Op-eds, Opinions

August ’19, Rock ’19: Beware the PTP

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Monday, March 5, 2018

In response to recent debate about the Brown Political Theory Project, we feel the need to warn students that the PTP is not a center for “thriving intellectual discourse,” in the words of Daniel Shemano ’19. Instead, we must be critical of what it means to have a political center on our campus that has received significant contributions from the Charles Koch Foundation. We ask students to consider the history of Koch money in our country and reject the claims that the PTP exists to contribute to our academic community at Brown. The millions in Koch money on our campus threaten our values and our community.

Charles and David Koch have a long history of influencing American politics and institutions to advance their own interests, particularly those related to their petrochemical business, Koch Industries. They have been explicit about their use of universities toward this goal: Charles Koch, in a 1974 speech, said they should only support universities that “contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.” Thus, Koch’s contributions cast serious doubt on the PTP’s “commitment to pluralism  — instead, they fit into the Kochs’ broader scheme, one with a strict ideological agenda. 

In 2013, the Atlantic reported that the two private charitable institutions owned by Charles Koch had donated a total of more than $19.3 million to 210 colleges and universities across the country in 2012 alone. As the Atlantic reported, “Koch officials routinely cultivate relationships with professors and deans and fund specific courses of economic study pitched by them.”

Professor John Tomasi wrote in his recent op-ed that “the PTP allows donors no input regarding any of our activities.” We don’t doubt this is true, but it would be absurd to think that the Charles Koch Foundation donated $3.2 million to the PTP out of pure benevolence. The Kochs make these donations to support their anti-government, “free market” agenda in order to safeguard their wealth and power. And this is not purely conjecture. According to the International Business Times, the Koch brothers have long considered universities to be “the foundation of their ‘Structure of Social Change,’ an effort to convert Americans to libertarianism and push through steep tax cuts and deregulation.”

The Kochs’ donations may not be explicitly quid pro quo, but we are confident that if the PTP’s scholarship strayed from the Kochs’ radical agenda, the Kochs would cut funding to the PTP and start afresh with a new charismatic professor and a new project to support.

The evidence of this influence bleeds through the PTP’s well-manicured website. In his op-ed, Shemano claimed that “indeed, one could survey the PTP’s current collection of professors and post-doctoral research associates and find that its scholarship is largely independent of any Koch-inspired agenda.” We did in fact survey the PTP’s professors, and their CVs are littered with oil-stained Koch fingerprints.

Looking at the ‘People’ page of the PTP’s website, you will notice that everyone but Professor Tomasi received their economics PhDs from George Mason University. Charles Koch has donated $96 million to George Mason University, where he established the Mercatus Center — a heavily-endowed incubator for radical libertarian ideology.

But it doesn’t stop there: PTP professors pad their bios with academic awards they’ve received. Most of them come from Koch-affiliated institutions. Take the “Gordon Tullock Prize” that PTP Professors Emily Skarbek and Daniel D’Amico list in their bios: Unsurprisingly, this award is granted by the Center for Study of Public Choice, hosted — where else — but at GMU.

Or take the “Israel M. Kirzner Award,” from the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, of which both Professors D’Amico and David Skarbek boast: Again, unsurprisingly, this is actually just a GMU student award. Furthermore, Tomasi himself received the literal “Charles G. Koch Prize” at, again, GMU.

The fact they received GMU awards and degrees alone is not evidence they are torch-bearers of the Koch ideology, but when you look at the extent of support they’ve received throughout their careers, a clearer picture of the Kochs’ talent pipeline comes together. For example, these professors have also been repeatedly published in Koch and GMU-affiliated journals, like the Review of Austrian Academics, the Public Choice Journal and the Cato Journal.

But what is most alarming is that the PTP is employing this same strategy, using Koch Industry money to legitimize a dangerous ideology, at Brown. Students who join the PTP’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Society are rewarded with $500 and often cite leadership positions on PTP’s undergraduate journal, accolades that in turn give them access to the entire Koch network. This includes internships, research opportunities and eventually jobs, all backed by the same individuals. The Koch’s ‘Talent Pipeline,’ as many call it, starts at Brown. 

And let us not forget in this debate that we should be deeply afraid of the Kochs’ agenda, not because we disagree with them but because their ideas are affronts to the legitimacy of our country’s democracy. They have led efforts to gerrymander election maps for Republicans, fought against limits to corporate spending in elections and cultivated the Tea Party, one of the largest astroturf movements in American history. Students should not be fooled.

Julia Rock ’19 and Harry August ’19 can be reached at julia_rock@brown.edu and harry_august@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

8 Comments

  1. Anyone who reads this piece with an open mind will see gaping holes and falsehoods in your so-called “argument”.
    –You argue that the PTP is not a center for “thriving political discourse” without providing any counter examples to Shemano’s concrete examples that show that it is.
    –You attempt to refute his point of the obvious diversity and nuance of the PTP staff by looking to their awards rather than their actual scholarship. You do this because well you are either lazy and refused to actually look, or you’re just ideological and dont care to see reality.
    –You insinuate that PPE Society students are mindless zombies when in reality the explicit mission of the scholarship is to provide spaces for debate amongst students of different perspectives
    This article is another example of a Leftist conspiracy theory intended to distract from their ideological opposition to intellectual diversity

  2. I researched the authors of this opinion piece, and ALL of them are receiving their undergraduate degrees from Brown University—the very same university where the Charles Koch Foundation has donated millions of dollars. Their degrees and this opinion piece are oil-stained with Koch fingerprints.

    (Wasn’t that a stupid comment? It absolutely reeked of guilt-by-association to the point of hysteria. This opinion piece did, too.)

  3. Ken Miller says:

    We don’t have to argue “Leftist conspiracy theory” or cast aspersions on the sources of a college degree (Brown or GMU) to deal with the arguments presented in this op-ed. All one has to do is to look at the speakers brought to campus by the Political Theory Project, and see if they contribute to an informed campus dialogue on major issues of the day. Without exception, that is exactly what they do. This is an ongoing project that has brought serious, informed political discussion to the Brown campus, and it should continue. Brown would be diminished were it to be shut down. No question about it. [Ken Miller ’70, Professor of Biology]

  4. Graham Straus says:

    Hi there,

    Interesting piece and comments. Would like to push back on one point made by Ken Miller ’70, Professor of Biology. Professor Miller writes that Brown would be diminished were the PTP to be shut down. What if Brown found a different way to fund the PTP? It’s not the PTP that August ’19 and Rock ’19 are critical of, it’s the Koch money floating around Brown. Moreover, when Lucas says “This article is another example of a Leftist conspiracy theory intended to distract from their ideological opposition to intellectual diversity” he misses the point that August ’19 and Rock ’19 are responding to Shemano ’19 and in doing so, participating in an intellectual debate. August ’19 and Rock ’19 are anything but “leftist conspiracy” folks, they are reasonable, driven Brown students (’19, and ’19) who have voiced their opinion in a most eloquent and well researched piece.

    Graham Straus ’19
    A.B. Mathematics, B.S. Political Science

    • Ken Miller says:

      Graham, I take your point. If Brown found “a different way” to fund the PTP, that would be great. It would remove the suspicion that comes along with any money that the Koch Foundation provides. Great idea! But do you have such a source? Do you know of alums or faultless corporate foundations willing to do exactly that? In the absence of that hypothetical funding source, the real question should be what the PTP actually does with that money. And from what I can see, they have lived up to their stated ideals in every respect. [Ken]

    • Do you also propose applying the same approach to monies received by Brown from other “dubious” sources like the Clinton Foundation? If not, why not?

      I’d also recommend reading the ‘scholarly independence’ granting principles of the Charles Koch Foundation before encouraging Brown to further retreat into its self-congratulating bubble of institutional social justice advocacy.

  5. I left a similar comment on Tomasi’s article, but:

    Having been closely involved with the PTP for most of my undergraduate career, I think it’s fair to label the PTP a libertarian think tank. The work being written and classes being taught by PTP faculty have a strong libertarian bent. Recent hires by the PTP also reflect this orientation: three of the four people listed on the PTP’s “People” page earned their PhDs in econ at George Mason, which reliably produces libertarian and conservative scholars. George Mason is ranked 78th for economics, suggesting it’s not a mere coincidence that recent hires are from there. On multiple occasions, I received emails from Tomasi promoting libertarian speakers and events (including a summer series funded by the Koch brothers).

    However, on a campus that is often ideological and single-minded, I did appreciate the rare occasions on which PTP events/classes challenged my views. There is a case to be made for having serious scholars on campus who deviate from Brown’s liberal mainstream.

    Which is why it’s unfortunate that, in my experience, the PTP failed at its mission to educate and support students. Some of the worst classes I took at Brown were taught by PTP faculty. One class involved a single term paper, which was graded by a TA and not returned to me. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken the class, but I signed up for it because I wanted to read the books on the syllabus, which I knew would challenge my beliefs.) I took three classes with Tomasi, and am confident that he has never read or graded my work. The PTP student group I was affiliated with received virtually no support. PTP faculty were unresponsive to communications. The advising I received from faculty in this department was atrocious, and led me to switch to another concentration. I didn’t realize how truly awful my experience was until joining a political theory department at another institution. (If other students have had experiences that were similar or different, I’d love to hear your perspective—please comment below.)

    I’m commenting because it’s painful for me to see Prof. Tomasi talk about “respect for undergraduates” and the PTP’s “commitment to pluralism… on behalf of our students.” Yes, as a libertarian institution on a campus where this ideology is far from mainstream, the PTP could play an important role. But if the PTP truly cares about and respects students, mentor them, support them, advise them, and teach them.

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