Charles Koch Foundation, partners gifted $3.6 million to Johnson Center; raise questions

Ngoc Vo

David Bronner’s article in this month’s issue of The Advisor, “Troy University’s Johnson Center: A Poor Steward of the Truth,” was quite an interesting read.
Bronner, as the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, addresses in the RSA’s newsletter Troy assistant professor Daniel Smith’s editorial on, “RSA Is a Poor Steward of Our Retirement Resources.”
I find the issue of public pensions a complicated one, though one comment from Bronner caught my attention.
In his article, Bronner referred to our Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy as “an institution which is partially funded by an organization that seeks to abolish public pensions.”
This left me with the impression that Bronner was implying a correlation between the center’s funding and its position on the topic.
I couldn’t help but wonder if such a connection exists and if the funding influences the Johnson Center’s stance on other issues.
According to Stephen Miller, the center’s director, it does not. Smith was asked about Bronner’s article but he pointed to Miller for comments.
In 2010, the Charles Koch Foundation, along with Manuel Johnson and the BB&T Foundation, gifted $3.6 million for the founding of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. According to Miller, the money has been given in installments over five years.
Such donations have been scrutinized by several institutions, including the weblog ThinkProgress in its reporting “Koch fueling far right academic centers at universities across the country.”
“I would not say (the center) is far-right at all,” Miller said. “It doesn’t make sense to call it far-right. This is an educational program, not political. For me ‘political’ has a very specific meaning: endorsing a candidate or a policy. … We talk about policies, but we don’t engage in political advocacy.”
Miller, however, acknowledged everything eventually becomes political if policies are involved.
“We hold policy positions that can be considered right and left,” he said.
Miller said that although the center’s stance on issues varies depending on specific topics and circumstances, there is a consistency in the center’s positions across issues: “less government, less regulation.”
According to Miller, in general, the center’s faculty members are aligned with its mission, focusing “on the moral imperatives of free markets and individual liberty, as well as relevant policy research on current and local issues.”
Despite this shared view, Miller said, the center’s faculty members have pure academic freedom to research whatever interests them.
“Their academic conclusions are their own,” he said.
Daniel Sutter, Troy University’s Charles G. Koch professor of economics, said he agreed with Miller’s assessment about the consistency in the center’s ideology.
“Speaking for myself as a faculty member,” Sutter said, “the money (that) comes from the Johnson Center does not affect how I do my job.”
Sutter said potential donors approaching universities often propose a deal for a cause or a purpose.
“In general, across the country, many potential donors often approach colleges and universities and offer gifts and funding that they hope would lead to certain types of research and activities to be done,” he said. “It’s up to the administration and the university which type of offers are to the best interest of the university and which to pursue or not pursue.”
According to Steven Taylor, political science division chair, his department has not been approached with funding similar to that offered to the Johnson Center.
“In general, academia can be in a delicate position when funding is received from outside,” Taylor said.
He mentioned hiring practices as something that private funding could influence at educational institutions.
“The donors have no influence on our hiring decisions,” Miller said. “Hiring committees are made up of the faculty. What we look for is faculty candidates whose research and teaching are consistent with the center’s mission.”
Laura Burmeister, a social sciences assistant professor, said funding from institutions with political agendas drives educational agendas “completely and thoroughly.”
“I see all aspects of social life as politicized,” she said. “My dissertation was all about how education systems are a microcosm of larger societal power relations. School funding practices, curriculum, content, structure — all of them are a reflection of hegemonic norms … in the case of the U.S., the supposed infallibility of the free market, rational choice theory and the privatization of social services that governments are obliged to provide their citizens. … This is why private corporate interests … feel the need to attempt to … control the curriculum, stick in a pro-business model.
“I was just told (last) week that I had to ‘leave the personal out of the classroom’ (from a superior within Troy’s academic hierarchy), because I said privilege was real and was criticizing rational choice theory,” she said. “I never got (these) restrictive mandates before the advent of the Johnson Center. So much for academic freedom.”
This controversy reminds me of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting by The New York Times’ Eric Lipton. In his series, Lipton looked into how “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.”
While think tanks produce research as scientific basis for policies, academic centers produce students who will become educators, lawmakers and voters. Thus, I find the current trend of financial influence on these institutions alarming.
It would be a battle to discover and prevent such influences. It would be naive to say businesses seek no return of investment when pumping money into education programs. Students should be conscious of where the money comes from and of the consistency in donors’ positions on issues.
On my soapbox, I would say: Know your professors’ perspectives, and explore others to achieve a more well-rounded view of the world. Think not just of efficiency, but also of equity and sustainability. Raise questions if the pitfalls of pure capitalism are never mentioned in class. Think critically and comparatively.

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