Inside the Koch brothers' campus crusade
The billionaire industrialists aren’t just investing in politicians, but also young hearts and minds
The campus of Koch Brothers Academy spans a nation.
Learn about the “role of government institutions in a capitalistic society” at South Carolina’s College of Charleston.
Dive into the “integrated study of philosophy, politics and economics” at Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
And philosophize about the “moral imperatives of free markets and individual liberty” at the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University in Alabama.
Billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch may rank among the nation’s biggest bankrollers of conservative causes and Republican campaign vehicles. But Koch proselytizing of government deregulation and pro-business civics is increasingly targeted not just at creatures of Capitol Hill, or couch sitters in swing states, but at the hearts and minds of American college students, as well.
In all, two of the six private charitable foundations the Koch brothers control and personally fund combined in 2012 to infuse colleges and universities with more than $12.7 million, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Internal Revenue Service tax filings.
The vast majority of this cash was spread among 163 U.S. colleges and universities — many with reputations for liberal faculty and left-leaning patrons — throughout 41 states and the District of Columbia. It came on top of tens of millions of dollars more Koch foundations have given colleges and universities during the past decade, tax filings show.
The Koch foundations together have also spent millions more to fund dozens of academic scholarships and internships, numerous think tanks and education-focused organizations, such as the Philadelphia-based Jack Miller Center. The latter is a nonprofit that used $250,000 in Koch money to help bankroll academic programs that “reinvigorate the teaching of America’s founding principles and history” at 45 institutes of higher education, from Harvard University to American University to the University of California, Los Angeles.
In 2012, the Koch foundations sent six- or seven-figure donations to 12 colleges and universities, including big-name schools such as George Mason University in Virginia, Southern Methodist University in Texas, West Virginia University, Florida State University, Utah State University, Kansas State University and the University of Arizona.
Most of the 20 officials interviewed at various schools receiving Koch foundation grants were adamant that this money did not color classroom curricula — nor did money from any other donor, liberal or conservative. Several specifically said such funds arrive with “with no strings attached” beyond being directed at a certain program or center. They further noted that their universities received hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of different grants from private foundations.
A $100,000 grant the University of North Carolina’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program received from the Charles Koch Foundation for a visiting faculty position “has had no impact on the program’s goals or on its curriculum … it is crucial that the funding we receive is entirely free of political requirements or ideological litmus tests,” program director Geoffrey Sayre-McCord said.
“Donor gifts, regardless of their size, have always been accepted with the clear understanding that the gift will not compromise academic integrity or infringe on the academic freedom of our faculty,” said Florida State University spokesman Dennis Schnittker, whose school in 2012 received more than $297,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation that primarily funded graduate student fellowships in its economics department.
But this isn’t always clear.
When, for example, the Charles Koch Foundation in 2011 pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department, a contract between the foundation and university stipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee select professors and conduct annual evaluations, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
And to be sure, the Koch foundations’ educational grants, regardless of whether they’re made with conditions, aren’t exactly supporting studies of, say, proletarian emancipation or historical materialism.
Instead, they routinely support academic programs or centers that teach theories and principles aligned with the Kochs’ convictions about economics and public policy.
Troy University’s $274,500 Charles Koch Foundation gift helped establish the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy, spokesman Andy Ellis said. The center describes itself as being “built on the assumption that liberty is valuable in its own right and plays a crucial role in economic development” and “committed to advancing our understanding about the role free markets and capitalist institutions play in promoting prosperity.”
At Ohio State University, $100,000 in Charles Koch Foundation money funds a senior lecturer position in its economics department, university spokesman Gary D. Lewis Jr. confirmed.
New York University’s $35,500 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation meanwhile helped fund a two-year legal studies research fellowship.
No such level of detail is supplied by the Koch foundations in their federal tax filings, with grants typically listed as going toward “general support” or “educational programs.”
The Charles Koch Foundation, which among the various Koch-connected private foundations spent the most on higher education, did tell the IRS in a 2012 filing that it primarily supports “research and education programs that analyze the impact of free societies” and focuses on “a select number of programs where it believes it is best positioned to support positive social change.”
Charles Koch in 2012 contributed more than $60 million to his eponymous foundation, which ended that year with more than $216 million in reported assets.
Officials representing the various Koch foundations, as well as those at Koch Industries Inc., did not respond to phone and email requests seeking comment about their education-related giving.
Competition from Democratic political bankrollers
The Kochs are hardly alone in funding academia: Other prominent political donors — liberal and conservative both — operate private charitable foundations that in part support educational programs and institutions.
Billionaire financier and Democratic megadonor George Soros is chief among them. He’s pumped tens of millions of dollars into educational interests in recent years through a network of private foundations that together boast several times the reported assets that the Koch foundations do.
But the most significant educational contributions Soros made either in 2011 or 2012, when most recent tax forms are available, didn’t fund U.S. colleges and scholars like the Kochs, but foreign ones.
Central European University, an English-language university in Hungary that Soros himself founded, leads all his recipients, taking almost $9 million from the Soros-funded Foundation to Promote Open Society. The university describes itself as promoting “the pursuit of truth wherever it leads, respect for the diversity of cultures and peoples, and commitment to resolve differences through debate not denial.”
The Open Society Institute, another Soros-fueled private foundation, spread about $9.43 million through 900 foreign student grants. The students received the money with the charge they “improve academic, social and democratic environments in home countries,” according to the organization’s tax filings.
Soros’ domestic educational investments, while significant, aren’t as sizable.
The Foundation to Promote Open Society’s roughly $4 million in higher education-related grants were divided among a handful of schools frequently funded programs that focused on racial minorities, foreign affairs and journalism.
American University in Washington, D.C., received about $438,000 for studies on sex crimes, war crimes, human rights violations and government secrecy. George Washington University in Washington, D.C., took in $387,000 to support drug addiction and recovery studies. The University of California, Los Angeles, for example, took in $300,000 to support programs for black workers in Los Angeles.
The Soros Fund Charitable Foundation — a private charity worth about $159.3 million at the beginning of 2013 — directed more than $1 million to more than two-dozen colleges and universities during 2012.
Recipients include Princeton University in New Jersey ($249,150) and Yeshiva University in New York City ($106,350), according to the foundation’s 2012 tax return. It also divvied hundreds of thousands of dollars up among various primary and secondary schools.
The bulk of its $8.62 million in total grant spending, like that of other Soros-connected private foundations, was divided among dozens of primarily health, civic, religious, media and arts charities.
Meanwhile, movie producer and Democratic bankroller Jeffrey Katzenberg — his political spending last election cycle included $3 million in contributions to pro-Barack Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action — made small contributions to the Oakland (Calif.) School for the Arts and the Pasadena (Calif.) Waldorf School.
Texas attorney Steve Mostyn, who with his wife, Amber, also donated more than $3 million to Priorities USA Action, has recently donated tens of thousands of dollars through his private foundation to various Texas school districts to aid children with special needs.
Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the Republicans’ biggest political financier last election cycle who donated nearly $100 million to various conservative super PACs, made a $1.07 million contribution through the Adelson Family Foundation to the Rashi School of Newton, Mass. — a kindergarten-through-eighth grade academy that touts its “joyfully Jewish approach to learning.”
Adelson and his wife, Miriam, personally donated $45.3 million in 2012 to the foundation, which ended that year with about $57,000 cash on hand after making tens of millions of dollars in contributions to other interests, including $32 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation, which offers free, 10-day trips to Israel to Jews ages 18 to 26.
The Adelsons are also benefactors of the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, a pre-kindergarten through high school facility with a mission to “instruct and inspire new generations of students who will draw strength from a rich Jewish heritage, use their knowledge, values and vision to fulfill their own potential, and build a better world.”
Kochs still top of the class
But none of the private foundations controlled by these political powerhouses approach the depth and breadth of Koch-connected foundations’ recent investments in American education.
George Mason University is exemplary.
The Charles Koch Foundation poured $8.49 million into the school during 2012, tax filings show, after it had already invested tens of millions of dollars into programs during recent years at this public school of about 34,000 students 20 miles west of Washington, D.C.
The Koch money largely is earmarked for George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, which describes itself as the “world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas,” and its Institute for Humane Studies, which specializes in researching the “the practice and potentials of freedom” and operates 14 research projects and initiatives.
Koch Industries Executive Vice President Richard Fink is a Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies board member.
Fink also serves as a board member of three Koch private foundations, plus Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that during the 2012 election cycle spent at least $33.5 million just on advertisements attacking President Barack Obama, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In all, Americans for Prosperity spent $122 million during 2012 — more than it had from its formation in 2004 through 2011. And that’s just a slice of the more than $407 million a complex and secretive network of Koch-connected nonprofits active during the 2012 elections raised.
This year, the Koch brothers are telegraphing their intentions to remain among the nation’s top political actors for years to come. Democrats have made the Kochs their designated bogeymen, demonizing them in fundraising pleas and Senate floor speeches as amoral, self-serving oligarchs — all while public awareness of who the Kochs even are remains spotty, according to a new poll.
George Mason University donors “respect our academic freedom and understand they can’t influence what we do,” university spokesman Michael Sandler said. “Our president [Angel Cabrera] has made clear that if any donor ever threatened our academic freedom, we wouldn’t take their money.”
In an April 2013 question-and-answer session on Reddit.com, Cabrera said as much while responding to a question about Charles Koch’s involvement in George Mason University’s affairs.
Jennifer N. Victor, a George Mason University politics professor who specializes in how individuals and groups influence government, is nevertheless concerned.
George Mason University, she says, is earning a reputation for advocating political conservatism and libertarianism — a reputation she argues is “absolutely unwarranted,” as she’s sensed no pressure to teach a certain way or publish research that clings to a particular philosophy.
“It’s potentially damaging to the image and the reputation of the university and academia, rightly or wrongly, to be associated with ideological anything,” Victor said. “It’s contrary to what the goal of higher education is.”
Student leaders and activists interviewed at 10 colleges receiving Koch foundation funding were generally unaware of the donations.
Some expressed indifference to them, or had more questions than answers.
“The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, the political leanings of the organizations which donate to us do not affect the political climate of our student body,” said Jaywin Singh Malhi, student body vice president at Southern Methodist University.
Billy Cerullo, Student Government Association president at Suffolk University in Boston, says the $44,700 donation his school received from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2012 isn’t much discussed — probably because few people know about this or any other private foundation grant.
“It’s probably beneficial for us to know more about how we’re funding moving forward, and that’s something we can definitely bring up to upper administration,” Cerullo said.
Others, however, say they’re upset with Koch cash on their campus.
“I definitely have a problem with it, and it makes me wonder what they’re dictating to the university,” said Ohio State University College Democrats President Vince Hayden. “The major donors here are obvious because they have buildings named after them, but for other donors, the university should be more transparent about who they are. Donors over a certain dollar amount should be published on an easily accessible list.”
Nick Mahon, president of the University of Arizona Young Democrats, says he’s not concerned with any political actor making general support donations or funding capital projects.
“But when they’re funding particular programs, that’s where I think they cross the line, if they’re trying to affect the academic nature of the university,” Mahon said.
Diverse causes supported
The six Koch-led private foundations serve somewhat different purposes and support a variety of endeavors, according to IRS filings.
- Charles Koch Foundation, the primary vehicle for funding colleges and universities. It also made grants to non-educational entities that include the American Legislative Exchange Council ($71,100) and Center for Competitive Politics ($34,800), a nonprofit that advocates against campaign finance regulations. Joe Trotter, a spokesman for the Center for Competitive Politics, said its grant specifically paid for the salaries of two interns and a temporary employee. It also reported a $11,000 donation to the Daily Caller News Foundation, the nonprofit sister organization of the Daily Caller that, spokeswoman McKenzie Vaughn confirmed, produces original news content available without charge to news publishers that can guarantee a large audience. The Charles Koch Foundation reported spending about $14 million overall in 2012 and ended the year with $216.3 million in assets.
- Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, which generally funds conservative think tanks. Charles Koch is a director. In 2012, grantees included the Heritage Foundation ($650,000), Federalist Society ($265,000), Manhattan Institute for Policy Research ($175,000), and the American Legislative Exchange Council ($150,000). It also gave $125,000 to the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason magazine. It reported making $2.23 million in contributions and grants during 2012 and ended the year with about $4.2 million in reserve.
- David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, which focuses on the arts. David Koch is its president. In 2012, it spent $10 million — and authorized an additional $55 million in future spending — for renovations of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. The foundation also sent $500,000 to the New York City Opera, but the money wasn’t enough to keep the struggling company afloat: It declared bankruptcy and closed late last year. The foundation reported $10.5 million in contributions and ended the year with more than $71 million in assets.
- Knowledge and Progress Fund, of which Charles Koch is chairman. In 2012, it made a lone $800,000 grant for “general operating support” to Donors Trust, a tax-exempt, Virginia-based charity that in turn funds pro-free market think tanks throughout the nation. It also is the primary funder of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which runs online news outlets in state capitals across the country. It ended 2012 with $21.6 million in reported assets.
- Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation, which focused its spending on schools and arts organizations mostly located in Kansas. Top recipients in 2012 included the Youth Entrepreneurs of Kansas ($626,000), the Bill of Rights Institute of Virginia ($246,000), the Kansas State University Foundation ($149,000) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City ($60,000). The foundation distributed more than $2 million in grants during 2012 and ended the year with more than $30.4 million in assets.
- Koch Cultural Trust, which received almost all of its $164,000 in revenue during 2012 from funds transferred to it by the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation. The Koch Cultural Trust, in turn, provided 34 students from Kansas with grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to pursue studies in music, dance, theater, art or screenwriting. Several grants also went toward students’ musical instrument purchases. It made almost $100,000 in grants during 2012 and ended the year with about $4,000 cash on hand.
Charles Koch also operates the Charles Koch Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that recently split from the Charles Koch Foundation and exists to promote “advancement of liberty and economic freedom by educating students in a classroom.” It spent $8.57 million during 2012, according to tax filings, and funds hundreds of internships, fellowships and associate placements.
The IRS doesn’t require Koch-related foundations to reveal until late this year how much money they spent on education — or anything else — during in 2013. Grants made during 2014 don’t have to be revealed until late 2015.
But expect a host of new schools not among 2012 Koch cash recipients to rank among those receiving support, according to a document posted on the Koch Family Foundations & Philanthropy website.
While the document doesn’t include dollar figures, it does indicate that big-name colleges such as Brown University, Dartmouth College, Georgetown University, Syracuse University and Texas Tech University are due to receive Koch foundation donations.
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.