There’s been a lot of talk about the Charles G. Koch Foundation’s funding of faculty positions at the Economics Department at FSU. Much of it has been critical, with it being variously claimed that the Foundation’s donation compromises academic integrity, violates academic freedom, has corrupted academia, and that the FSU economics department has “sold out” and “succumbed” to corporate money.
But I just don’t see what the problem here is. Indeed, if anything, the private funding of academic positions such as that provided by the Charles G. Koch Foundation is a positive benefit–something to be encouraged, not decried.
Much of the discussion of this issue has been long on rhetoric and short on analysis. So, let’s look at some of the objections and see if they should be accepted. To keep things straight I’ll divide my responses to the objections into those that defend in general the funding of faculty positions with private money where the donors require some say in how the money is used, and those that show how the objections fail to apply to the situation at FSU in particular.
So, what’s supposed to be wrong with the private funding of faculty positions, where the donors request some oversight in how their money is used?
1) The Objection from Academic Freedom/Integrity: Accepting private money violates academic freedom/integrity
The concern here seems to be that because the faculty positions are privately funded this somehow compromises academic freedom. This objection is rather fuzzy: Sometimes it seems to be a concern with the academic freedom of the university that accepts private money with oversight money as a whole, sometimes with that of the Departments that accept such money, and sometimes with the academic freedom of the faculty members who are hired.
It seems clear that the academic freedom of neither the funded university as a whole or of the Department would be adversely affected by the private funding of new positions. That Department X has some of its faculty funded privately won’t affect in the slightest what Departments A, B, C and D can research or teach. Similarly, that some faculty members’ positions are funded privately won’t make any difference to what their colleagues in Department X can research or teach.
What, then, of the academic freedom of the faculty members whose positions are privately funded? It’s hard to see how this could be compromised, either. I assume that the candidates that apply to positions that are funded by persons or bodies with particular interests would be at least sympathetic to those interests, if not fully in favor of them. As such, their research and teaching would naturally fit with the interests of the donors.
But what if, after some years, a faculty member in one of these positions changed her mind, or started to question the views that she originally endorsed? Assuming that her position was untenured, and also assuming that the donors were inflexible (both significant assumptions) she would have the options of compromising her intellectual principles, leaving academia, or seeking a position elsewhere. Only the first of these would be ethically problematic. And the fault would lie with the faculty member, not the donors, who, after all, funded her position in good faith. If one thinks that a person should not be (potentially) faced with this choice, consider the alternative: No funding of her position, and no academic job at all. Surely having an academic job where doing the right thing might come at some personal cost—assuming that this issue ever arose at all—would be better than not having an academic job at all?
Notice, too, that this “problem” isn’t peculiar to privately funded positions at State institutions. It could also be faced by faculty at religious institutions that require one to be of a certain faith (or, at least, sympathetic to it) to be employed. But there are no calls to close down those colleges—at least, not yet.
Response concerning FSU’s Koch funding:
None of the versions of this objection apply at all to the funding of faculty positions by the Koch Foundation at FSU.
As Randall Holcombe makes clear (http://blog.independent.org/2011/05/12/philanthropy-and-academic-freedom-at-florida-state-university/) the Economics Department would only use the money from the Charles G. Koch Foundation to hire mutually acceptable faculty. Moreover, if the Foundation did not want to hire a candidate supported by the Department FSU had money to hire that candidate anyway. Similarly, if the Foundation wanted to withdraw its financial support for a hired candidate that faculty line would be funded by FSU. Given this, the Foundation funding cannot in any way be said to compromise the academic freedom of FSU, its Economics Department, or the faculty members funded by it.
2) The Distortion Objection: Accepting private money will distort or “corrupt” the research or teaching program of the university.
The concern here, I take it, is that if private money is donated to fund faculty positions and the donors exercise some oversight over its use this will distort both the research and the teaching of the department to which it is awarded. I take it that this is also what’s lurking behind the charge that a department that accepts private money which comes with oversight is somehow “selling out” or “succumbing” to corporate interests.
First, it’s just not true that a department has a research program. Faculty do, and once this is recognized this objection collapses into that version of (1) above that addresses the possible problem that might be faced by the faculty member in the privately-endowed position. And that was addressed above. What, then, of the worry that private money will distort teaching? Unless someone endows an entire university department to pursue a particular teaching program this concern seems unfounded. A few classes out of many offered do not constitute a “distortion”, but an alternative view. And even this response assumes that the classes taught by the privately-endowed faculty will differ considerably in content than those taught by their colleagues. But this need not necessarily be the case.
Response concerning FSU’s Koch funding:
Again, this objection simply doesn’t apply to the Charles G. Koch Foundation’s funding of faculty positions at FSU. Since the faculty members funded by the Foundation would be those that the Department could have hired anyway, their research and teaching will be precisely the same whether they are funded by the Foundation or not.
3) The Slippery Slope Objection: Where will accepting private funding lead us?
A final worry is that once universities start accepting privately-funded positions with oversight then all sorts of (in the words of Professor Juan Cole) “junky positions” will be created, such as “…the BP Chair in How there is No Climate Change, and the Saudi Arabian Chair in the Necessity of Beheading Adulterers, and the Avigdor Lieberman Chair in Ethnic Cleansing Solutions, and the Communist Party of China Chair in Google Censorship…”. http://www.juancole.com/2011/05/the-koch-brothers-and-the-end-of-state-universities.html
This objection comes very close to simple name-calling. But let’s address it anyway. There’s no reason why accepting private money to fund a faculty position in Respectable Studies would lead one also to accept private money to fund a faculty position in Bizarre Studies. Plus, I doubt that many Departments would be willing to accept money to fund Bizarreness. After all, what would a Department gain by hiring a known oddity as a colleague, apart from mockery?
But perhaps the Bizarre faculty position would come with additional benefits for the Department, such as increased travel funding for its non-Bizarre members. Then, maybe a Department would accept the money and hire a person for the Bizarre position. But so what? The courses in Bizarreness would be avoided by serious students, the presence of the Bizarre Colleague would not affect the research of others one bit, and the net effect would be (perhaps) an increase in non-Bizarre faculty productivity owing to the increased funding for non-Bizarre scholarly activities.
But what, one might say, if the Bizarre position was objectionable, as with those listed by Professor Cole? Depending on how objectionable it was, Departments would need greater and greater incentives to overcome the loss of reputation that they would suffer by housing it. And this would have the effect that the greater the objectionable nature of the Bizarre position, the more resources the proponents of Bizarreness would have to provide (indirectly) to those who opposed them.
Response concerning FSU’s Koch funding:
This objection clearly doesn’t apply at all to the situation at FSU. There’s never been a suggestion that the research or teaching conducted by the Economics Department at FSU including that done by the faculty members funded by the Charles G. Koch Foundation is anything other than first-rate scholarly work.
What can we conclude?
The sound and fury surrounding the Koch Foundation’s funding of positions at FSU signifies what it traditionally does—nothing. There’s simply nothing problematic with it at all.
So, what’s the problem in general with accepting private money with oversight? Again, nothing.
Perhaps the faculty member so funded might feel hampered if she ever wants to change her research focus. But even in this case she’s still made better off overall by the creation of her position—and, in any case, any possible ethical violation would be on her, not on the donors.
And why shouldn’t wealthy individuals or foundations endow faculty positions where they have input into who is hired? After all, the net effect of such positions is that more people are in academic employ, more voices are being heard, and academic debate is furthered rather than hindered. And, yes, I would wholeheartedly approve of Socialist organizations endowing faculty positions for the advancement of Socialism. Let a million flowers bloom, of whatever hue!
Final thought: There’s a certain oddity here in that many of those who want the Charles G. Koch Foundation not to have any say in regulating how their money is used seem to favor subjecting people to sustained and intrusive regulation in other economic areas.
Disclosure: I received last year a small grant from the Charles G. Koch Foundation to hold a weekend student seminar and a short Speaker Series. Apart from requiring a report on how I used the grant, the Foundation left me entirely to my own devices in choosing speakers and arranging the events. And the students love what’s been presented to them so far!