Editorials, Opinions

To Compete with Top-Ranking Institutions, BC Should Take Koch Foundation’s Funding

The Boston College political science department is in ongoing deliberations about potentially establishing a new program that would focus on U.S. foreign policy research. The proposed program is one of many that have been supported by the Charles Koch Foundation at universities in the last few years, most recently at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, Georgetown University, and George Mason University. In part, the program’s goal, as outlined by faculty of the political science department, is to “challenge the prevailing policy consensus” in American politics abroad. 

With over $100 million spent in lobbying efforts since 1998, the Koch brothers have spent decades pushing the political sphere to the small-government, free-market right by supporting think tanks as well as conservative politicians and their campaigns. A significant amount of these efforts have been encouraged by climate change skeptics and directed lobbying efforts toward politicians in favor of rolling back environmental regulations deemed obstacles to free enterprise. 

To some professors, this history of tacitly supporting climate change denial might prove more important than the potential funding and support they would receive from this proposed department. A decision on the proposal has yet to be reached, and the political science department was especially secretive as it navigated the initial steps of the proposal last spring.  

Surely, BC must keep pace with other top universities that are establishing these programs. And as the University continues to build up its International Studies program, this cross-departmental program has the potential to bring in new scholars, speakers, and fellowships, all of which can expand the reach of these programs.

BC must also proceed with caution before the money is donated and the agreement is finalized, given past events at universities that have received Koch money. Investments at George Mason University and Florida State University demonstrate the restrictiveness of the strings that sometimes come with accepting Koch money. While there is nothing in this proposal that suggests the political science department would be beholden to the demands of its benefactors, BC should carefully consider how personal Koch’s motivations have been in the past.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish for the department to turn down the offer from Koch. Despite the millions of dollars Koch has spent on climate change denial and other morally questionable political initiatives, the money offered for this program comes with a specific purpose and particular means of implementation. 

Most recently, FSU and George Mason University permitted the Kochs to make appointments to selection committees that approved the hiring of the professors who would be funded by the foundation’s donation. 

After documents surfaced that proved the Koch’s influence on selection committees, Koch changed its legal policy to ensure that board appointments were not officially influenced by the Koch Foundation. Even after these official legal changes were made, however, when Arizona State University sought to fill a position funded by the Koch Foundation, an academic dean said to a former administrator and professor at ASU that “A.S.U. will never hire someone that Koch doesn’t approve,” according to the New York Times. Separately, however, professors at other schools, including Notre Dame, Georgetown, and M.I.T., who have taken funding for their international studies programs, assured a BC professor that Koch money had not influenced their universities’ academic freedom or integrity. 

It is imperative that both the University and individual departments are clear about the specifics of the program and what its funding will support should they be approved. Recently, a majority of the political science faculty voted to work with the Charles Koch Foundation and to approve the proposed program in two separate, department-wide votes. 

Normally, faculty interested in external funding would not need the approval of their colleagues—the vote was an unusual process that was likely a result of the source of its funding. Further, the international studies program was not told of the proposal until after the political science department’s latest vote on Oct. 4. Included on the proposal’s wish list was a five-year hiring of a joint political science and international studies professor, as well as specific fellowships for “young scholars” to assist in teaching political science and international studies courses. Keeping this proposal strictly within the department even when considering cross-program appointments also seems unusual. 

Should the final contract be approved by the University’s upper-level administrators, it must ensure that the University will hold implicit and explicit independence from external funders. Unlike a restricted donation, the academic output of the program should have no bearing on its funder. It is already clear that the program will have no direct interest in studying the political implications of climate change according to the department’s outline.

If BC wants to compete with Georgetown, Notre Dame, and other similar institutions, it must follow them into the same fields of research—perhaps one day BC will lead the way. One of the unfortunate realities of being a major university is the questionable character of some donors. BC can maintain its integrity and continue to uphold its Jesuit values so long as it can be sure that the money will be spent in the pursuit of a just world. 

October 30, 2019