Friday, July 01, 2011

The Reid Report re: FSU Economics Department Selling its Soul to the Koch Brothers -- Academic Freedom for Sale?

Florida State University sells faculty control for Koch money **UPDATED**

It just doesn’t quit. A Florida university puts its integrity, and its economics department, up for sale.

Peter Schorsch over at SaintPetersblog spotted this one, and it’s something to see…:

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

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 for a new program promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they’ve funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

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 or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.

The full story is here, complete with this gem:

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. 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.

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.”

Not exactly consistent? Rasmussen, meanwhile, sang quite a different tune in a letter to the Tallahassee Democrat responding to the professors, striking a strident tone, accusing the profs of “ideological bias,” and asserting something that appears to be demonstrably untrue:

Miller and Bellamy incorrectly assert that FSU’s economics department struck “an agreement with the Charles G. Koch Foundation.” In fact, the agreement was among Florida State University, the Florida State University Foundation and the Koch Foundation. This agreement was carefully vetted by the university’s senior administration and attorneys to ensure that no decision-making processes at the university would be compromised.

Miller and Bellamy wrote that, “If things turned out well for FSU it has to have involved some skillful maneuvering.” There is no “skillful maneuvering” required because, at every stage of implementation of this agreement, FSU faculty retain control. Further, the terms agreed upon by FSU and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation were purposefully designed to ensure academic freedom. It is the faculty who approve all hires, who approve all Ph.D. admissions, who grade all preliminary examinations of Ph.D. students with their identities concealed and who annually review all faculty members independent of the source of funding.

But if the faculty approves all hires, how did the Koch brothers veto 60 percent of the candidates, and why do they retain the option of withdrawing funding should any professor stray from their preferred ideas? Rasmussen appears to be engaging in a little “academic freedom” of his own on that one.

And then there’s this. Where the Koch brothers used to just buy up entire academic departments, in Florida, they’re doing things differently:

Now, rather than taking over entire academic departments, Koch is funding faculty who promote his agenda at universities where there are a variety of economic views. In addition to FSU, Koch has made similar arrangements at two other state schools, Clemson University in South Carolina and West Virginia University.

Bruce Benson, chairman of FSU’s economics department, said that of his staff of 30, six, including himself, would fall into Koch’s free-market camp.

“The Kochs find, as I do, that a lot of regulation is actually detrimental and they’re convinced markets work relatively well when left alone,” he said.

Benson 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.

“Students will ultimately choose,” he said. “If you believe strongly in something, you believe it can win the debate.”

Benson makes annual reports to Koch about the faculty’s publications, speeches and classes, which have included the economics of corruption. He said FSU has promised to retain the professors in tenure-track positions hired under the Koch grant if the foundation ever feels they aren’t complying with its objectives and withdraws support.

“So far, they’re fine with what’s going on,” Benson said. “But I agree with what they believe, whether they give us money or not.”

The mind reels.

And here’s part of what Bellamy and Moore wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat on May 1st:

The ideals of the university call for academic freedom, the search for truth, the right to be led by the data wherever they go, open debate of all sides, faculty control of the classroom, a strong role in governance in academic matters, and the right to speak out without reprisal or fear of having your emails demanded by someone whose politics differ from yours. (The people who requested the emails of a Wisconsin history professor should be punished by forcing them read the entire batch.)

Recently a number of corporations have focused on universities in order to further a political ideology of free markets and diminished government regulation. They are less interested in creating new knowledge than in getting their message out and improving their bottom line.

The pursuit of unbiased information and the projection of an ideology are two starkly contrasting goals and can meld only if one of the parties compromises on some basic values.

Two of the more visible corporations making substantial contributions to universities are the Koch brothers and BB&T. The brothers are owners of the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S. and are much in the news because of efforts to influence public policy, elections, taxes, environmental issues, unions, regulations, etc. BB&T is a large financial services corporation that frequently teams up with Koch.

Both corporations have worked out agreements with colleges and universities across the country, many of them being controversial. George Mason University received over $23 million from Koch brothers foundations to hire seven libertarian professors, subjecting the college to the charge that the university had been “bought.” Guilford College accepted a 10-year, $500,000 grant from BB&T, along with the following strings: an upper-level interdisciplinary course requiring the assignment of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in its entirety, and the commitment of the college to annually (until the year 2019) give a copy of the book to every student who majors either in business or economics when that student enters his or her junior year. Meredith College faculty rejected a $420,000 “gift” that the college president had negotiated with a BB&T foundation on the grounds that the college needed to retain control over course curricula. Incidents of this latter kind abound, but fall far behind the number of instances in which the corporations have gotten the traction they wanted with the schools.

Apparently, including FSU.

UPDATE: A Facebook page has been created urging FSU to get out of bed with the Kochs. Find it here.

Contact for the FSU board of trustees can be found here or below:

University Relations
Florida State University
216 Westcott
Tallahassee FL 32306-1350
Phone: 850/644-1000
Fax: 850/644-3612

No comments: