After University administrators proposed the creation of a new Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the December faculty meeting, students have expressed conflicting opinions regarding the mission and funding of the potential new center.
At the February faculty meeting, faculty decided to postpone their final vote on whether or not to establish the PPE Center on campus, which would absorb the Political Theory Project, The Herald previously reported. This decision came in the wake of discontent among some faculty members over the PTP previously receiving partial funding from the Koch Foundation, a foundation run by billionaire and conservative political mega-donor Charles Koch.
Some faculty also expressed a desire to stall the vote to wait for a decision to be reached on a proposal to the Advisory Committee for University Resources Management, which would amend the University’s gift acceptance policy, The Herald previously reported.
Students Against Koch Influence at Brown formed in December 2021 in reaction to the proposed PPE Center, according to members Ethan Drake ’24, Leo Major ’24, Joseph O’Brien ’24 and Isaac Slevin ’25.
SAKI members believe that the proposed governance structure and gift acceptance policy of the PPE Center are too weak to adequately protect against Koch influence at the University, though they say they have been assured by Provost Richard Locke P’18 that no money from the Koch network will be accepted up front.
Particularly, the students worry that rules governing the center cannot protect against individual faculty members accepting funding from the Koch network. SAKI members referenced an instance in which one faculty hire at Bowling Green State University’s PPE Center led to the entire program becoming affiliated with Koch funding, according to reporting by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“There's not going to be Koch money up front, … but there's no saying that there wouldn't be on the back end,” Slevin said. “You're still going to have some faculty members that have accepted millions of dollars of Koch money or Koch network money throughout their careers.”
The students also argue that the University’s gift acceptance policy is not strict enough to prevent the acceptance of gifts from Koch-affiliated groups. Slevin noted that while SAKI members endorse a “revised gift acceptance policy,” they feel that they cannot count on the proposal under review by ACURM to prevent Koch influence through gift giving.
Administrators have previously emphasized that the PTP and proposed PPE Center are entirely separate. What “we’re doing is taking the best pieces (of the PTP) and incorporating them into something larger,” Locke said at the Dec. 7 faculty meeting. We are “building a new foundation because the governance is completely new, the funding model is completely new and the integration with the rest of the campus is different.”
Locke also previously told The Herald that the proposed center’s governance structure would have representation from department faculty and oversight from the Office of the Provost.
After ACURM reviews a proposal, President Christina Paxson P’19 decides to accept or decline its specific recommendations. Major said this further undermined SAKI members’ confidence in any potential new University gift acceptance policy.
“We need comprehensive rules to keep out donors that take power away from faculty and students, which is a rampant and well-documented trait of the Koch network,” Slevin wrote in a message to The Herald.
While the students said they appreciate that the University avoided Koch influence by returning money from DonorsTrust, a Koch-affiliated donor-advised fund, under Locke, they said they remain concerned over the fact that the University accepted the donations in the first place. SAKI members said they worry that under different leadership, the money might not have been returned.
DonorsTrust aims to protect “constitutional liberties and (strengthen) civil society through private institutions,” according to the DonorsTrust website.
In an interview with The Herald, when asked about the length of time for which this donation was accepted and how much of it was returned, Locke said, “All I can say is that there was a grant from DonorsTrust and that it was returned.”
Ben Eden ’24 said he believes the center has potential to be a place for “free discussion of ideas … (and exposing) people to new perspectives.”
Eden does not believe that there will be any Koch money accepted by the PPE. He feels that the outrage over the Koch network’s potential influence over the center is a “nicer way of saying, ‘We don't want an alternate viewpoint on campus.’ ”
Eden said that there could be a potential ideological bias against the proposed center as a result of the perceived legacy of the PTP.
“Even if there is Koch money, if the result of (the) money is that there are some viewpoints on campus that people don’t feel comfortable with … I really don’t think that’s a bad thing at all,” Eden said. Especially for “a place like Brown where (such views) are not so prevalent.”
When asked about the criticisms of the Koch Foundation, specifically faculty concerns about its support for climate misinformation, Eden noted that this influence could provide necessary ideological diversity in a university setting.
“A lot of students here feel a certain way about (climate denial), but … you can't pretend like (differing) opinions have zero merit,” Eden said. “If you're not going to accept people who are going to try to teach you something that you don't agree with, then you're never actually going to learn. You're just going to be confirming your own biases.”
Eden thinks it is necessary for faculty members to expose students to diverse viewpoints. “Their role is to help students grow intellectually … and that involves … (helping students use) critical thinking to come to a more informed conclusion,” he said.
He described faculty opposition to the PPE Center as “gatekeeping” and a “dereliction of duty.”
Slevin said that SAKI is “not opposed to an interdisciplinary philosophy, economics and politics center in principle,” but to “one that is vulnerable to donor influence and money from climate change denial groups.”
If the center’s proposal were to be reintroduced in the future with significant changes made, SAKI might support it, Slevin added. But, “in the (current) absence of a stronger gift acceptance policy, passing the PPE Center is irresponsible. We will be opposing it.”
Ultimately, SAKI members said they worry about the precedent the University will set for other higher education institutions across the country if the proposal is passed.
“Whether or not some nefarious, devious stuff happens at Brown’s PPE Center, it totally enables any other university in the country to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, Brown passed one, they’re a pretty well-regarded University, we can pass a PPE Center,’ ” Drake said. He emphasized SAKI’s concern that the presence of a PPE Center on campus would serve as a “legitimization (of PPE centers) at these prestigious universities.”