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Robert Trigaux

Koch's funding deal at "For Sale University" (FSU) just tip of influence iceberg by business

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Wake up and good morning. The debate is only starting over FSU (is it Florida State University or For Sale University?) and its decision to embrace a $1.5 million pledge from Charles G. Koch (shown above in AP photo), one of the conservative billionaire brothers at Koch Industries, to be used for hiring in the economics department. In exchange, Koch's representatives get to "screen and sign off on" the hires, essentially winning the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university. That story was broken by St. Petersburg Times reporter Kris Hundley last week in this story. And that story was born from a Tallahassee Democrat piece written by one retired and one active professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. They criticized a contract that allows a donor to green-light professor hires in the school’s economics department. More on that here.

The story's lit a firestorm of debate over the limits of the rich influencing public education, and of budget-stripped universities that are foregoing ethical considerations for wealthy donations with onerous strings attached. Editorials here and here explore that matter at FSU, a university that unfortunately has long pandered to the state political machine and its influence (and its funding largess) in this state's capital.

As for the Koch brothers, if you want to really know more about them, read this portrait of them by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.

As NPR reports hereFSU College of Social Sciences dean David Rasmussen says his school maintained control over who would teach, and what they taught. "There was never an acid test that said this person who we hire must think this kind of thing," he says. But the grant created a special advisory board, chosen by the Koch Foundation, that has a role in choosing faculty. And that decision, NPR notes, is leading to a world of controversy for the university. 

Now comes a Bloomberg News story of another philanthropist using donations to shape classroom curricula. Bloomberg reported that former BB&T banking chairman John Allison is working through the company’s foundation to give schools grants up to $2 million. The condition? They must agree to create a course on capitalism that has Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged -- a book Allison adores -- on the reading list. The article reports that 60 schools, including at least four campuses of the University of North Carolina (the home state of BB&T), have begun teaching the book as a result of accepting the foundation money.

Reports Bloomberg: "We have sought out professors who wanted to teach these ideas," says Allison, now a professor at Wake Forest University’s business school in Winston-Salem, N.C."It’s really a battle of ideas. If the ideas that made America great aren’t heard, then their influence will be destroyed."

Thew New York Times Economix blog has touched on this topic thoughtfully here and here. One May 16 posting notes Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc.: The Corruption of Higher Education, has "argued for years that public higher education is being increasingly privatized by reliance on corporate and alumni donations."

Curious, though. If these capitalist ideas hold such power to make America so great, why do they have to be subsidized by the wealthy who mandate their teaching in universities? Isn't that a fundamental conflict with the very free market concept Koch and Allison and others presumably promote? I always thought good ideas could stand on their own. My bad...

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times

 

 

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 7:55am]

    

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