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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.