GMU Should Cough up Terms of Charles Koch Donations

Charles Koch. Yeah, he's a bogey man for the left. Even so, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what strings he ties to his donations to GMU.
Charles Koch. Yeah, he’s loathed by left. Even so, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what strings he ties to his donations to GMU. Image credit: Huffington Post.

Unlike my friends of a leftish persuasion, I don’t have a problem with Charles and David Koch. I largely agree with their libertarian political philosophy. In a nation awash in foundations that underwrite liberal and progressive causes on college campuses, I am happy to see at least one organization backing free-market/limited government principles. In particular, I’m a big fan of the Koch-supported Mercatus Center at George Mason University, whose scholars I quote frequently in this blog. Without the Koch brothers, academia would be even less diverse intellectually than it already is.

But my personal affinity for the Koch brothers does not alter my opinion that any dealings they have with public Virginia universities should be fully transparent. Therefore, I am inclined to endorse a lawsuit filed by Transparent GMU, a student group with legal backing from the liberal-left Appalachian Mountain Advocates, against GMU. The purpose of the lawsuit is to compel GMU, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release records about donor agreements between the Kochs and the university.

The Charles Koch Foundation has donated $48 million to GMU between 2011 and 2014. Charles Koch himself serves on the board of the Mercatus Center. It is a legitimate matter of public inquiry to know what strings might be attached to Koch’s donations. Of course, the same holds true not just with Koch but any and all mega-donors to the university, including industrialists pursuing business interests and philanthropists backing liberal and progressive causes.

GMU officials argue otherwise, according to Fourth Estate, GMU’s student-run news outlet.

“Philanthropy is a critical aspect of George Mason’s success, especially in a time when public universities are receiving fewer funds from the Commonwealth,” GMU spokesman Michael Sandler told the publication by email. “We are grateful to the thousands of donors who give to Mason for a variety of reasons. Some of these donors wish to make their gifts public. Some wish to remain anonymous, which is their right and something the university and the Foundation have a responsibility to respect.”

Privacy is a serious matter worthy of debate. But that wasn’t the logic given in GMU’s response to Transparent GMU’s FOIA request.

In a Jan. 9, 2017, FOIA filing, Transparent GMU sought any records, including grants, cooperative agreements, gift agreements, contracts or memoranda of understanding, related to to contributions that Koch-related entities made to the university. On Jan. 12, Elizabeth Woodley, FOIA compliance officer, replied that GMU was not in possession of such records.

Transparent GMU then asked if the George Mason University Foundation would provide the records. GMU refused to turn over any foundation records on the grounds that it was a separate, private, 401(c)3 charitable organization not subject to FOIA. Citing a fee it enacts on gifts its accepts on GMU’s behalf and its close working relationship with the GMU administration, the lawsuit argues that the foundation is a “component unit” of the university.

The lawsuit is much bigger than GMU and the Koch brothers. Conservatives and libertarians might be inclined for reasons of partisanship to side with GMU in this instance in order to shield Charles Koch and the Mercatus Center from scrutiny. That would be short-sighted, in my view. If there are terms and conditions, then Koch and Mercatus should be willing to defend them.

The internal workings of public research are a black box. GMU alone has dozens of centers and institutes. Last year, I blogged extensively about inadequate oversight of GMU’s Institute for Global Environment and Society, some of whose principals engaged in double dipping. More recently, I have tried to probe the link between the pursuit of research dollars and higher tuition at public Virginia universities generally. We need to crack open university finances. We need to understand the forces at work influencing the affordability and academic integrity of higher ed. Conservatives and libertarians have much more to gain than lose from a court ruling subjecting donor agreements to the reach of FOIA.

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8 responses to “GMU Should Cough up Terms of Charles Koch Donations”

  1. Totally agree.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    I distinguish between the Kochs and others who provide money to higher ed … with strings attached… and money from the Kochs and others to other organizations – anonymously.

    In other words – we KNOW the Kochs have given money to GMU but do we know all the other organizations they have given money to – think tanks, PACs and dark money organizations?

    what rule requires that the Koch money to GMU be disclosed?

    and if you want more info about the Koch money to GMU do you also want other donors money to all other institutions of higher learning to be disclosed.. as well as the strings attached and stipulations?

    I worry much more about dark money and our elections than I do about money donated to Universities to be honest.

    I bet some here in BR would go high-order ape-guano if they heard that George Soros was giving money to UVA, eh?


  3. Larry, you have mastered the Red Herring.

    Jim is right. If the terms of the Koch donation gives them power to impede academic freedom at a public university by, for instance, having oversight on who gets hired and what is published, then it should be public. Note that this is similar to what happened at Florida State, so it isn’t empty speculation.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    No Red Herring Izzo! Honest question. What is the law regarding ANY donations to ANY schools?

    According to you and Jim – such money “gives them the power to IMPEDE and to decide who gets hired and what is published”


    So.. you assume nefarious motives on the parts of donors to Colleges .. that such monies can be used to subvert the institutions and force them to do things they would not otherwise do?

    I’m just asking that your premise or have I stated it wrong.. so correct it and state what your premise really is…

    and how would you correct that problem?

    You guys seems to think that you are entitled to everything that goes on internally in Higher Ed.. apparently.. right?

    I’m not disagreeing per se but if I were to choose between knowing what is going on with higher ed and donor money – and anonymous money to candidates and elected officials.. I’d sure prioritize the latter first.

    but maybe I’m looking at this wrong and if you guys succeed on that front -we can then go after the election process citing the new rules you guys have succeeded putting in place for Higher Ed!

    but let me finish with a hypothetic question that may well be the essence of the issue.

    Here’s the question:

    If the Koch brothers want to fund a new program at GMU .. should they get to decide who will be employed and what the curriculum will look like, etc.. many aspects of the program?

    If at other institutions.. some mega donor wanted to fund a new program in a similar way..

    is that currently allowed? are there rules and laws that govern that or is it pretty much wide open?

    before you answer – keep in mind that the money is often a charitable donation and it’s not a unknown practice for large donors to put strings on their money for other recipient institutions also. A local Food Pantry or a medical program for indigent people, etc.. the donor may well stipulate how the money be used.. or not.. right?

    so it’s not just institutions of higher learning that receive donations with strings.. right?

    so you and Jim are advocating MORE REGULATIONS and MORE GOVT!


    1. “So you and Jim are advocating MORE REGULATIONS and MORE GOVT!

      Larry, statements like this make it very frustrating to maintain a dialogue with you. I won’t speak for Izzo, but there is no way that you can accuse me, based on what I posted, of advocating more regulations and government. I advocated more transparency.

      I don’t know what what heightened transparency might reveal regarding the Koch Foundation and GMU — it might turn out to be totally uncontroversial and harmless. Even if the donor agreements did turn up codicils restricting hiring and publications, that would only open up the door for discussions regarding what to do about it. You pre-suppose that more government regulation would be called for. Not necessarily. Perhaps GMU would be publicly shamed into reforming its practices on its own accord.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Once again, this shows the need for one set of rules that apply across the board. Donations and their terms above a specified amount to a public institution should be made open to the public. And that includes donations made indirectly. A public university should not be allowed to accept money through an affiliated, private foundation to avoid disclosure.

  6. Larry,

    Jim’s answer above is good with me.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” I advocated more transparency”

    so you both are advocating voluntary transparency?

    see when Jim says it’s frustrating to maintain a dialogue.

    I AGREE .. what exactly are you guys really advocating for here?

    that GMU provide the level of transparency you guys want – voluntarily?

    is that ya’lls point? To publicly shame them into more transparency? that’s your advocacy?

    Maybe ya’ll can make that part more clear, eh?

    so yes this IS frustrating!

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