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“Billionaire’s role in hiring decisions at Florida State University raises questions”

- May 11, 2011

Wow–this is pretty stunning. Kris Hundley reports:

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University’s economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires . . . Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they’ve funded. . . . Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice . . .

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal . . . Rasmussen said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. “I’m sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,” he said. “But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it.” . . .

Irresponsible, huh? The article continues:

The Koch brothers own the second biggest private U.S. corporation, maker of such popular products as Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpet. . . . George Mason University, a public university in Virginia . . . has received more than $30 million from Koch over the past 20 years. At George Mason, Koch’s foundation has underwritten the Mercatus Center, whose faculty study “how institutions affect the freedom to prosper.”

Bruce Benson, chairman of FSU’s economics department, said . . . his department had extensive discussion, but no vote, on the Koch agreement when it was signed in 2008. . . . He said the Koch grant has improved his department and guaranteed a diversity of opinion that’s beneficial to students. . . . Benson makes annual reports to Koch about the faculty’s publications, speeches and classes, which have included the economics of corruption.

I’d never heard of Brawny paper towels or Stainmaster carpet but I do know about Dixie cups.

This all seems pretty amazing to me, but I suppose it’s all about where you draw the line. I get funding from the U.S. military, but the Department of Defense didn’t tell Columbia to hire me. On the other hand, grant funding is considered a plus in a tenure review. To me, the difference is that these funders are not ideological–they are evaluating the quality of my work, not my political slant. Florida State also is offering a corporate-sponsored class in which students have to read the book Atlas Shrugged. A bit different from the usual plan in which corporate executives pay for the state university through their taxes.

This bit from the news article was interesting too:

Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors — one retired, one active — criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.

P.S. I found this news article through a link from Mark Palko. He refers to “the St. Petersburg Times,” which indeed is the source of the article but I think it’s more polite to give the author’s name. After all, I wouldn’t be happy if people reported my work as from Columbia University without identifying me!

P.P.S. Here’s another one. I’m hiring a postdoc who’s mostly funded by a software company. The executive who contacted me was involved in the job description and the hiring. The person we hired will have a Columbia affiliation. I don’t see this as a problem. On the other hand, the postdoc could end up teaching a class at some point. Again, this is all about the work, it’s not ideological, so it doesn’t seem comparable to the story above. Perhaps a closer analogy would be if Koch Industries hired a postdoc/instructor to do research on the marketing of Dixie Cups. Or if the Defense Department created and funded a faculty position focused on satellite imaging. It’s not clear exactly where to draw the line.