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Koch exerts deep influence with endowed positions
May 10, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

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.

Charles 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." The contract was signed in 2008, but only recently came to light. See the contract (PDF) with the university. FSU continues to defend the agreement and says that the Koch Foundation currently has one of three seats on an advisory board that reviews job candidates.

Koch brothers, previously.
posted by foggy out there now (97 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
$1.5 million, that's all? Back in the day, we wouldn't take anything less 10 mil from a billioniare.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:26 PM on May 10, 2011


I don't like this thing that the State of Florida is doing! never thought I'd say those words
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:29 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Xe professorship in international law and diplomacy
The Monsanto chair of business ethics
Blue Cross Blue Shield Medical School
posted by oinopaponton at 7:30 PM on May 10, 2011 [20 favorites]


Oh, conservative billionaires, is there anything you can't do?
posted by unSane at 7:30 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


The future, Mr. Gittes. The future.
posted by Trurl at 7:32 PM on May 10, 2011 [15 favorites]


And with one stroke of the pen, Koch has made FSU a non-entity in economic research in the same way that Liberty University is a non-entity in biological research.
posted by contessa at 7:32 PM on May 10, 2011 [27 favorites]


Given how conservative economics departments are already, it's a little astonishing that the Koch brothers felt the need to expose themselves to bad publicity like this.
posted by nasreddin at 7:32 PM on May 10, 2011 [24 favorites]


I'm not complaining about this until the check from Soros clears.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:33 PM on May 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


A day is coming
posted by munchingzombie at 7:38 PM on May 10, 2011


Given how conservative economics departments are already, it's a little astonishing that the Koch brothers felt the need to expose themselves to bad publicity like this.

That may be true typically, but here's what the chairman of the department had to say in the article: "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. "

So apparently it's not as popular a view here at FSU (I'm local, a graduate, but not an economist).
posted by empyrean at 7:38 PM on May 10, 2011


What's awesome about this is how it further erodes the myth that economics as a academic practice isn't somehow the equivalent of astrology anyways. If you can't even bother to try to maintain the illusion of objectivity in your discipline, there is no real reason for me or any other serious individual to treat your studies as anything more than fancy press releases written by shills in mortarboards and gowns.
posted by Chrischris at 7:41 PM on May 10, 2011 [25 favorites]


'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 ...

... completely ignoring the economic meltdown of the past several years.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:42 PM on May 10, 2011 [29 favorites]


This is overblown. He's buying a "seat", or a "Chair" within a department at a university. He and the universities he's working with are just being a little more overt about what goes on at 100's of other schools where "seats" are paid for by philanthropy.

As for economics, anything other than behavioral economics is bogus, and the latter is close to bogus. How can anyone call this science? Citizens, worldwide, have been bamboozled by the charlatans in this discipline. Tell me, where is the science? Where? It's all deduced opinion based on general patterns that come from a perceptual take on what an economy "is".

For instance, why aren't social returns on investment factored into large-scale economic scenarios? Why is everything based - essentially - on bottom line accounting.

I agree with some economists, not because they have anything solid on which to base their arguments (other than "surveys"); I agree with some of them because they agree with my general biases. Period. That's the way it works.

So, the Koch brothers have bought a few seats in a bogus discipline, at universities who are essentially selling soap to vast numbers of the students who they enroll, anyway. What's new?

Oh, and btw, what makes the average university department any better than any corporate department. the holier-than-thou crap applied to universities of ANY kind - for-profit, or non-profit, is wearing a little thin. Those places are ripe for disruption, and for the sake of anyone who really wants to learn something, that can't happen any time too soon.
posted by Vibrissae at 7:43 PM on May 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


So they are funding professors that otherwise would be paid by the taxpayer? Am I understanding this?
posted by blargerz at 7:44 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


'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.

The Kochs use a broad definition of regulation which includes taxation, I'm willing to bet.
posted by contessa at 7:44 PM on May 10, 2011


I don't think the Koch brothers much care about bad publicity--they can just swim off the rage in the giant money bin the acquired in a hostile takeover of McDuck Industries back in the 90s. They might be learning a lesson from the Olin Foundation's attempts at pushing a law and economics agenda through donating money for programs at law schools without asserting much control over how that money was spent.

From an assessment of the Olin program:

"Undoubtedly, the Olin programs were a great success on many levels. Teles notes, however, that as law and economics became more "mainstream" it also began to take on certain mainstream characteristics that are unlikely to be pleasing to those who ran the Olin Foundation... when Olin funded programs at elite law schools, it had very limited control over how its money was used. Olin officers, however, figured that economics was inherently more "conservative" and "scientific" than the vast majority of what was going on in law schools, so diverting resources to law and economics would be most likely be beneficial to its cause. While that was likely true, in some cases it's hard to see that Olin got much bang for its buck."
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 7:46 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The foundation partnering with FSU is one of several non-profits funded by Charles Koch (pronounced "coke''), 75, and his brother David, 71.

Well, you pronounce it how you see fit, and I'll pronounce it how I see fit. How about that?
posted by Naberius at 7:47 PM on May 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


So they are funding professors that otherwise would be paid by the taxpayer? Am I understanding this?

People aren't overly objecting to the funding, it's the strings attached that are driving everyone crazy; the vetting of candidates & annual reviews to make sure they stay on message.

The Kochs use a broad definition of regulation which includes taxation, I'm willing to bet.

Absolutely. It's a coordinated assault with a specific agenda.

"The foundation partnering with FSU is one of several non-profits funded by Charles Koch (pronounced "coke''), 75, and his brother David, 71. The aim: To advance their belief, through think tanks, political organizations and academia, that government taxes and regulations impinge on prosperity. "
posted by empyrean at 7:50 PM on May 10, 2011


"I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' [Rasmussen] said. "But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it." (because he gets to hire more teachers)

This sentence, by Rasmussen, seems simultaneously confusing and telling. "Hey it's against academic freedom but I'd be irresponsible not to hire people based on lack of academic freedom"

Oh, and given that his position is analogous to Koch, Rasmussen can now stack the department with yes sayers and shift the blame to an external source.
posted by edgeways at 8:03 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about we just tax the Koch brothers and pay for our universities with research grants? Thee should be a billionaire tax. Anyone that rich was either far too luck or too crafty to be trusted with that much power. We should also consider making being this rich a crime. For example make having a billion dollars in assets for more than 30 days is a felony. You have to sell or you go to jail. Alternatively we make it like the old video games where the score would just roll back to zero when you got the maximum number of points.
posted by humanfont at 8:04 PM on May 10, 2011 [13 favorites]


People aren't overly objecting to the funding, it's the strings attached that are driving everyone crazy; the vetting of candidates & annual reviews to make sure they stay on message.

So, these are, fundamentally, nontenured chairs? Because if the University is allowing a third party to "review" and "approve" the ongoing work of its professors, it is undermining the very concept and utility to the tenure system. Why would any reputable Economics journal, conference, or professional organization acknowledge any work the department does from now on? They've already compromised the framework which is meant to insure impartiality and academic honesty--how could one, in good faith, trust any research from such a compromised entity?
posted by Chrischris at 8:08 PM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Kochs find, as I do,

Spoken as if an economist and wealthy businessmen holding identical views is some sort of coincidence, as opposed to being directly causally related.

The US should kick economics out of its national academy of sciences until the profession functions like one.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:09 PM on May 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


This is bad news--that he is brazen enough to do this in the open, and that the university administrators were not afraid to reveal their venality. Wealthy people try to influence public universities behind the scenes all the time, but this is worse.

This isn't the first Koch parlay into this arena, either. I know of at least one other situation, I believe it was at George Mason, where one or both of the Koch's bought control of public academics. I suspect there are more examples.

The more this country moves towards plutocracy, the more we abandon intellect. The long-term results--I can't help but think of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
posted by ottimo at 8:10 PM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, these are, fundamentally, nontenured chairs?

Mmm, I'm not sure about their status while filling the funded positions. There is this, though:
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.
posted by empyrean at 8:11 PM on May 10, 2011


What, the Koch bothers don't trust the noted pinkos that teach at the University of Chicago enough that they feel the need to buy the *prestigous* FSU Ecomomics Department so someone will carry their water for them?
posted by KingEdRa at 8:12 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh, conservative billionaires, is there anything you can't do?

See their own reflections in a mirror? Expose themselves to direct sunlight?
posted by elizardbits at 8:13 PM on May 10, 2011 [30 favorites]


Reminiscent of the Puritan merchants who got together to purchase advowsons and install preachers more to their own taste back in Stuart days.
posted by Abiezer at 8:20 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


The whole thing seems like lawsuit-bait for the people who the department, at some level, asserted were better-qualified for a position as a state employee, but who were rejected by the Kochs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:21 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is overblown. He's buying a "seat", or a "Chair" within a department at a university. He and the universities he's working with are just being a little more overt about what goes on at 100's of other schools where "seats" are paid for by philanthropy.


Yeah? I have a chair at a real nice university, and I don't kiss anybody's ass.
posted by cogneuro at 8:24 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why would any reputable Economics journal, conference, or professional organization acknowledge any work the department does from now on?

Well at least some journals and conference accept papers on the basis of blind review not the reputation of the academic institution that employs the author.
posted by Jahaza at 8:27 PM on May 10, 2011


So, how long until some Intelligent Design proponents buy a seat to vet who teaches biology?
posted by yeloson at 8:27 PM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh, conservative billionaires, is there anything you can't do?

Change the pronunciation of their last name?
posted by the noob at 8:31 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Hate to break it to you guys, but this is just a more visible version of what is happening everywhere.

Go ahead and look at the State university websites in the Northeast and see how many things are named Rockefeller.

Or Newman.

Or Carnegie.

Then look up Victor Hugo, and I think you'll find a narrative that'll describe what happens next.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:35 PM on May 10, 2011


... completely ignoring the economic meltdown of the past several years.

Oh, but that wasn't an example of a truly free market! See, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with greedy mortgage holders who, you know, bought houses they couldn't afford, and the TARP bailout...ummm....stimulus somethingerother.

"Free-market" economists: proponents of the No True Scotsman school of rhetoric.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:41 PM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wow, and Florida was on the right track up to secondary education. They're trying hard to make some positive changes there (They were one of the race to the top winners, which shows .. at least a little promise).. but this is appalling.
posted by frwagon at 8:42 PM on May 10, 2011


No sir, I don't like it.
posted by HostBryan at 8:47 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


blargerz: So they are funding professors that otherwise would be paid by the taxpayer? Am I understanding this?

FTA: During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty's suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates.

Unless the top choices were in that 40%, then this is already a case where those particular professors would not have been paid by the taxpayer, because they presumably wouldn't have been hired.

And even if they were in that 40%, we have to wonder if they were only put on the list because those restrictions were already in place.


Maybe this will sound naive, but the fact that this is happening at a public university and it's happening so blatantly and the dean basically says he doesn't care - it terrifies me.
posted by chndrcks at 8:47 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Spoken as if an economist and wealthy businessmen holding identical views is some sort of coincidence, as opposed to being directly causally related."

The prostitutes I hire make some really good points in favor of legalizing prostitution.
posted by klangklangston at 8:49 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I know of a department that turned down the Koch funded chair because they were worried about this very problem.
posted by scunning at 8:50 PM on May 10, 2011


Hmm....what do you get if you take the "state" out of FSU? "FU"
Good plan, Florida.
posted by Mngo at 8:50 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh no! There are already precious few left-leaning professors in our universities.
posted by planet at 8:58 PM on May 10, 2011


At this point I wouldn't be shocked if economic "scientists" suddenly claimed that vaccines cause autism.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:09 PM on May 10, 2011


A university letting a donor dictate whom to hire and whether to keep employing them is rather disturbing. This kind of behavior is at odds with its the mission to promote truth in research and quality in teaching.

Still, in a way this is not very far off from how professors often get hired even without any outside meddling. The research interests and affiliations with various schools of thought frequently help determine which applicants get hired.
posted by epimorph at 9:21 PM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Trying to phrase this in a circumspect way. Let's just say that millionaires having a surprising amount of influence over universities is not that unusual. Sad and icky? Sure. But not unusual.

not that I have any experience working for the foundation of a florida school or anything. nope. not at all.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 PM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, that contract is probably not supposed to be public. Someone's going to get canned over that, I bet.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:26 PM on May 10, 2011


The natural cynicism of MeFites may keep some of you from realizing how shocking this is in academia. For a university to agree to allow individuals outside the university to use ideological criteria determine faculty hiring decisions--well, I don't know of another example.

The Hunt brothers tried something like this with Yale a few years back and when the brothers even hinted they wanted some control over hiring Yale sent their money back to them and told them to pound sand.
posted by LarryC at 9:35 PM on May 10, 2011 [16 favorites]


@ottimo: The more this country moves towards plutocracy, the more we abandon intellect.

I'm not sure that America ever embraced "intellect" in the first place. And, although I love what I think you're getting at within the general description of "intellect", I find "intellect" as suspect as the gray areas between "intellect" and unadorned outright ignorance. e.g. Pol Pot graduated from the Sorbonne. That's an extreme example, but we've got to remember that the Hoover institution's economists represents "intellect" as much as Paul Krugman's Econ department at Princeton does.

All fo those places are roiling with political bias that largely impacts the "research" that they do. Again, behavioral economics is getting closer to science; there's hope in that discipline - with one problem being that many corporations are using what's discovered there to sell us more stuff; even religions are using behavioral economics findings to either increase or temper their flocks.

That said, this is true of the general sciences as well, they can be used for good, evil, and lots in-between.

Anyway, the Kochs are just doing what everyone else does, but a little more overt about it than most.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:47 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know that the Koch connection here is shedding a light on FSU, but it's important to realize that this mentality is pretty well established in that department. Devoe Moore is a "long-time benefactor" and outspoken tea-partier with scholarships, endowments, and...uh...massive structures named after him.

Now, I can't tell you that Mr. Moore has an advisory role in the selecting professors. My strong sense, however, is that if economics professors of markedly different political opinions than Mr. Moore's had been consistently selected to positions in the economics department, then you would have either seen a change in his donations or a change of administrative head.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:48 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is bad news.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:22 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]



I just watched the documentary Inside Job... a portion of which exposed the fact that many (if not most) universities (even Harvard) have no policy whatsoever regarding professors receiving huge sums of money to write academic papers that basically amount to promotional brochures of the payee's economic policies. In several high profile cases this blatant conflict of interest wasn't even mentioned in the papers.

The particular one that stands out in my memory was an Ivy League economics professor who wrote a glowing review of Iceland's de-regulated banking policy and how safe and stable it's banks were. The paper was called something like "Stability in Iceland's Banking Policy" or something to that effect.

Of course, Iceland's banks were hugely leveraged and ultimately have left that country's finances in ruins after the 2008 crash.

The Professor's CV now list's the paper's title as "Instability in Iceland's Banking Policy."

tldr; Academic economists have been paid for their complicity in the de-regulation that directly contributed to the current economic crisis and major universities have no policies to prevent or even publish such conflicts of interest. This is nothing new.
posted by j03 at 10:57 PM on May 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


The Randian Chair of Bionic Finance.
posted by clavdivs at 12:20 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pol Pot graduated from the Sorbonne

So did I. ZOMG! La panique morale!
posted by Wolof at 1:05 AM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh for pity's sake. Donors have been doing this sort of thing as long as there have been donors. And universities are entirely capable of saying "No, thanks." Yale turned down a $20 million grant to create a course in Western civ because they weren't willing to give the donor the right to approve professors. BB&T has been making donations for years with the requirement that Atlas Shrugged be part of the curriculum.

And those aren't the only strings donors attach, either.

This is a non-story.
posted by valkyryn at 2:19 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


'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 ...

... completely ignoring the economic meltdown of the past several years.


And completely ignoring that they are interfering with the market for economic professors.
posted by waitingtoderail at 2:24 AM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Any reputable university would not have accepted funding on these terms, but well FSU. And it suggests some deep ignorance of academia on Koch's part.

There isn't anything wrong with donors exerting some ideological influence through the title and mission statement of a char position, or even targeting them towards specific individual's research. All these positions often have names like the Princeton University Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics or the University of Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science.

Koch could've easily simply identified a professor who's work he likes, and tailored a char's mission statement to her research interests, thus promoting that professor and giving her department an extra line. And that professor would naturally have enormous influence upon who eventually replaced them. Koch could've alternatively established some grant framework through the CATO Institute or whatever. Just directly requiring ideological approval though, well that's a recipe for disaster.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:51 AM on May 11, 2011


Denigrating the entire field of economics because it contains some people who agree with the Koch brothers strikes me as a tad narrow-minded.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:01 AM on May 11, 2011


"In addition to FSU, Koch has made similar arrangements at two other state schools, Clemson University in South Carolina and West Virginia University. "

This is not an unprecedented sellout of academic freedom; it's the latest acquisition in an ongoing program.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:52 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


And completely ignoring that they are interfering with the market for economic professors.

"Participating" is not the same thing as "interfering".

Any reputable university would not have accepted funding on these terms

They do it all the time. It makes the news when they don't more often than when they do.
posted by valkyryn at 4:12 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


And universities are entirely capable of saying "No, thanks." ... This is a non-story.

Yes, they are capable. And some do, and some don't. What happened here is some university chose not to refuse the money-with-strings, and people are pointing at it and saying 'Wrong choice'. That's the story.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:53 AM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Srsly tho, 1.5m actually seems kind of small for an endowment. Surely 7,500 of us can chip in $200 each and endow the Metafilter Chair of Extreme Internets Awesomeness somewhere and counteract this conservojerkface bullshit?
posted by elizardbits at 5:19 AM on May 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


For a university to agree to allow individuals outside the university to use ideological criteria determine faculty hiring decisions--well, I don't know of another example.

Eh, it's just surprising they put it down on paper. Normally it would just be a phone call suggesting more money would not be forthcoming if the hiring did not go correctly.
posted by smackfu at 6:07 AM on May 11, 2011


directly requiring ideological approval though, well that's a recipe for disaster.

Actually, it is a perfect strategy for undermining the credibility of the entire field. Not only do they get there mouthpieces in place but the fact that they did and could so openly means that there is no guard against their opposition doing likewise. So they can comfortably make an accusation of ideological bias and ignore any research that they disagree with without even have to engage with it. Because we all know economics is biased.

Synergy.
posted by srboisvert at 6:18 AM on May 11, 2011


What? Sorry, I was asleep. Do I need my pitchfork yet?
posted by steambadger at 6:18 AM on May 11, 2011


Surely 7,500 of us can chip in $200 each and endow the Metafilter Chair of Extreme Internets Awesomeness somewhere and counteract this conservojerkface bullshit?

Devoted to the research of whether things are safe to eat.
posted by Trurl at 6:26 AM on May 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


The $1.5M was part of a larger set of funds that appears to be coming from other sources which makes me wonder if it was actually a matching grant. (Institution raises X amount and then the foundation gives Y amount.) Regardless, the condition that the foundation has ongoing approval of who is hired to the positions funded by the grant is absurd. FSU's President and Trustees must have seen some benefit larger than the $1.5M to get into such an agreement in the first place. What other gifts came in as a result of this? Did this deal open the doors to another large donor? Did the Foundation indicate a preferential review of FSU for future grants as a result of this agreement? The amount of money, $1.5M, is too small in the realm of higher education fundraising to be giving an outside entity this power. The University of Pennsylvania just received a gift of $225M which appears to have no strings attached.
posted by onhazier at 6:58 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eh, if movies have taught me anything, it's that what they're looking for is someone plucky enough to stand up to them, showing real determination and American Spirit.

If movies have taught me anything, it's not to be worried.
posted by Eideteker at 6:59 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Participating" is not the same thing as "interfering".

How about "exercising veto power over hiring decisions" - is that the same as interfering?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:05 AM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, conservative billionaires, is there anything you can't do?

Fit through the eye of a needle?
posted by longbaugh at 7:10 AM on May 11, 2011 [9 favorites]


elizardbits: endow the Metafilter Chair of Extreme Internets Awesomeness somewhere and counteract this conservojerkface bullshit?

Trurl: Devoted to the research of whether things are safe to eat.


My upcoming thesis: "Remote electronic evaluation of temperature-dependent baceria growth: A crowdsourced evaluation of Phaseolus vulgaris."
posted by Tehhund at 7:11 AM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damnit, "bacteria growth"
posted by Tehhund at 7:11 AM on May 11, 2011


"Free-market" economists: proponents of the No True Scotsman school of rhetoric.
It is fair to criticize market players for immorally acting on the prediction that people could take excessive risks and be bailed out on the downside with taxpayer money from the suckers who were more prudent. But still you've got to admit: wouldn't that criticism have been even more satisfying if that prediction hadn't been right?
posted by roystgnr at 7:14 AM on May 11, 2011


What? Sorry, I was asleep. Do I need my pitchfork yet?

Apparently the invisible hand of the market is the only one allowed that particular tool now.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:14 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, economists. After years of studying what you think motivates people, you throw in the towel and "realize" that it's acceptable to sell out, because that's what people do. After all, the numbers bear that out.

To compare prostitutes to this kind of behavior is truly, seriously, an insult to prostitutes.
posted by Xoebe at 7:20 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many comments here indicate that very few people even know what economics is. Or they do, and choose to ignore that knowledge in favor of snark.
posted by gjc at 7:24 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many comments here indicate that very few people even know what economics is

Economics is that thing funded by rich conservatives right? I guess it's like a book or a TV show or something. Anyways, if it's funded by rich conservatives, it must be bad.
posted by fuq at 7:29 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about "exercising veto power over hiring decisions" - is that the same as interfering?

Not if you've paid a price to which the university has agreed for the privilege.

It's a market exchange. If the university isn't willing to accept those strings, they can turn down the money. It's that simple. Private actors, almost by definition, cannot interfere with the market for anything short of exercising monopoly power, which no one is suggesting is happening here.
posted by valkyryn at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2011


Economics? I've heard of that. It's one of those Alternative Reality Games. In the Economics game, all the players are supposed to go around in real life using The Secret (or the sheer intestinal fortitude and self-determination a superior moral character endows) to collect more monopoly money than any of the other players before the game ends. That's the one, right?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:55 AM on May 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


So if a private person or organization paid for another private person or organization to perform a service, say, a contract killing on the Kochs, that would just be a free market solution to an overly onerous regulatory issue, right? 'Nothing is true, everything is permitted' style?
posted by FatherDagon at 7:55 AM on May 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


They'll shout obscenities from the crowd before they pull the trigger. The papers the next day will read "Heckler kills Koch with Heckler & Koch".
posted by longbaugh at 8:03 AM on May 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a market exchange. If the university isn't willing to accept those strings, they can turn down the money. It's that simple. Private actors, almost by definition, cannot interfere with the market for anything short of exercising monopoly power, which no one is suggesting is happening here.

Sure, but I think the opposition to this stems from a valid counterargument, namely that education ought to be in some ways a protected class of product, one free from this sort of manipulation. I suspect you'll tell me that ideology will make it into the curriculum one way or another, whether it be from Koch-mandated professors or not, but it's really something else when you've got someone overtly screening hires on an ideological basis. As it stands, absent outside interference, academics have to maintain at least a pretense of open-mindedness. You can argue whether they do or not, but I think the need to do usually results in a greater degree of ideological tolerance than this scenario. I hope we don't need to argue about whether ideological tolerance is a virtue in education.
posted by invitapriore at 8:11 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here at UT-Austin, we now have the "BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism" in the PHILOSOPHY department. That's right, a massive bank gave the university $2 mil to establish a position dedicated solely to espousing/legitimating Ayn Rand's nonsensical claptrap.
posted by Lee Marvin at 9:43 AM on May 11, 2011


Dear Seventy year old Billionaires,

You've already won. Please stop peddling influence in politics and academics, there is no need for it, the game is already yours. Please, just go and enjoy being rich somewhere. Buy islands, drink things with rum in it, and crash zeppelins together for fun. Just leave the rest of us the hell alone.

Thanks,
The other 99.99% of the World.
posted by quin at 9:43 AM on May 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Heckler kills Koch with Heckler & Koch".

You play clever with the names, but I was thrilled to discover that they had nothing to do with the gun company. I was dreading having to shun one of my favorite pistols for being tainted by association.

And how fucked up is that? My gun is better to me because it's not related to these assholes.
posted by quin at 9:48 AM on May 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


valkyryn: "Oh for pity's sake. Donors have been doing this sort of thing as long as there have been donors. And universities are entirely capable of saying "No, thanks." Yale turned down a $20 million grant to create a course in Western civ because they weren't willing to give the donor the right to approve professors.

Which is exactly what should have happened in this case.

BB&T has been making donations for years with the requirement that Atlas Shrugged be part of the curriculum.

I don't like that either, but it's not as bad as this. Requiring that a particular book be part of the curriculum still leaves a lot of room for academic freedom, unless the donation has requirements for how the book is taught. When someone teaches an intro level class, they often teach a wide variety of positions, many of which they don't agree with. As far as I can tell, BB&T doesn't require that every teacher teach objectivism as the best theory ever.

It's still a dangerous precedent, because it can lead to illegitimate views being given better status than they should, but what's happening in this FSU case is worse. The foundation gets final say over who is hired. The foundation can withdraw its funding if the hires don't meet certain "objectives." The BB&T donations are a slap in the face of academic freedom. FSU's accepting the Koch donation says we're willing to kill academic freedom for $1 million.

A department at a public university has sold the curriculum to 8 classes per year to a private institution and sees nothing wrong with that.

And those aren't the only strings donors attach, either.

This is a non-story.
"

How many of those strings dictate what can and cannot be taught? On that list, only the Pillsbury donation comes close, and I can't find whether or not the schools took those donations. How many of those gave the donor veto power over hires made with that donation? How many reserve the right to pull the donation if professors don't meet certain "objectives?"

If the university isn't willing to accept those strings, they can turn down the money. It's that simple.

That's mostly true, but it isn't so simple. FSU didn't have to accept the money, and they shouldn't have, but right now a lot of departments are desperate for money. Look around at some salaries at public universities. UT-Austin's philosophy department was one of those that took $2million from BB&T. UT-Austin is a top 20 philosophy department (according to the Leiter rankings), yet according to the collegiatetimes database, the highest salary they pay is just over $200,000. To be fair, salary alone doesn't tell the whole story, but the reason I bring up these numbers is to show just how big a deal $2million is.

This is just one reason why it's not so simple to say the departments can turn the money down. When a state university's budget is being slashed and state legislators (who, incidentally are also taking donations from some of these foundations) find out that a department turned down a $2million donation - what do you think their reaction will be? Will they applaud the university for sticking to its mission of unbiased public education? or will they continue to use the university as a political chip?

It's not as simple as FSU just giving the money back if the Koch foundation's demands suddenly get out of hand. When future budgets are worked out (in light of ongoing budget cuts), I'm sure that $1.5M will be taken into account. If nothing else, if FSU gives the money back, they're now on the hook for paying those two professors that they weren't paying before.

Education is essential to the development and flourishing of our society. This is (at least in part) why we have public education. Academia has always taken academic freedom to be a core virtue of education. To see it sold for any price is beyond depressing.
posted by chndrcks at 9:49 AM on May 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Denigrating the entire field of economics because it contains some people who agree with the Koch brothers strikes me as a tad narrow-minded.

True, because there are so many other legitimate reasons to denigrate the field.



(I kid...but only partly.)
posted by darkstar at 10:36 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


For example make having a billion dollars in assets for more than 30 days is a felony. You have to sell or you go to jail.
Perhaps this is a bit snarky--but if you sell, won't you still have the billion dollars? In cash?Actually it's an interesting thought experiment, however one wants to enforce it. And certainly a neat counterpoint to the former practice of debt prisons--if having no money lands you in jail, maybe having too much should, too?In practice, would probably result in a lot of creative ways to disperse one's influence without direct possession. And then you'd have to decide what to do with trusts. A real Marxist might say--"Why are you fucking around trying to train capitalism into a more equitable shape? Under communism the underlying structure of the economy guarantees it!" Although just like there's no free lunch there's no free ideal equitable distribution of resources, goods, services, and well-being.Not that we shouldn't try to find the next best one.
posted by adoarns at 10:52 AM on May 11, 2011


We should just give every 18 year old a million dollars and a week to spend it or we kill them. Money will continue to circulate, everyone will have yachts!*




*IANAE
posted by longbaugh at 11:18 AM on May 11, 2011


The one thing I learned from that article is that the Brawny Man is a libertarian.

*Grabs CVS brand paper towels*

Seriously, is Ron Perleman based on the brawny man? Is Parks and Rec funded by the Koches too!?!!!!!! We all know NBC is dying for cash...
posted by stratastar at 12:38 PM on May 11, 2011


"Participating" is not the same thing as "interfering".

Unless they own the university, it's interfering. Pray tell, why shouldn't the American people, through laws enacted by their elected representatives "participate" in markets by excercising veto power over institutions which put out harmful products and services?

Maybe George Soros and Warren Buffett should try to "participate" in Texas State's economics department's hiring decisions. See how that'd go over in the State House.
posted by waitingtoderail at 12:40 PM on May 11, 2011


Surely I'm not the only one who finds it darkly comical that billionaires can claim that the current system doesn't allow for prosperity and that others will take them seriously.

Anyway...

I am not an economist, and not an expert on the field in any other respect. But I have a few hypotheses about the field and I'm curious how close to the truth I am.

1.) If you go micro or macro enough, the science is capable of producing reliably repeatable results, but that the tricky part is the middle ground, which is also where the most important questions are.
2.) It is way more highly politicised than other fields, not only because of the subject matter and the relative "softness" of the arguments, but because by nature of being a study of human behavior and incentives, even if economists could agree upon which incentives produce which results, there would still be non-scientific arguments over which results are most desirable.
3.) It's probably not an overwhelmingly conservative field, in reality, but the Chicago School exerts undue influence in the public sphere both because their arguments are politically viable for one side of the aisle, and because Milton Friedman's theories (and all the permutations which have followed) are much easier to explain in sound-bites than, say, Paul Krugman's. In fact, I've even recently heard that the University of Chicago itself is nowhere near as conservative on economics as it once was and as its reputation would suggest.

Any of this true?
posted by Navelgazer at 2:53 PM on May 11, 2011


Donors sometimes provide the money to endow a chair for a person in a particular research area that they have an interest in. The university can decide if they want to go into that area or not. The danger here is that the university expands in areas because that is where the money is, and that obviously happens. More often, the donor endows a chair in a department or other unit for someone with expertise in a broad area of research, like "English history" or "Genetics". Sometimes they are just honoring themselves, e.g., the person holding the Johnson Family chair in X does not have to study the Johnson family. In all such cases, the donor's job is done after they give the money. If FSU allows the donor to decide who gets the chair or establish a litmus test for getting or retaining the position, that is different, and does serious damage to their academic credibility, such as it is. I hope the football team does well.

I wouldn't be too concerned about how many chairs are named for Rockefellers. So is an entire university. One of the most distinguished ones. And they don't study politics there.
posted by cogneuro at 4:54 PM on May 11, 2011


Navelgazer - yes a lot of that is true. Honestly there have been a good 15 threads like this one where people come in to drop knowledge that economics isn't a science.

But of course it is, like every science and human endeavor it is run by fads, inertia, a tendency to close ranks, and its own blinders; it also has done a fantastic job picking out really difficult concepts like the functioning of markets, utility, consumption, decision-making and game-theory.

The main problem results from the fact that positive and normative science sides of economics can get fuzzy and conflated, and then you have people like the Koch's coming in to further their ends of the normative science equation.
posted by stratastar at 11:19 PM on May 11, 2011


Salon.com's article on the subject.
posted by TedW at 7:52 AM on May 12, 2011


This kind of deal is unheard of. Yes, scientists can be prone to groupthink like anyone else, and especially, yes, universities need to do a better job about conflicts of interest. But even these transgressions are across the Rubicon from two individuals buying hiring and tenuring veto power for an entire department, with the explicit purpose of cherry-picking only those potential faculty who agree with them. I mean, part of the whole point of tenure is to protect people who use good scholarship to express unpopular opinions. This contract turns the university into company property. It is utterly obscene.

This is just one reason why it's not so simple to say the departments can turn the money down. When a state university's budget is being slashed and state legislators (who, incidentally are also taking donations from some of these foundations) find out that a department turned down a $2million donation - what do you think their reaction will be?

I'm not nearly so sympathetic to the university. This was a spineless act, especially for a public institution. Sure, they could hire two more faculty members -- after vetoing 60% of the faculty's picks. Do you think their department is really better off as a result of this little Faustian gambit?
posted by en forme de poire at 7:54 AM on May 12, 2011


Similar story: The Koch brothers pump money into a new University of Arizona center.

Lee Marvin: I did my undergrad degree at UT-Austin, 1994-1999. I was a philosophy minor and, I'm ashamed to say, a young Randian (since cured). I remember writing a paper for a philosophy class; the paper was titled "The Objectivist Answer to Skepticism." My professor (Dr. Hankinson) gave me a decent grade on the paper (it wasn't terribly written), but also told me very politely that no one took objectivism seriously, a view I found reflected by the rest of the philosophy department. That they have a chair in objectivism now is quite the 180.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:20 AM on May 12, 2011


I'm not nearly so sympathetic to the university. This was a spineless act, especially for a public institution. Sure, they could hire two more faculty members -- after vetoing 60% of the faculty's picks. Do you think their department is really better off as a result of this little Faustian gambit?

On rereading what I wrote, I didn't express myself well. I certainly don't think they should have taken the money. My point was that it's not "simple" to say no, as someone above claimed, and it's not simple partly because politicians have turned higher education into a political chip. University budgets are being cut left and right, and departments that are essential to a well rounded education are being cut entirely (e.g. UNLV's philosophy department).[1]

When education funding becomes political, turning down a donation with political strings attached is one more mark against you. I don't say this to excuse FSU - better no department than one that's been corrupted - but to decry the politicization of education.

FSU's taking the money was bad, very bad. As I said in my first comment, that the dean is ok with selling out academic freedom and that hardly anyone seems to care terrifies me - not just as someone hoping to enter academia soon, but as a citizen who believes that everyone receiving a well-rounded education is essential to a healthy democracy.


[1]For an example, I did my undergrad at a large public university whose tuition and fees have tripled in the last ten years. In 1970, this school received 12x as much money from the state as it did from tuition, now? 80cents from the state per tuition dollar.
posted by chndrcks at 8:38 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]




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