Florida State University President Eric Barron should stop defending an indefensible arrangement with a private foundation to fund and approve faculty positions in the economics department. Barron needs to either cut ties with the Charles G. Koch Foundation or convince it to rescind its restrictions. Contrary to Barron's claims, the deal threatens academic integrity for a paltry $1.5 million from one of the world's richest billionaires.
It's now clear that from the beginning, top academic leaders at FSU were concerned that the Koch Foundation's six-year contract to give $1.5 million came with too many compromising strings attached. Internal e-mails — obtained through a public records request by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Kris Hundley — detail those concerns and undermine Barron's claim that the criticism FSU is facing over the Koch deal is "far off the mark."
In March 2008, then-provost Larry Abele, through a subordinate, expressed significant concerns to College of Social Sciences dean David Rasmussen, who was pushing the deal: "Does (the contract) compromise the academic freedom of individuals holding professorships under the agreement indirectly through the evaluation process and the prospective cessation of funds?" Abele also worried about the "disproportionate" influence of the two professors selected by the Koch Foundation, along with an outside economist, as an advisory committee that ultimately would have to approve any spending of the foundation's money.
Four months later, Abele would be on leave when his subordinate, Bob Bradley, then acting as interim provost, signed the deal for FSU alongside Rasmussen and others. While some changes were made following Abele's concerns, the foundation's control over spending remained.
Barron inherited the deal when he became president in late 2009. Now he wholeheartedly defends the plan. Barron contends the deal does not compromise academic freedom since the economics department faculty — not the foundation — ultimately decides which job candidate to hire. But whether the foundation funds that hire is left up to its advisory committee. Yet Barron claims the foundation's control of the purse strings is of little consequence since the university set aside other dollars in case the foundation doesn't pony up as planned.
But Barron is ignoring the basic rule that money is power. Traditionally, donors turn their money over to universities and trust them to spend it as they expressed — which still gives them enormous influence but not veto power. Yet the Koch Foundation requires FSU's economics department to continuously ask an advisory committee for money. That will disproportionately influence the department's hiring and those faculty members' lines of inquiry as long as the contract is in place.
This encroachment on academic freedom did not initially occur on Barron's watch, but it is up to him to repair the damage. He should cancel the contract with Koch and pay for the professors with public money, or rewrite the contract and accept an outright gift with no strings attached. To restore FSU's reputation, he needs to send the message that the university's integrity is not for sale.