Florida State University's economics department needs to reconsider its relationship with billionaire Charles G. Koch, who pledged $1.5 million to the school as long as professors hired with the money hew to Koch's Libertarian philosophy. The arrangement reeks of pandering and undermines academic freedom, the cornerstone of American higher education.
Under the terms of a 2008 deal with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, FSU's economics department is scheduled to receive $1.5 million over six years to hire professors. But faculty members hired with foundation money must be approved by an advisory committee handpicked by Koch. That means Koch effectively holds veto power, an arrangement rarely found in the academic community and that threatens independent thinking.
FSU, like many colleges and universities throughout Florida, struggles with increasing budgetary constraints. The very fact the university would be willing to forgo its independence in hiring for just $250,000 a year is disturbing, but perhaps should not be unexpected given the continuing cuts in state funding and the state Legislature's limits on tuition. After all, lawmakers have told higher education to be more creative in finding outside support.
But such blatant pandering undermines the institution's credibility and would be just as improper if a wealthy liberal benefactor such as George Soros demanded his own professors for hire.
There is no question students should be exposed to and debate wildly divergent ideas in the classroom. That is, ideally, the essence of higher education and what, for centuries, has led public and private benefactors to support it.
But students also have to know their professor is engaged in intellectually honest discourse without fear that if they happen to deviate from their benefactor's ideologically guidelines they could lose their jobs. And students need be confident their grades are not predicated on becoming acolytes of a donor's political beliefs.
For decades, Florida's universities have come under fire for naming programs and buildings after wealthy patrons, such as Pensacola personal-injury lawyer Fred Levin, whose name graces the University of Florida law school, and even disgraced Wall Street financier Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap, for whom FSU named its student success center. But neither of these figures, who each gave $10 million, has attempted to contractually influence curriculum through their largess.
Koch has received something far more substantial for his mere $1.5 million in generosity — unchallenged access to FSU classrooms.