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Groups Warn Of Dangers With Funding Of Universities By Koch Brothers


Charles and David Koch are well known for funding political campaigns, but their foundations also donate tens of millions of dollars to universities. There's nothing unusual about wealthy people giving to higher education, but some warn that funding from the Koch brothers can come with conditions that threaten academic freedom. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Ground zero in the dispute over Koch funding at the University of Kansas is actually pretty easy to miss.

ART HALL: This is the center. (Laughter). We're in the Center for Applied Economics of the KU School of Business - nine-by-nine, no windows.

MORRIS: Art Hall is in charge here. In fact, he's the only employee teaching and doing policy analysis from a free-market perspective shared by the Koch brothers. He used to work for a lobbying arm of Koch industries. A Koch foundation pays his salary. But Hall says the Kochs don't control the center of learning.

HALL: My recollection of being - there is no fundamental stipulation. It's just - the goal, like the many foundations provide grants, is to do quality scholarship.

MORRIS: Art Hall is popular with students. But the terms of his grant agreement are secret, and that leads to questions.

At a meeting of Students for a Sustainable Future, six earnest looking college women sit in a bar washing down their burgers with water. Schuyler Kraus, their president, wondered about the Kochs' influence at her university.

SCHUYLER KRAUS: And so we filed an open records request just asking these questions and everything blew up.

MORRIS: Kraus asked for documents related to the Koch grant and to Art Hall's ties to Koch-backed political groups. KU charged $1,800 to get all that together. Faculty and students donated the money. But just before Kraus received the documents, Hall sued to stop what he characterized as an attack on academic freedom. A Koch foundation is paying Hall's legal bills.

CONNOR GIBSON: That tells me there is, you know, something that these students are on to.

MORRIS: Connor Gibson with the group UnKoch My Campus says he's seen a lot of resistance to disclosing the terms of Koch foundation grants.

GIBSON: And I think that speaks to the nature of embarrassment schools like Florida State University have felt where it showed they offered a lot of control to Charles Koch in exchange for a few million dollars.

MORRIS: When the Koch foundation donated to Florida State, it installed a Koch-appointed board to scrutinize hiring, research funding and academic work. Ray Bellamy, the head of surgery at the Tallahassee campus of FSU's college of medicine, uncovered all this with his own open records request.

RAY BELLAMY: They want their view taught, and it amounts to propaganda rather than assisting education.

MORRIS: Florida State has since revised its agreement, but Bellamy believes the big donors still call the shots. Back at the University of Kansas, Jim Guthrie, associate dean of the business school, says wealthy individuals and corporations are funding lots of things that states used to cover. He admits they typically want something in return. But Guthrie insists that professors keep donors from corrupting the curriculum.

JIM GUTHRIE: If you've ever spent any time with faculty, you know that we're a pretty strong-willed, independent group. Some people might say it's sometimes arrogant. And we're not easily influenced by outside folks.

MORRIS: Just inside KU's business school, the Koch Student Commons Lounge offers comfy seats, coffee and vending machines. A decade ago, Koch university funding was limited to a handful of schools - no more.

JOHN HARDIN: And so currently, we're fortunate to support over 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across the country.

MORRIS: That's John Hardin who directs university relations for the Koch Foundation.

HARDIN: Our philanthropy really is about a shared interest in a school's vision. Our role is to provide the funding so that those scholars and those schools can pursue their interests.

MORRIS: But Dave Levinthal at the Center for Public Integrity isn't so sure. He studied Koch funding for years and alleges that when the Kochs spend money on universities or even high schools, they do it to advance the long-term objectives of the Koch political network.

DAVE LEVINTHAL: At every level that they can operate in for all intents and purposes, they're making investments that will build that next generation of libertarian, economic thinkers and actors and businesspeople and politicians.

MORRIS: Levinthal expects the Kochs to accelerate University funding and says other donors from the right and the left are doing the same thing. And as private funders gain influence, some students and professors will likely step up their vigilance to make sure that big donations don't trump academic ideals. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.