Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: The Kochs are here

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In the past few years, Brown has taken several commendable — if also carefully choreographed ­— steps to enhance its socioeconomic and racial diversity. In early 2016, President Christina Paxson P’19 unveiled the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which expanded the LGBTQ Center, created the First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center and hired a dean tasked with diversity issues in the Graduate School. On Apr. 14, Brown announced that low-income students would not have to pay application fees. And this September, the University launched Brown Promise, a $120 million initiative intended to eliminate loans from undergraduate financial aid packages. Beneath this sleek, well-publicized campaign, however, lies a more nefarious reality: Brown continues to rely on donations from individuals with a vested interest in sustaining the systemic failings that make deprivation and inequality possible in the first place.

“Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” — the heavily meme-ified “sculpture” on Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle — is perhaps the most glaring instance of Brown’s solicitation of morally questionable donors: The multi-story monstrosity was lent to the University by Steven Cohen P’08 P’16, a trustee of the Corporation whose hedge fund in 2013 reached a $1.2 billion settlement with the federal government for insider trading violations. But Cohen and his idiosyncrasies — like his inexplicable enthusiasm for crappy art and donations to 2016 presidential candidate and Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie — are relatively innocuous compared to the University’s other financial entanglements. Most troublingly, the Koch brothers — Charles and David Koch, founders of Koch Industries, who have a combined net worth in excess of $100 billion — have weaseled their way onto campus, influencing scholarship in a way that compromises Brown’s values and undermines its commitments to equality and access. We should all be afraid: The Kochs are here, eager to wield Brown and universities across America as pseudointellectual cudgels in their libertarian crusade.

The most conspicuous product of the Koch brothers’ influence on campus is the Political Theory Project — a project that promises to cultivate constructive debate “about the most pressing political problems of our day,” according to its website. According to Jane Mayer’s 2016 book “Dark Money,” which chronicles the metastasis of the Kochs’ political network, the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation gave the PTP $147,154 in 2009. A year later, the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies awarded the PTP’s founding and current director, Professor of Political Science John Tomasi, the Charles G. Koch Prize — which comes with $5,000 — “for significant contributions to advancing liberty.” Greenpeace reports that Brown as a whole received $828,356 in funding from the foundation between 2005 and 2013 — which puts Brown in the top 20 colleges and universities receiving Koch funding, far above its peer institutions.

To be sure, the Koch brothers’ funding is not unconditional; it has directly molded Brown’s scholarly output. Just consider the 2010 Journal of Finance article, “Big Bad Banks? The Winners and Losers from Bank Deregulation in the United States” — written by three researchers, including Ross Levine, then a professor of economics at Brown, and Alexey Levkov MA’06 PhD’10 — which asserted that banking deregulation bolstered “the relative wage rates and working hours of unskilled workers.” Or consider the 2011 paper “Racial Discrimination and Competition,” in which Levine, Levkov, and Yona Rubinstein, then an assistant professor of economics at Brown, concluded that “competition (among banks) boosted blacks’ relative residual wages within the banking industry and bank-dependent industries.” Both research projects were funded by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, and — surprise! — both generally concluded that gutting regulations engendered prosperity.

I’m not going to argue that these researchers used substandard methods — their findings were published in peer-reviewed forums, after all — or that banking deregulation is necessarily a bad thing. But the conflict of interest inherent to the Kochs’ sponsorship of research affirming libertarian ideals makes it extremely difficult to trust that research. And placing the ideological priorities of wealthy donors ahead of academic objectivity cheapens the value of scholarship conducted at Brown. As part of their broader political project, the Kochs have used their vast fortune to push for free markets, lower taxes, fewer regulations and cuts to social programs — policies that will certainly benefit Koch Industries, but will severely hurt the majority of Americans who rely on public services and entitlements. If the University really wants to make a difference for low-income and minority students, it ought to re-evaluate its dubious partnerships with anti-government ideologues and stop supporting billionaire-backed agendas that hurt those students.    

Of course, the Koch brothers’ coercive patronage isn’t just limited to Brown; it’s a national contagion. The Charles Koch Charitable Foundation funds hundreds of colleges — including most of the Ivy League, liberal arts colleges and state flagships — sometimes to transformative effect. It’s easy to think that America’s universities — putative bastions of enlightened inquiry, devoted to the pursuit of veracity and virtue — are immune to the appeal of cash and power. Yet, as the Koch brothers’ covert infiltration of the American campus demonstrates, even high-minded universities are susceptible to that appeal. And I understand why: Running a college, with thousands of students to educate, facilities to maintain and faculty to pay, is not a cheap endeavor. Administrators are right to seek out new pools of donors, who can bolster the funds allocated to financial aid and, in turn, make the University more affordable. But they still retain the responsibility to ensure that these donations do not subvert scholarship, impinge on academic freedom or contribute to corrosive political trends. As Brown seeks to attract low-income applicants and enhance the experience of minority students, it must also reckon with the fact that it simultaneously receives large sums from the Kochs — staunch proponents of policies that make life much harder for those applicants and students. Unfortunately, these ill-gotten gains — in their inducement of politically-motivated scholarship — satisfy only short-term budgetary concerns and do a long-term disservice to the purpose and potential of the modern university. 

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached interviewing for a summer internship at Koch Industries or at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.eduPlease send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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