Universities Dumping Koch at an Exponential Rate

An extensive article by Paul Basken at the Chronicle of Higher Education offers a new look at the activities of the Charles Koch Foundation on college campuses.

The article, based in part on research by UnKoch My Campus, is entitled Think You Know What Type Of College Would Accept Charles Koch Foundation Money? Think Again (excerpted heavily below).

Our new financial analysis includes the Koch foundation’s recently released 2016 990 tax form. While Koch’s campus funding has continued to surge exponentially, spreading to at least 443 campuses between 2010 and 2016, we see for the first time that there has been an incredibly high turnover rate.

As of 2016, 193 of Koch's 443 campuses (41%) have stopped receiving Koch foundation funding.
since 2015, the Koch foundation has lost more campuses than it has gained.

(See figures below)

Basken examines several of Koch’s academics, and how they have helped the Koch foundation leverage universities for pro-corporate policy change. He cites several recordings we obtained at the 2016 conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE), where Koch foundation officials and Koch funded professors spoke candidly about Koch’s influence, political intent, and the political impact of their programs. For more background, see our website for Koch’s “Integrated Strategy,” and our APEE recordings.

The Koch foundation has been repeatedly caught red-handed while wielding excessive or hidden influence in hiring, curriculum, and even dissertation topics - a clear pattern of violated academic freedom and governance (see Koch’s Academic Oversteps). Increasingly, these violations accompany programs created against the expressed will of faculty (see Faculty Action).

The Chronicle’s report highlights the wave of faculty and students on campus who are resisting Koch’s excessive donor influence, as well as what appears to be a shift in the kinds of campuses Koch is targeting. It seems there has never been a better time to sever your ties with the Koch network.


Basken highlights the surge in funding to campus programs:

According to an analysis of the [Koch] foundation's latest annual financial disclosures by UnKoch My Campus . . .the $50 million [in 2016] represents a 49-percent jump from 2015, when the Charles Koch Foundation gave out $34 million in grants. The 249 campuses at which anyone at the institution has received some money represent another record high, up from 222 in 2015, according to the group. (Basken, 2017)

This “jump” is the continuation of a clear trend of exponential growth. Since 2010, CKF campus donations have doubled roughly every two years.



While the growth of Koch’s funding appears stable, an examination of the number of campuses receiving funding tells a more interesting story. In 2016:

Figure 1: (Upper) CKF spending (in Millions) over time, (Lower) New and Non-Renewed Campuses

Figure 1: (Upper) CKF spending (in Millions) over time, (Lower) New and Non-Renewed Campuses

The [Koch] foundation ended the year adding only 44 first-time campuses, falling below the average gain of the previous five years for the second straight time. And with 69 campuses dropping off Koch's list in 2016, it was also the second straight year in which the foundation lost more campuses than it added. (Basken, 2017)

In fact, there has been a clear exponential trend of “Non-Renewed Campuses.” As mentioned above 193 campuses (41%) of 443 have stopped receiving Koch’s funding. On average, the number of NRCs has doubled every two years since 2010 (the same rate of CKF’s funding). Figure 2 shows the number of new campuses added each year, compared to the Non-Renewed Campuses missing that year.

Of the 222 campuses listed in 2015, 69 of them (31%) did not renew in 2016.

What could be driving this exodus of participation in Koch’s programming? For many campuses we’ll never know, given that Koch’s agreements typically contain privacy clauses that often require campus officials to “keep confidential and not to disclose to any third party the existence of or contents of this Agreement without express written approval from the Donor”(see Koch’s Anti-transparency Provisions).

Figure 2: Heat map of CKF campus funding, sorted by most recent donation. The bottom half are campuses not receiving CKF funding as of 2016 (click for pdf)

Figure 2: Heat map of CKF campus funding, sorted by most recent donation. The bottom half are campuses not receiving CKF funding as of 2016
(click for pdf)

We might take the example of Whitman College, who was one of the campuses in the large wave of new campuses in 2010. In 2011, Inside Higher Ed reported:

Faculty members started to get worried when they heard that the foundation, as part of its grant, asked for the e-mail addresses of students who attended the lecture. Faculty members objected to the idea that a funder was entitled to know which students attended and to get private information, such as their e-mail addresses. [A] college spokeswoman . . .confirmed that the foundation asked for the students' e-mail addresses, but said that Whitman didn't provide them. She also said that the college hasn't decided whether to honor the request of faculty members not to seek additional Koch money. (Inside Higher Ed, 2011)

Whitman did not renew their funding in 2011, or since.

While we don’t have any of the documents pertaining to Whitman’s encounter, we do have 2010 correspondence between Koch officials and the College of Charleston that shows “primary requirements” for grant reporting including a list of student names and email addresses “preferably not ending in .edu” for any student who participated in a “Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship.” Koch officials expand their student contacts to “any students who intend to pursue opportunities to remain connected to the ideas (whether or not they were direct participants in the program).” An email from a Koch official emphasized how their continued funding relied heavily on student information:

This section of the report will factor substantially into our evaluation of future funding requests. We recommend updating a list of interested students you have encountered throughout the academic year in order to avoid omitting important information in your final report. (College of Charleston emails, 2010 Center for Public Integrity - first obtained by the UnderCurrent)

Koch’s constraints and requirements are what allow their programs to be “leveraged,” and what allows them to build their “talent pipeline” from campus into their political operation.

As we told the Chronicle, “the more that faculty know about Koch's contracts and strategy, the more they are trying to resist its influence.” The examined how:

[R]esistance has coalesced on many campuses, especially after faculty members from several universities were recorded at a conference last year enthusiastically acknowledging the political power that Koch foundation money has given them at their institutions. . . Some scholars’ suspicions were stoked last year by recordings and transcripts, released by UnKoch My Campus, of the April conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education, an annual gathering point for Koch-backed academics.

Those academics included Stephen C. Miller, an associate professor of economics at Troy University, who recommended using Koch funding to move ideological allies into places of power on campus, calling faculty positions "resources to be leveraged." A Troy colleague, George R. Crowley, then chair of the economics department, said: "We've had an administration that has kind of let us get away with a lot, as far as hiring people very rapidly and ramming through some of the curricular kind of stuff." . . .

Troy University [is] among the dozens of campuses that received Koch foundation money in the past but not in 2016. In addition, Mr. Crowley was removed as chairman of Troy’s economics department. Troy's chancellor, Jack Hawkins Jr., had cheered Koch's arrival on campus in 2010, saying the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy that Koch helped create "opens a whole new avenue of opportunity in terms of study for our students and faculty." After hearing the comments from Mr. Miller and Mr. Crowley, Mr. Hawkins ordered a refocusing of the Johnson center. "We don’t just turn people loose to operate at their own devices," he told Alabama.com in 2016.

Moreover, student records requests showed that Koch also funded Art Hall specifically to testify against renewable energy in Kansas. Basken continued:

Documents obtained by various campus-based student groups have outlined similar attempts to disguise the intent of donations that the Koch foundation has publicly described only as promoting free academic inquiry. After University of Kansas students obtained records of the grant-solicitation exchanges of Arthur P. Hall, a business-school lecturer, Mr. Hall acknowledged that his study of local population shifts was designed to "promote smaller government" by casting doubt on the use of taxpayer money to guide economic growth.

"I was writing it, obviously, to a particular constituent," Mr. Hall, a former Koch Industries economist and executive director of his university's Koch-funded Brandmeyer Center for Applied Economics, told The Chronicle of his grant proposal.


Basken goes on to highlight some of the students and faculty across the country resisting donor influence:

In many cases, terms of Koch foundation agreements have not been disclosed, fueling suspicions about intent, and protests. The faculty at Wake Forest University voted this year to oppose a $3.7-million Koch grant to create the Eudaimonia Institute — a center for studying "human flourishing" — in large part because the university had not permitted faculty members to view the Koch donor agreement, making it difficult for them to assess any ideological component. (The institute went ahead anyway.) . . .

Most recently, an investigative piece in the Chapman University student paper revealed a pattern of questionable hiring practices and undisclosed funding from the Koch foundation (much like that seen at Texas Tech or Auburn University). After their investigative work, the editorial board concluded “that accepting this money is unethical and wrong.” Earlier this year, the Syracuse University paper published a similar investigative piece and editorial, concluding:

It’s evident that the Koch brothers have influenced academic research at some — if not all — of the universities they’ve donated to. Their potential to compromise academic freedom at SU is concerning. Universities are places for independent thought and the pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit should not be tainted by the political agenda of two of the richest men in the country.

Both campus papers mention our 2017 book-length report, A Case Study in Academic Crime: the Charles Koch Foundation at Florida State University, which has inspired an investigation by FSU’s faculty senate.


Using the Koch foundation’s 2014 tax forms, the Institute for Southern Studies noted that as of 2014, Koch’s focus seemed to be on public institutions in southern states. Two years later, Basken notes a considerable shift away from this strategy:

The foundation’s latest annual filing shows its giving remains robust, especially among more renowned institutions like Harvard and MIT. . .

The reputational heft of [Koch’s] list keeps improving. After a period of concentrating its biggest gifts among mostly smaller regional institutions, the Koch foundation's top partners — those getting at least $100,000 a year — now include the likes of Purdue, the University of Notre Dame, Harvard, Brown, New York, and Georgetown Universities, the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State, the University of North Carolina, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Duke, UCLA, the University of Chicago and MIT. . .

As noted in Jane Mayer's Dark Money, this shift is an example of the Koch network's “beachhead” strategy; to establish strongholds at “the most influential schools in order to gain the greatest leverage.”

As campus resistance increases, administrators are looking to the models set by prestigious institutions to justify their acquiescence to donor influence.

Much of Basken’s story compares two examples: Montana State University and Harvard University:

Montana State University at Bozeman, a campus burdened by budget cuts and tuition increases in a very red state, seemed like an institution that might welcome a $5.7-million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation. . . At Montana State, the stakes are higher than at places like Harvard and MIT. The state legislature last month told the Montana University System to expect $4.5 million in budget cuts.

Gerrit Egnew, a senior majoring in biological engineering, had other ideas.

Aware of the foundation’s reputation for funding politically tinged work at other U.S. campuses, Mr. Egnew joined other MSU students and faculty last month in disrupting plans for a new economics-research center that was to use the foundation’s money. They’re also demanding new gift-acceptance policies on a campus already dotted with donor-sponsored buildings and departments. "Student involvement is growing, and growing fast," he said. . .

Mr. Egnew, the senior, said he's among several MSU science students who are working to oppose not just the Koch grant proposal but the trend toward private money in public education. Total private support for U.S. university research exceeded $33 billion last year, just below total federal support of almost $39 billion, according to the latest annual data issued last month by the National Science Foundation. That public-private gap has narrowed steadily since federal funding was double the level of private support back in the 1980s.

Mr. Hardin, of the Koch foundation, disputes any suggestions that its money buys academic influence. Koch is "just providing funding to this variety of people and then letting them work it all out," he said. "What happens on their side of the fence, so to speak, within the university community — we’re not a part of that."

But Mr. Egnew said that he sees colleges’ growing reliance on private money as a serious threat to science. Serious enough, in fact, that he might postpone his pursuit of a career in biological engineering to continuing fighting private interests. "The trend for 30 years has been toward more private funding," he said. "And we'd like to reverse that trend."

Basken contrasted this with Koch’s Ivy league scrutiny (or lack thereof):

Across the country at Harvard University, it's a different story. The nation's oldest university has prestige to spare and a $37-billion endowment. Yet it just teamed with the neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology to accept a new $3.7 million Koch grant.

Harvard leaders declined to comment on their decision to work with the Koch foundation. At both MIT and Montana State University, officials who helped arrange the Koch donations said they saw no risk to their institutions’ academic integrity. . .

Eric S. Chivian, an emeritus assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard and a co-winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in preventing nuclear war, [said that] [r]esearch has shown over and over that funding sources create biases, both overt and subtle, no matter how confident a recipient might be in his or her ability to resist . . .

Even if wealthy institutions like Harvard and MIT are uniquely well-positioned to resist political pressure on their research, he said, their actions set a tone for others.

Explaining his acceptance of Koch support, John D. Graham, dean of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington, said last year that prominent institutions like MIT seem to be able to do it without suffering any reputational harm. . .

Graham was featured in a recent International Business Times report on Koch-funded academics accepting positions in the Trump administration. Basken continued:

If there’s a template for the kind of institution seen as most likely to receive Koch funding, it would be a public regional university with a tight budget and ambition to grow — the kind of ambition a Koch gift can help satisfy. But the cases of Montana State and Harvard reveal that there’s more to the complex and longstanding involvement in higher education of Charles G. Koch, the multibillionaire head of a petrochemical conglomerate whose political activism aims to sharply limit government, especially in areas such as health care and the environment. . .

Koch foundation officials responded to our findings through the Chronicle, downplaying the growing absence of campuses from their rolls:

A spokeswoman for the Koch foundation, however, cautioned against making too much of the foundation’s list of 2016 grant recipients, as Koch works with "schools of all types and sizes." The spokeswoman, Trice Jacobson, said that absences of funding for any particular campus in any given year can be temporary, not indicative of a broader strategy. "The shifts in calendar-year giving are part of the natural academic giving cycle," she said. "Our vision is to support any school that has exciting opportunities for professors and students." (Basken, 2017)

We understand that there are many reasons a campus might pause its funding. There are many such gaps in the data. But the overall trend is exponential, and can not be attributed to the circumstance of any particular campus.   

These findings should embolden students, faculty, and hesitant administrators to stand up against donor influence by self-interested donors with a pattern of violating academic freedom and governance.