James R. Otteson was, well, happy, as he conceived and proposed a new institute at Wake Forest University, where he teaches economics. The Eudaimonia Institute – taken from Aristotle's term for happiness – would try “to figure out the nature of human flourishing and to study the institutions that encourage it, or that get in the way.”
Happiness studies, like the related field of behavioral economics, are increasingly popular on American college campuses. When Professor Otteson first proposed his institute, nobody at Wake Forest questioned its worthiness. Then it was discovered that it would be supported by a $3.7 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, and everything changed.
A flurry of worried meetings took place on the Winston-Salem, N.C., campus over the gift by one of the charities funded by the wealthy and, in liberal circles, reviled industrialists Charles and David Koch. Eventually 189 members of the faculty – Otteson’s colleagues -- petitioned the university administration to reject the donation.
The reason given: Koch donations are part of an “unprecedented and well documented effort to corrupt higher education for ideological, political, and financial ends.” Put another way, the Eudaimonia Institute would be a cover for the ultra-right, pro-business, anti-regulation agenda of the Koch brothers.
All of which Otteson strenuously rejects. In the end, the administration ignored the faculty recommendation and took the money. The Eudaimonia Institute is up and running, and, as Otteson puts it, “it should be judged on whether the work it does is valuable, not on where its money comes from.”
The episode is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it shines a light on universities' dependence on outside funding. A great deal of money -- tens of billions of dollars per year -- pours into universities' accounts. Much of it, perhaps most of it, comes from interested parties.
“Most people who give money have some idea in mind about what their money will accomplish,” Stephen Trachtenberg, a former president George Washington University, said in a phone interview.
Second, the sources of that largesse are often questionable. The communist Chinese government, for example, supports more than 100 Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses. Kuwait and Qatar, which have been accused of supporting terror groups, endow chairs in Middle Eastern studies. It's safe to assume that they do this with the idea of advancing their own national interests.
And so, the question: What makes Koch money uniquely toxic? Is it, as many progressives claim, part of a plan to hijack American universities by spreading radical, free-market propaganda? Or is something like the opposite taking place, a kind of hypocritical hysteria, a singling out of the Koch family foundations, not because they do anything substantially different than other foundations, but because they support ideas and programs that are anathema to the liberal culture that dominates in academe?
One thing that is certain is that the anti-Koch backlash is part of an organized campaign. The Kochs have been singled out for criticism by no less prominent spokesmen for American liberalism than Barack Obama and Harry Reid. For a while, it was a rare week when Reid didn’t take to the Senate floor to trash the Koch brothers. Among other things, he described them as “two power-drunk billionaires … actually trying to buy the country.” More than once he called them “un-American.”
The former Senate majority leader was occasionally called out for such excess. Generally, however, the mainstream media took the same line, albeit with less toxicity than Reid.
Winning praise were one-sided anti-Koch books and articles glossing over liberal billionaires’ donations to Democrats, notably Jane Mayer's “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right." The brothers’ political contributions and grants to higher education have been cast as part of an effort to control “college students' hearts and minds,” Time magazine asserted. The Time article and others like it drew heavily on an expose published by the Center for Public Integrity, whose conclusion was contained in its title: “Koch foundation proposal to college: Teach our curriculum, get millions.”
One group, UnKoch My Campus, uses funds from other liberal organizations to convince schools to reject their money. Not surprisingly, its members and sympathetic faculty members deny any attempt to limit the diversity of ideas. The problem is not the Koch's “conservative libertarian ideology,” Jay Ford, a professor in the Wake Forest Department of Religions, wrote to a campus newspaper, defending the anti-Koch faculty petition. It's the Koch practice of “co-opting education for their own political and commercial purposes,” he asserted.
These critics rely on recordings of remarks made by Koch officials at Koch-sponsored conferences, in which they appear to boast about what they call their “integrated” approach to giving. UnKoch My Campus has publicized a recording of Charlie Ruger, a Koch official, telling a conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (also supported by Koch): “It's not just the money; we also bring a network with us. We've got a constellation of network organizations that are focused on applying what comes out of the universities to change the world.”
Then there's the question of transparency. UnKoch My Campus has obtained the text of a donor agreement between the Koch Foundation and George Mason University stipulating not only that the terms of the agreement be secret but the very existence of the agreement be secret as well.
Does any of this mean that by giving money to universities, the Kochs are exerting more “undue influence” in academe than other foundations, many of them much larger, that also promote ideas that they favor, ideas that they hope will spread to the rest of society? One strange thing about this whole matter is that Koch, though it has been increasing its university giving, is actually just a medium-sized player in the world of higher educational donations.
The Charles Koch Foundation's most recent annual report shows a total of $44 million in grants to more than 300 schools in 2016, which is slightly more than 0.1 percent of the total $41 billion in charitable donations that pour into American universities each year. Far bigger grant giving institutions, like the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, donate greater sums, and mostly to mainstream liberal projects.
“The Koch Foundations are doing what foundations have always done,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of public policy and philanthropy at Indiana University. “If they want X and if a place is doing X, they will give their money to that place.” For years, Ford and MacArthur have given millions to advance diversity -- black studies, women's studies, gay studies -- yet there’s no UnFord or UnMacArthur My Campus movements.
Wake Forest is home to two projects led by controversial former MSNBC host and liberal scholar Melissa Harris-Perry. The website for the Anna Julia Cooper Center describes its mission as “advancing justice through intersectional scholarship” while the Pro Humanitate Institute seeks “to foster transformative civic engagement, and address community-identified needs in order to build more meaningful lives and a more just world.” These are hardly apolitical aims. Yet, no effort on the part of the Wake Forest faculty materialized to uncover the political motives of whatever foundation supports this center, let alone thwart its existence.
Moreover, some of the sensational claims made about Koch efforts along these lines seem either outdated or overdrawn. That bit about “Teach our curriculum, get millions,” for example, had to do with an incident 10 years ago when, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the Charles Koch Foundation wanted at least some control over the curriculum and over faculty hiring in exchange for a gift to the Florida State University business school. FSU rejected that condition, however, and the foundation gave the money anyway.
John Hardin, the Charles Koch Foundation director of university relations, did not deny in a phone interview that some donor agreements involve secrecy. But he defended the practice as a necessary effort to protect people who might be unfairly targeted precisely because of their Koch association. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there are outside groups that want to shut down research and discussion about ideas they find objectionable. These groups often misconstrue clauses in grant agreements to harass professors. This sort of intimidation is antithetical to the open inquiry that should characterize a university environment and so we work with universities to help make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Hardin argued the Koch Foundation is committed to transparency. “That's why we highlight every one of them on our website, issue press releases for major grants, and encourage all the schools we support to share news about them.”
He also asserted that the very diversity of the Koch grants belies the notion that they are part of some grand scheme to advance the Koch's political influence or economic well-being.
At Wake Forest, James Otteson (left), who holds the Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics, has heard all of the charges of undue influence. Like other Koch recipients, he says there has been no attempt to control what his institute does.
“Our agreement stipulates that the university retains complete control of what we do at the Eudaimonia Institute,” he said. There's no Koch official on the Eudaimonia board, no consultation with Koch required for hiring, research topics or conferences. The institute published a “Declaration of Research Independence” stating that the Eudaimonia “retains sole discretion over its sponsored research and educational activities.” Yet 189 of his colleagues avowed publicly that a respected tenured member of the faculty was a willing tool of “Charles Koch's plot to hijack universities” -- in exchange for some money.
There is a kind of oblique intimidation in that posture. In the reporting for this article, some recipients of Koch funding did not want to be identified, or publicly defend taking the money, even though it supported work they regard as valuable.
“It's one thing to be transparent on an institutional website,” one such person said, “and another to get mired in the inevitable toxicity of the public debate. And it's true that this would never come up if the funds were from Ford or MacArthur.”
Correction: July 14, 2017, 8:15 A.M. Eastern time
This article has been changed to reflect the following correction:
An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of all charitable donations to American universities made up by Charles Koch Foundation grants. It is just over 0.1 percent, not just over 1 percent.
Editor’s Note: RealClearInvestigations accepts trainees from the Charles Koch Institute's Media and Journalism Fellowship program, with no strings attached.