Column: Some fear Charles Koch's influence damages FSU's integrity

Published Apr. 20, 2014

It's not quite a fair fight. Or even a practical fight.

In this corner, you have businessman Charles Koch. He's the one with billions of dollars in the vault and presidential hopefuls on the line. He essentially wants to buy influence at Florida State University by offering the school sizable chunks of grant money.

In the other corner, you have grad student Ralph Wilson. He's the one with less than $30 in his checking account, and a wheezing '91 Toyota Corolla. He, and a few others, are hoping to shame FSU into better monitoring Koch's influence.

"Some days this feels so absurd,'' said Wilson, who is studying mathematics. "Our world is so distant from this giant, powerful empire that is Koch Industries. It's surreal to think we may have any kind of influence in this situation.''

The story, you may recall, is not entirely new. Koch's foundation has been funneling money to the economics department at FSU since 2008. This would be the same Koch who funds ultraconservative think tanks and preaches less government regulation.

The relationship at FSU drew howls of protest in 2011 when a couple of professors uncovered a memorandum that indicated Koch could wield considerable influence over the hiring of professors and some of the curriculum in economics classes.

FSU officials initially denied he had that type of power on campus, but a Faculty Senate review determined the agreement with Koch had several troublesome features. The school vowed to fix the agreement and the story soon disappeared from the headlines.

Except Wilson and other students kept bugging the school about the revised agreement. When they finally saw it, they discovered Koch's influence was not entirely neutered, and they wrote an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat voicing their concerns.

One big issue: that Koch still has indirect veto power on some faculty hiring.

"I don't see the same awful and troubling stuff that was in the first agreement, but there still seems to be some issues,'' said Dr. Ray Bellamy, a physician who was one of the FSU professors who first brought the story to light in 2011.

"It worries me that it creates a perception that FSU is taking money to teach economic propaganda. Whether that's happening, I don't know. But that's what I worry about.''

The students say the new agreement does not address all of the problems identified in the 2011 review and they're hopeful a new investigation will be launched.

Faculty Senate president Dr. Gary Tyson said that's not likely to happen.

The co-chairs of the 2011 review have told Tyson they are satisfied the new agreement fixed everything under Faculty Senate's jurisdiction.

He acknowledges the new agreement still gives Koch some influence in the economics department, and he is aware some faculty members are still not pleased with it.

"As state funding levels go down, we become more and more dependent on funding from outside sources that might come with some strings attached,'' Tyson said. "As long as those strings do not affect the university's core mission, we don't have a problem.''

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Tyson said the biggest change in the new agreement was ensuring the faculty has final say over the curriculum. Others, however, are worried about Koch's role in the hiring of professors.

The economics department will continue to follow the university's normal hiring procedures and will be free to hire anyone it sees fit. Once the offer has been made, however, Koch will be allowed to pull the funding if he is not happy with FSU's choice. If that happens, the school will then be on the hook for that professor's salary.

While it is not a direct veto, it does give FSU a strong incentive to recruit professors who agree with Koch's free market ideas.

"What's concerning is that these outside influences are getting a say in who and how and what is being taught, or researched for that matter,'' said Dr. Jennifer Proffitt, president of FSU's United Faculty of Florida chapter. "It is a violation of academic integrity.''

The issue here is not Koch's political views. Conservative and liberal philosophies alike should be a part of a university's curriculum. But arrangements such as this can lead to a potential stacking of the deck.

This latest Koch-FSU agreement may be legal under the university's policies, but the mere appearance of undue influence is a problem. A million here or a million there can go a long way toward solving financial crises on campus, but a university's reputation should not be available at any price.