FAIRFAX, Va. – Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.
The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.
University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.
The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.
The Koch Foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend firing a professor who failed to live up to standards.
Cabrera emphasized in his note to faculty that the “agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions” – an apparent reference to the fact that the Koch Foundation did not control a majority of seats on the selection committees.
A university spokesman said Cabrera was unavailable for an interview. On Monday night, Cabrera issued a statement saying he is ordering a review of all the university’s donor agreements that support faculty positions to “ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters.”
Cabrera’s admission that the agreements fall short of standards for academic independence is a stark departure from his earlier statements on the issue. In a 2014 blog post on the issue, he wrote that donors don’t get to decide who is hired and that “these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.”
In 2016, in an interview with The Associated Press, he denied that the Koch donations restricted academic independence and said Koch’s status as a lightning rod for his support of Republican candidates is the only reason people question the donations.
The documents were released to a former student, Samantha Parsons, under a Freedom of Information Act request she filed earlier this year after years of having similar requests rejected.
Parsons, who now works for the activist group UnKoch My Campus, said the documents are strikingly similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University that caused a similar uproar.
She said provisions giving the foundation a say in which professors are chosen are especially alarming.
“The faculty is supposed to have the independence to choose the best-qualified candidate,” she said.
The Koch Foundation issued a statement saying the agreements with Mason are “old and inactive” and that newer agreements contain no such provisions.
“We took criticism of our agreements seriously when similar concerns were raised” about the Florida State deal in 2008, the foundation’s director of university relations, John Hardin, said in the statement.
Mason, which has developed a reputation over the years as a conservative powerhouse in law and economics, has received increased scrutiny about its connections to the Koch Foundation since 2016, when Mason renamed its law school for conservative jurist Antonin Scalia. A 2016 analysis by the AP found that Mason received more money from the foundation than any school in the country.
UnKoch My Campus released documents on Monday that spell out some of the details of the donation leading to renaming of the law school for Scalia, which occurred in conjunction with a $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation and $20 million from an anonymous donor.
The newly released emails are heavily redacted and do not expose the donor, but they do show that Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, is described as a representative of the donor.
Emails between Leo and the Mason law school’s dean, Henry Butler, show Leo inquiring on behalf of law school applicants and expressing approval of faculty hires.
In one email, Butler informs Leo of a unanimous faculty vote in favor of hiring a new member of the law school faculty, to which Leo replies “Great!” The faculty member later went on leave to join the Trump administration.
In a 2015 email, Leo informs Butler about a student prospect who has been working at RAGA, the Republican Attorney General Association, and who is looking to apply to Mason’s law school. Leo asks if Butler will meet the prospect and Butler replies, “Absolutley! (sic) I will work with the admissions office to make sure we get together.”
Bethany Letiecq, president of the American Association of University Professors at GMU, said in a statement that the Scalia school documents confirm what many faculty have suspected for years.
“Private donors have been provided influence over faculty affairs at our public university,” she said. “This is a violation of the public trust.”
Del. Marcus Simon, a Fairfax County Democrat who helped lead a petition effort in 2016 to block the name change, said he is not surprised to see the level of influence granted to the donors in these agreements.
“The idea that the Kochs are giving money without anything expected in return always seemed a little absurd,” he said.
He said the university should release all of its agreements with the Koch Foundation, including its most recent ones.