Since University administration proposed the creation of a new Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the December faculty meeting, some faculty members have expressed concerns regarding the Center's mission and funding.
The PPE Center would aim to create an interdisciplinary space for scholars and students, following a trend in the creation of other philosophy, politics and economics programs at universities across the country. The Center’s goals include promoting learning across fields of study and fostering conversation across political ideologies in an era of polarization, according to the proposal shared with faculty and reviewed by The Herald.
Many University community members have expressed concerns over the Center’s proposal. These critiques were articulated in a Dec. 7 letter circulated among faculty written by Naoko Shibusawa, associate professor of history and American Studies. Other faculty members are more optimistic about the proposed Center’s influence on campus.
For those opposing the PPE Center, the principal concern lies with the influence of dark money in higher education, according to the letter, which was reviewed by The Herald. PPE and similar centers at other universities, such as Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have been funded by the Koch Foundation, a foundation run by billionaire and conservative political mega-donor Charles Koch.
Shibusawa wrote in an email to The Herald that “assurances from political science faculty, including the Provost, that this will be different at Brown is not reassuring enough, however well-meaning they are.”
While Shibusawa commended the Provost’s commitment to “diversity, equality and voter rights,” she felt that some questions regarding the center’s presence on campus were left unanswered. These questions include whether there is a need for another space on campus dedicated to political economy and the connotation of PPE in the center’s name.
According to the letter, some faculty members are concerned over the fact that the proposed PPE Center would expand upon the Political Theory Project, a research center at the University partially funded by the Koch network. The PTP’s mission is to “investigate the ideas and institutions that make societies free, prosperous and fair,” according to the PTP website.
“The Political Theory Project presents itself as representing a seemingly neutral ‘freedom of ideas’ because that sounds better than their actual project of making sure rich people stay rich and most people of color stay poor,” the letter reads.
According to the SAKI mission document, “the PTP has taken millions of dollars from the Koch donor network" and multiple University faculty members “are heavily affiliated with the Koch network.”
Shibusawa sees the controversy over the PTP and PPE Center as “a tiny part of this larger existential struggle within our own university community about anti-democratic and harmful campaigns such as voter suppression and climate denial,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.
Shibusawa emphasized that “the alarm is about institutionalizing a program established with Koch money and Koch-affiliated scholars.”
Other University faculty, such as Seth Rockman, associate professor of history, sees more hope in the proposed PPE Center.
“There are ways that the proposed PPE Center can escape the dark shadow of the PTP,” Rockman wrote in an email to The Herald.
A “new center will need to depart from the dubious ‘both sides’ programming that has platformed too many speakers tied to Koch-funded enterprises, and it will need to stop paying undergraduates to attend its events,” Rockman wrote. The PTP has previously paid undergraduates $500 to engage in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Society, a reading group run by the PTP, according to the PTP website.
Provost Richard Locke P’18 similarly emphasized the need to distinguish the PTP from the proposed PPE Center.
“I think that it is very important for people to focus on the issue at hand: the PPE Center,” Locke said in an email to the Herald. People should look at “what it proposes to be, who is involved, its governance and funding model and not conflate it with the PTP.”
Locke explained that he is not concerned about the potential for influence of money from Koch-affiliated organizations in the proposed PPE Center. He elaborated that he has thoroughly reviewed the PTP books as Provost, finding that “there is no Koch money left,” and that, since it has all been spent by the PTP, no Koch funding has been tied to the PPE Center.
Locke also emphasized that the University would be selective in choosing which organizations to accept funding from. He revealed that when there was a grant to the PTP from DonorsTrust, it was returned by the University. DonorsTrust is a Koch-affiliated donor-advised fund that aims to protect “constitutional liberties and (strengthen) civil society through private institutions,” according to the DonorsTrust website.
Locke went on to explain that he believes that the strong governance design for the proposed PPE Center should reassure critics. He stated that the PPE would have representation from department faculty and oversight from the Office of the Provost.
The University’s Advisory Committee on University Resources Management is currently reviewing a faculty proposal that would alter the University’s policy on gifts and grants to make it so faculty members cannot accept funding from “sources involved in science denial,” President Christina Paxson P’19 said at the Dec. 7 Brown University Community Council meeting, The Herald previously reported.
According to Professor of History Brian Lander, Brown Scholars for Climate Action recently proposed to ACURM “that Brown should set minimum standards for which organizations it does business with, and that Brown should not accept any funds from organizations that promote climate misinformation.”
Lisa Di Carlo, ACURM chair, explained that ACURM advises the President on the proposals they receive rather than adjudicating.
"We also returned private gifts to donors whose interests were not aligned with the non-partisan mission of the PPE Center," Locke wrote. “There is no funding linked to either the Koch Foundation or DonorsTrust tied to the PPE.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the PTP received a gift from DonorsTrust that the University returned. In fact, the PTP received a grant from DonorsTrust that the University returned. The Herald regrets the error.
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not attribute a quote from the DonorsTrust website as having come from the website. The quote has been updated to clarify where it was taken from.