samantha Parsons, one of the co-founders of UnKoch My Campus.

A Washington Post article states that the Charles Koch Foundation pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University in 2011, with a contract that stipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee would be able to select professors and conduct annual evaluations at the school. And, in 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered providing millions of dollars in donations to FSU, the funding came with many conditions. An article from the Center for Public Integrity displayed a previously unpublished internal department memo that was sent from Bruce Benson, FSU’s economic department chairman, to his department colleagues in 2007. The memo reads,

“As we all know, there are no free lunches. Everything comes with costs. They want to expose students to what they believe are vital concepts about the benefits of the market and the dangers of government failure, and they want to support and mentor students who share their views. Therefore, they are trying to convince us to hire faculty who will provide that exposure and mentoring … If we are not willing to hire such faculty, they are not willing to fund us.”

According to a memo from MTSU College of Business Dean David Urban, who worked closely with the Charles Koch Foundation in securing the funding for the future institute, the mission of the PERI will be to “engage undergraduate and graduate students with faculty in research that will further the understanding of business and economic principles, as well as their impact on regional, national and international public policy issues and the well-being of society” and to “provide funding for permanent professional staff, research stipends, marketing and promotional resources and other necessary expenses to operate the PERI on an ongoing basis.”

The initial goals of the PERI include facilitating research and the teaching of principles of economics and management as applied to many different organizations. The memo also states that a goal of the PERI is the leveraging the university’s geographical position and previous research to inform public policy debates on issues of importance to Tennessee, such as the cost and availability of health care, the quality of the business climate, the priorities of K-12 and higher education and the effect of state and local regulation and taxes.

According to the memo, the agreement that MTSU has with the Charles Koch Foundation calls for all decisions regarding programming, research topics, personnel and operation of the PERI to be under MTSU’s “complete control.” MTSU has already hired a director for the institute who will be starting in May 2018.

A group of students involved in the campaign against the Charles Koch Foundation money met with McPhee on Tuesday, Feb. 22 to discuss their concerns regarding the grant.

“It went pretty well, I would say,” said Nichole Adams, an MTSU sophomore and social work major who attended the meeting. “We were asking what exactly the Koch grant is for, and we also brought some examples of what large grants at other universities have done — the power that it’s given the foundation over hiring professors and creating new academia.”

According to Adams, McPhee said that the institute would be publicly funded after the startup grant, but he will be seeking out more money from the Charles Koch Foundation in the future. McPhee also told the students that the school would not be building new facilities for the institute. Instead, it will be housed in the Business and Aerospace Building.

In addition to meeting with McPhee, students like Adams who are involved in the campaign have been posting fliers on campus, speaking in classrooms and will be hosting tablings after Spring Break to provide more information to the campus body.

Michael Principe, the chapter vice president of the MTSU chapter of United Campus Workers and an MTSU philosophy professor, has submitted four Freedom of Information Act requests to the university in the hopes that the public would be able to view any possible “strings attached” to the grant money. However, all requests were denied.

“The requests were denied as required by state law,” said Jimmy Hart, the director of news and media relations at MTSU. “Essentially, state law prohibits the university from releasing certain records pertaining to donor gifts.”

“It’s all extremely vague,” Principe said. “There are simple assertions that (the PERI) will be independent. But, there’s no evidence to any of these claims. The Charles Koch Foundation is absolutely explicit about its mission, and its mission is to promote the interests of billionaires like Charles Koch. Charles Koch has said, ‘We only give money to places that help our business or deregulate and privatize the system.’ They are essentially colonizing higher education. That’s their goal.”

In a speech made in 1974, Charles Koch, who was the chairman of the Institute for Humane Studies at the time, stated,

“We have supported the very institutions from which the attack on free markets emanate. Although much of our support has been involuntary through taxes, we have also contributed voluntarily to colleges and universities on the erroneous assumption that this assistance benefits businesses and the free enterprise system, even though these institutions encourage extreme hostility to American business. We should cease financing our own destruction and follow the counsel of David Packard, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, by supporting only those programs, departments or schools that ‘contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.’”

Principe said that it is especially disconcerting that MTSU accepted the grant due to the university being a public institution.

“The Koch project is anti-all public institutions,” Principe said. “And, to house that on our campus is actually kind of outrageous.”

According to a newsletter from McPhee in fall of 2017, the PERI will allow students to walk in the “academic footsteps” of the late James Buchanan. Principe said that one of the reasons that the administration has felt comfortable accepting the grant funding is due to the university’s recognition of Buchanan, an American economist who is known for his work on public choice theory. Buchanan was also an alumnus of MTSU, and the highest scholarship award given to incoming freshman at MTSU, the Buchanan Fellowship, is named for him.

“The Koch Brothers have been friends with James Buchanan,” Principe said. “They’ve given money to every place that he has ever been associated with. This institution tries to teach students to ‘walk in the footsteps’ of James Buchanan. And, James Buchanan’s economic theories are anti-public institution economic theories. So, we would like this money not to come to our campus.”

“This gift of $3.5 million is an inherently political donation,” Smith said. “And, so, the purpose of this center is not a neutral position. It is established with the agenda to further school privatization … So, even if there is to be a detailed document that tells us all the ways that there supposedly will not be strings attached, the center will still be producing research, bringing speakers to campus and further policy that is dangerous and harmful to public higher education.”

Principe said that the disputing of funds from the Koch family is not unprecedented at public universities.

“Movements against all of this money and the way that it is coming into higher education are going on all across the country,” Principe said. “There are major underground movements on a lot of campuses.”

According to an article written in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Montana State University faculty stalled their formal approval of a center, which was to be funded by a $5.7 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation, in 2017 due to the potential influence the money could have on the university. 

“Think about what the end result of an agenda that prioritizes the rich and powerful over the needs of the majority is,” Smith said. “And, the end result is a country and system of government that has no semblance of democracy and no limits to what rich and powerful people like the Koch brothers will do.”

Adams said that, despite the often daunting idea of speaking to campus administration about the controversial issue, she does not fear any potential backlash from her involvement in the campaign.

“If me or any student faces backlash of any kind, it’s worth it,” Adams said. “This is a direct attack on me, on every student here and on this university, and I can personally say that I love this university. I want this university to thrive … And, if that means that any student needs to take any sort of backlash to protect the university, I welcome and I accept that.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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  1. frmspring2018
    Apr 27, 2018 - 10:32 PM

    One of the biggest concerns raised for me personally about this story is the fact that even at the petition of faculty, the university is unwilling to release any information about what the potential stipulations of accepting this grant are. It makes me a little suspicious of what the Koch institute may be trying to instate here at Middle Tennessee State University, that even President McPhee is contributing to the ambiguity that abounds around this grant. While I can understand his potential motivations in wanting to better the university and get more funding towards the academic programs here, what are the potential drawbacks of such a deal? The example given by Florida State University is particularly worrying to me, as I do not believe that choices such as hiring new faculty should be at all influenced by a private institution. Especially when it is taken into consideration that MTSU is a public, state funded university, this becomes even more worrying. I do hope that more information regarding this grant will come out. This, at least to me, seems to be a shift away from the interests of the students, and that is quite worrying. If the heart of a university is not towards the interests of the students that are paying for its services, then I fear that the students might question why they are paying for them.

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