That’s one way to flush a university’s reputation down the sewer — let faculty appointments be sold to the highest bidder, and sell out secretly to ideologues. George Mason University is just the latest subsidiary of Koch Industries,
The gifts, in support of faculty positions in economics, “granted donors some participation in faculty selection and evaluation,” Cabrera said, noting that one such agreement is still active (the rest have expired).
All 10 of the now-public agreements relate to the university’s Mercatus Center for free market research, a locus of Koch-funded activity. Three of the agreements involve Koch. The two most recent, from 2007 and 2009, stipulate the creation of a five-member selection committee to select a professor, with two of those committee members chosen by donors. The other Koch agreement, from 1990, also afforded Koch a role in naming a professor to fund.
George Mason also allowed Koch a role in evaluating professors’ performance via advisory boards. And while the agreements assert that final say in faculty appointments will be based on normal university procedures, the 2009 agreement says that funds will be returned to the donor if the provost and the selection committee can’t agree on a candidate. … The university has consistently said that the foundation is a private entity and that compromising the confidential nature of donations through that avenue by releasing such documents could chill giving. Koch was a joint, $10 million donor on the law school deal.
I would just like to point out that I am currently chairing two search committees at my university, yet the Koch’s haven’t come calling to bias our decisions. I guess that means none of our candidates are ideologically compatible with the Kochs, so they lack motivation to slide me ten million dollars under the table. There’s just not much room for bullshit propagandizing in biology, unlike economics departments or worse, garbage think-tanks like the “Mercatus Center for free market research”.
Henry Farrell does a fine job of summarizing the problems with letting anyone buy out the independence of a university.
The ordinary protection against conflict of interest, and against donors using the university’s reputation as an ideological/financial cutout or flag of convenience is to build institutional firewalls, which allow donors to provide large money with broad conditions attached (such as: this money should be used to hire an endowed professor carrying out research and teaching on Topic X) but without specific controls on who that professor is. This is at best imperfect – but it at least somewhat curbs the voracity of development officers and individual academic “entrepreneurs.”
It would appear that any such firewalls were comprehensively breached at George Mason University (which is a public university, with consequent public obligations). The ferocity of the university administration’s efforts to keep the arrangements secret suggest the reputational damage that the university now faces. It’s also worth observing that many GMU faculty have suspected something like this for a long time, but weren’t able to get straight answers from the administration until its hand was forced by this lawsuit.
Finally, it’s notable that the person representing the interests of an as-yet unnamed big donor to the law school is Leonard Leo, who is the Federalist Society officer largely responsible for the ideological vetting of judges for the Trump administration. That doesn’t say great things either.
Just to be fair, though, it wouldn’t say great things if George Soros were buying up faculty appointments, either. This isn’t about which heinous ideology is corrupting universities, but a complaint about any corruption of academic freedom.
At the very least, though, I now expect the top brass at GMU to all be sacked, and faculty hired under the Koch affirmative action plan for wingnut economists to be dismissed. Anything less, and GMU should face major accreditation problems and a shameful loss of reputation — they’re just another Liberty University, a fake school with wealthy donors.