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Fri May 23, 2014

Koch Foundation Criticized Again For Influencing Florida State

Originally published on Fri May 23, 2014 7:52 am

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Florida, there are questions about whether a conservative political group has too much influence at a public college. Florida State University rewrote its agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation after some on campus complained that the relationship undermined the school's academic integrity. But critics say it still gives donors with their own agendas too much influence in the classroom. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Charles Koch is a billionaire, who, along with his brother David, is known for his dedication to conservative causes. In recent years, the foundation that carries his name has given millions of dollars to universities, including Florida State University in Tallahassee. The school has received more than a million dollars from the Koch Foundation to support professorships and economics courses devoted to free enterprise principles. Three years ago, after it became controversial, Florida State agreed to reevaluate the relationship. The new deal, signed a year ago, was only recently made public. FSU senior Jerry Funt says it changes little.

JERRY FUNT: The changes to the hiring in the new agreement give the Koch brothers just as much, if not more, power over hiring as they had in the first agreement. Nothing has been improved. The agreement is still bad. It's still harming academic integrity at FSU and giving private donors inappropriate access.

ALLEN: In the old agreement, a three-member advisory selected, in consultation with the Koch Foundation, hired faculty positions supported by the grant. Under the new deal, the board includes only one Koch representative and doesn't hire new faculty. After new hires are made, however, the board will decide whether Koch Foundation money may be used to pay his or her salary. Funt says that still gives the foundation too much influence.

FUNT: The school doesn't want to lose the funding for someone that they've already hired. The funding is only going to come through if the Koch Foundation is happy with the hire that the school found.

ALLEN: Fueling concerns about the arrangement is the Koch brothers' involvement in national conservative politics. It's not unusual for foundations or wealthy donors to endow professorships. What is unusual, critics say, is for donors to help decide who's hired for the position. Critics of the arrangement at FSU include the American Association of University Professors. Rudy Fichtenbaum, an economics professor at Wright State University, is AAUP's president.

RUDY FICHTENBAUM: You know, it amounts to the Koch brothers' foundation basically trying to buy a position on the faculty. And that certainly is a threat to academic freedom.

ALLEN: Officials at Florida State see it differently.

THOMAS JENNINGS: That's not my experience with my faculty colleagues in the Department of Economics in the College of Social Sciences.

ALLEN: Thomas Jennings, a vice president at FSU, understands the concerns about academic integrity, but believes they aren't borne out by reality. An investigation by the school's faculty senate recommended some changes to the contract, but found that faculty hiring done under the grant complied with school policies. Jennings things critics are underestimating the university's faculty who oversee all new hires.

JENNINGS: They are motivated to have the very best faculty members they possibly can to do the very best research in teaching for our students. I really don't see them sacrificing that on the backs of a gift.

ALLEN: Students critical of the deal say they don't have a lot of trust for Florida State administrators, whom they note didn't reveal details of the new agreement until a year after it was signed. Lissa Reed is with a student group on campus that's also raising concerns about a recently passed Florida law. The new law allows universities to close to the public meetings with outside donor groups.

LISSA REED: We feel like this is highly problematic, because students would then have no way to know if private money is coming in and compromising their university's academic integrity, such as this agreement between FSU and the Koch brothers.

ALLEN: A sponsor of the bill that created the new law denies it had anything to do with the Koch Foundation deal. Florida State Vice President Tom Jennings says the law gives schools the ability to maintain confidentiality about research that may have scientific or business applications. He doesn't foresee it being applied to agreements such as the one the school has with the Koch Foundation. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.