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FSU's review of Koch deal suggests future donors shouldn't have power over faculty decisions

Nothing went wrong, but it could have.

That was the conclusion of a Florida State University review of a controversial contract with a conservative billionaire that came under fire earlier this year.

FSU "maintained its integrity" in its hiring of two faculty members — funded by libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch's $1.5 million donation — but that was partly because the school didn't follow the stipulations spelled out in the 2008 donation agreement. If it had, members of the foundation would have had the power to approve or deny the hires, as well as have a say in annual faculty evaluations.

And, according to FSU president Eric Barron, "We don't do that."

"Every donor out there wants to make sure their money is used the way they've intended," said Barron, who was not in office when the agreement was signed. "We just have to make sure that involvement is advisory."

FSU faced harsh criticism of the deal after a Times investigation revealed that it gave Koch representatives power to influence hires and evaluations, a major stray from fundamental principles of academic freedom.

The deal also set up an undergraduate "market ethics" elective that used Ayn Rand works as required readings and established a vaguely named "Economics Club" that narrowly promoted free-enterprise ideas, the review said.

What ended up happening, according to the review, was that the faculty members hired with Koch money were evaluated and approved without outside influence. In accordance with normal FSU policies, no input from the wealthy donor was considered in their evaluations, either.

The problem was, the Koch agreement left open the possibility and perception of outside influence, even if it didn't come to bear, Barron said.

"We did the right thing, but we've got to make sure there's no question," he said.

He said that kind of donor agreement would not be allowed in the future. Though the school isn't amending the Koch agreement at the moment, Barron said the clause about the donor's involvement in faculty decisions would be changed the next time someone's hired.

Other recommendations from the review remain up for consideration, including that the elective course be suspended and resubmitted with an indication of its relationship to Koch, that the "Economics Club" be renamed to better match its focus and that the FSU Foundation further review its gift policies.

The Koch Foundation issued a response to the findings Friday, too.

"We agree with the committee that the (partnership) has solid guiding principles, and we are open to modifying the agreement as long as it continues to ensure a strong commitment to academic freedom, faculty governance and donor intent," said Ryan Stowers, the foundation's director of higher education programs.

The scandal made waves far beyond the FSU community. The day before the review was released, advocacy group Progress Florida sent Barron a petition signed by nearly 9,000 people, including about 1,000 FSU faculty members, students, alumni or donors, calling for the university to dump the deal.

Barron responded to the group, saying, "Presented with a statement given as fact that Florida State sold off its hiring decisions, I am not surprised that Progress Florida collected a number of signatures. But the facts are that we have not done so, and we would not do so."

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337.

FSU's review of Koch deal suggests future donors shouldn't have power over faculty decisions 07/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 10:03pm]
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