The Koch Brothers and the End of State Universities

The real scandal around the endowment by the Koch brothers of two chairs at Florida State University is that state universities now have to seek such outside money and accept strings. The reason they have to do so is that many state legislatures have chosen not to have state universities any more. At many ‘state universities’ the state contribution to the general operating fund is less than 20 percent, falling toward 10 percent.

This abandonment of their responsibilities to higher education on the part of the states hurts students in the first instance. Institutions that used to be affordable to students from working and lower middle class backgrounds are now increasingly out of reach for them. State universities are becoming the new Ivies, a good bargain still for the upper middle class and the wealthy, but a distant dream for the daughter or son of a worker in a fast food restaurant.

This development is also scary because it promotes the corruption of academia. In fact, as Charles Ferguson showed in his film, “Inside Job,” some academic economists are already hopelessly corrupt. The barracuda capitalist system in contemporary America provides many incentives for economists to promote laissez-faire, anti-regulatory ideas of the sort that led to the 2008 collapse of our economy. Endowments with strings attached are just one more.

Starting in the 1980s, state legislatures began putting their money into other things. Some cut taxes for the rich. Some engaged in a vast expansion of the prison system impelled by the phony ‘war on drugs’ that led to a vast increase of inmates guilty of nothing more than toking a little weed. (Getting high off alcohol or prescription drugs is not punished by American society or we’d have tens of millions incarcerated instead of only 2.3 million– though even the two million make the US very peculiar in world terms. Some forty percent of these inmates are incarcerated on non-violent, drug-related offenses. Few other countries are so fixated on maintaining such an archipelago of Gulags. Portugal has decriminalized most drugs, and nothing bad happened as a result).

State universities were designed by far-sighted legislators who believed that it is the duty of a state to provide high-quality, low-cost education to children of working and middle class families. Thomas Jefferson thought that you cannot have a democracy if the “common man” is not educated, and though he is associated with ‘small government’ ideas in some spheres, he thought states should be funding universities.

But the Neoliberal and Neoconservative philosophies that have dominated both parties in the US in recent decades view such a commitment as undesirable. The United States is being refashioned as a plutocracy in which the wealthiest 1 million persons are a new aristocracy and governmental programs that inconvenience them by making them pay their taxes are dismantled.

Positions at state universities ought to be decided upon by the students, faculty, and deans in consultation. They shouldn’t be decided just because a wealthy crank wants us to study X. Along with Koch-funded positions in ‘unregulated capitalism’ of the sort that brought us the 2008 meltdown, we no doubt could have a raft of positions in Atlantis Studies and Post-War Ufology. Rich people are good at making money. They aren’t necessarily good at academic skills. In fact, many are downright hostile to academic knowledge that brings into question their shibboleths. The tenure system was created for academics precisely because one got fired, at the University of Pennsylvania, in the early 20th century, for objecting to child labor. Some of the regents made their money that way and took offense.

We don’t need more positions in economics departments in state universities for ‘free market economics’ of the sort the Koch brothers funded at FSU. Is that what the students there want and need? Is that what the faculty senate would have voted for? Maybe we need some positions in how bad it is for a society to have all its unions gutted or to have its gini coefficient (which measures economic inequality) skyrocket.

The president of FSU, who defended the Koch deal, did not mention that such outside endowments are skewing the curriculum at state universities in unfortunate ways.

But here is the objectionable thing, which he admits, about the way the search for the positions was conducted:

‘ These 50 applications were sent for input to an advisory board approved by the Koch Foundation. The advisory board, formed in 2008, consisted of two FSU faculty members, both Eminent Scholars in Economics, and a Ph.D. economist appointed by the Koch Foundation. (It is not unusual for a donor to have representation in an advisory capacity.) ‘

This allegation is simply untrue. It is not the case that academic institutions routinely insert an outside advisory board into the middle of the search process. In fact, this way of proceeding is absolutely outrageous, more particularly because one of the members of the advisory board was not even on the faculty! Moreover, it is invidious for the Kochs to give some FSU faculty more of a voice in hiring than others.

The only legitimate academic endowment is one with no strings attached. The money should go into the endowment up front. And then the university procedures should be followed in making hires. The endower is owed profuse and frequent thanks and can come hear the public lectures given by those hired with their money, but they absolutely should not have their thumbs on the till in the hiring.

But ideally state universities should be funded by state legislatures, and should have charters of academic and curricular independence from those legislatures. State universities should be for the people. We already have elite universities for the elite.

Our Congress has already largely been bought by the corporations it is supposed to be regulating and by a raft of special interests, from the National Rifle Association to the Israel lobbies. Now if our state universities are to be bought, even our academic knowledge will be corrupt.

And, it won’t be long before the BP Chair in How there is No Climate Change, and the Saudi Arabian Chair in the Necessity of Beheading Adulterers, and the Avigdor Lieberman Chair in Ethnic Cleansing Solutions, and the Communist Party of China Chair in Google Censorship crowd onto our campuses along with a host of other junky positions.

Are Americans doomed to have both their minds and their bodies enslaved by cranky rich people, and how can we hope to remain globally competitive if so?