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Koch Foundation Offers Funding for Political Science

The Office of University Advancement is in ongoing negotiations with the Charles Koch Foundation over funding a proposed program, which would be housed in the political science department. Several professors from inside and outside the department have since raised concerns about accepting the funding.

Robert Ross, one of the political science professors spearheading the proposal, specifically named Koch’s anti-climate change spending and activism as a source of hesitation among the faculty, although the department ultimately voted to proceed with the process at a meeting in late April.

Charles Koch, one half of the “Koch brothers” along with his late brother David, is the billionaire owner, chairman, and CEO of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States that, among other things, manufactures, refines, and distributes petroleum.

Koch is most famous for his political activism—he has supported the work of conservative and libertarian scholars, think tanks, and politicians for three decades. Much of his spending has been aimed at promoting deregulation, especially on environmental issues, and campaign donations. Koch has also been a supporter of the climate change skepticism as far back as the early 1990s, when he began funding think tanks, scientists, and political campaigns that question the science behind climate change.

At George Mason University, documents—recently released as part of a student lawsuit—revealed that donors, including the Koch brothers, received direct influence over faculty hiring and academic freedom through their contracts with the University. Similar situations have unfolded at Florida State University and Arizona State University following major donations from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Ross also said that he and the other professors had reached out to several schools who had accepted money from the Koch brothers in the past to gain an understanding of the post-funding relationship. He said that these schools—among them Notre Dame, MIT, and Georgetown, who all receive support for their international studies programs from the foundation—assured him that intellectual integrity had not been an issue.

According to recent tax filings, the Charles Koch Foundation donated $5,000 to BC in 2015, 2016, and 2017, each time for “general operating support.”

“As with all potential proposals to outside funders, the provost works closely with colleagues in the departments, Advancement, and deans to ensure that the proposed project aligns with the University’s strategic directions for academic investments,” Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn said in an email to The Heights.

Several political science professors approached Susan Shell, then the department chair, last spring with the initial intent for a new, Koch-funded program. Shell recommended that they talk to the relevant academic deans and the provost’s office.

After speaking with the administration and receiving initial approval, the professors brought the issue back to Shell, this time with a two-page vision statement. They brought the vision statement to the whole department for a discussion about accepting funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, separate from the specifics of the proposal.

“That was a protracted discussion because there are obvious concerns in cooperating with the Charles Koch Foundation and it was important to hear those concerns and to discuss those concerns,” Ross said. “There was a two-step process. The first was, ‘Do we want to cooperate with the Koch brothers as a principle?’”

The assembled faculty requested some changes to the initial vision statement, such as more specific wording and changes to the “wishlist” of potential uses for the money, according to two political science professors with knowledge of the situation.

The Heights obtained the current “vision statement”—titled “New Perspectives on U.S. Grand Strategy and Great Power Politics” and written by members of the security studies faculty—which describes the background and aims of the proposed program.

Much of the document focuses on the need for new approaches to and perspectives on foreign policy academia. 

“This faculty’s extensive scholarship reflects a common concern that policy debates and research on U.S. grand strategy have been too circumscribed by the established foreign policy consensus,” the document says. “Only by broadening the discussion to include diverse theoretical and empirical perspectives from across the political spectrum can the quality of scholarship be strengthened.”

The vision statement proposes a program to “challenge received wisdoms.” It also notes that the BC political science department does extensive research on the relationship between national security and economics, particularly the cost of U.S. foreign policy.

“With support from the Charles Koch Foundation, Boston College could realize this vision of an intellectual agenda that both expands and challenges the prevailing policy consensus,” the document says.

The document suggests several ways the funds could foster “new perspectives,” such as a public speakers program, a series of undergraduate workshops and seminars, and fellowships for graduate and post-doctoral students conducting relevant work. Other suggestions include support for a scholar-in-residence, Ph.D. students, faculty research, an annual workshop, and, most significantly, a five-year joint hire for the International Studies program and the political science department.

The proposal did not include information about a specific budget for the program.

“The Political Science Department’s proposal was circulated to us last week after their internal vote,” Erik Owens, director of the International Studies program, said in an email to The Heights.  “Until the International Studies Program‘s advisory board has convened to discuss it, we can’t comment on our relationship to the proposal or the program it envisions.”

Running the vision statement through the entire department faculty is not standard practice, but the controversy surrounding the Charles Koch foundation prompted a larger, department-wide discussion, according to two political science professors with knowledge of the situation.

The political science faculty deferred the decision on the final vote to this fall due to a transition in department leadership—Gerald Easter succeeded Shell as chair between this year’s spring and fall semesters.

Having decided to work with the Charles Koch Foundation in principle, the faculty reconvened on Oct. 4 for a vote on the program described in the vision statement. This vote passed with a “strong majority,” according to Ross.

Currently, the Office of University Advancement is set to work with the Charles Koch Foundation to develop language and agree on a budget. The department agreed to review the entire draft contract before a final approval vote, according to two political science professors with knowledge of the situation.

“The proposal has not yet been submitted, but is being shaped by input from Political Science faculty, colleagues in Advancement, the Provost, and the dean of The Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences,” Dunn said in the email.

On Oct. 18, Faculty for Justice, an informal faculty group from a variety of departments, gathered and discussed the news of the vote. 

“The question of who acceptable donors are is always one that must be asked when we take money,” Juliet Schor, a sociology professor and the member of Faculty for Justice who put the topic on the meeting agenda, said. “And I understand that no money is pure, so it is all about where you draw the line.

“The difference between the Kochs and many of the other donors to the University is that most donors to the University believe in our mission,” she continued. “For the Kochs, investing in universities is about transforming them to conform to their mission.”

Schor said that most external funding, in her experience, supports research and writing that already exists, while the Koch proposal aims to create a new program with a specific academic focus.

“If a donor is giving to what we already do or what faculty are already doing, it’s easier to determine [whether to accept] that,” Schor said. “When you have something new then you have to look at the content from it. My point about the Kochs is that they’ve made their mission very clear over many decades [and] they have a strong set of beliefs which I think are very much at odds with a Jesuit Catholic mission.”

Schor specifically referenced Koch’s lobbying against environmental regulations and support for climate change denial in her opposition to the funding.

There was another informal meeting on Oct. 23, this time organized by Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., out of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, for both sides to respond to each other. Ross, who was in attendance, said the meeting was “constructive and collegial,” but that no consensus was reached. 

Massa did not respond to a request for comment.

Ross said he acknowledges his colleagues’ objections to the proposal on principle, but added that creating a program about America’s participation in the world stage, especially wars, is an important academic endeavor.

“[The professors in support of the funding] share many of the concerns that people have with Koch,” Ross said. “We thought it was important to be able to criticize Koch where we thought appropriate, but to cooperate with Koch when we though it also appropriate in terms of where we thought the nation should be going.”

In the internal department meetings, the main concern was not with academic integrity, but instead with the idea of accepting funds from Koch in general, according to Ross.

“There were a few who raised the academic integrity issue,” Ross said. “But I would say the far majority had confidence in our team that we would not be compromised. The concerns raised by people were more about the ethical issues with the Charles Koch Foundation.”

Featured Image by Gavin Peters / Wikimedia Commons

October 28, 2019