Elite schools must quit Koch money

Jasmine Banks
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
In this February 26, 2007 file photograph, Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, talks about his book on Market Based Management. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

Many universities, such as Harvard earlier this year, have earned accolades for divesting their endowments from fossil fuels and promising to fight climate change.

While Duke University has yet to divest, the school’s president, Vincent Price, was recently prompted by activist pressure to acknowledge Duke’s responsibility to address climate change. “We’re going to work to leverage our significant research and policy resources toward sustainable environmental solutions,” Price said.

But in February, Duke announced a lecture from author Bjørn Lomborg on his favorite topic: decrying climate change as a hoax. Why did Duke agree to host this oft-debunked climate denialist? It may be a question of who was paying.

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The invitation came from Duke’s “Center for the History of Political Economy.” The center’s lecture series hosting Lomborg, as well as its expanded staff and programming, is funded by a $5 million grant that came from the Charles Koch Foundation. The foundation is the tool of billionaire fossil fuel magnate Charles Koch, a well-known funder of right-wing politics.

Besides Lomborg, the center’s other recent lecture topics have included “Economic Freedom and the Wealth and Health of Nations” and “Free Market Liberalism Is Humane.”

Duke, Harvard and other universities that advocate for climate justice are also still taking money from the climate change-denying Koch network and their right-wing allies. Some have followed their acceptance of these donations with conspicuous support for academics or research that support Koch’s political views. To truly live up to their word, these universities need to stop giving academic legitimacy to fossil fuel apologists.

Charles Koch said back in 1974 that “the educational route is both the most vital and the most neglected,” for advancing his radical capitalist philosophy. One of the network’s primary tools is the funding of campus centers and think tanks, and their efforts are accelerating. Research from my organization, UnKoch My Campus, has revealed that Charles Koch, from 2005 to 2019, donated through his foundations more than $458 million to universities and colleges across the country. In 2019 alone, the Charles Koch Foundation donated more than $112 million to 225 distinct campuses and campus-rooted nonprofits.

New research that we supported by Jake Lowe, a student at George Washington University, found that the Koch network has led a surge in funding for GWU’s Regulatory Studies Center — almost $7 million, most of it in the past four years, from just four right-wing funders, including the Koch Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation.

In response, the RSC has almost universally advocated against government regulation, with 96 percent of its public comments on federal regulations arguing for relaxed standards. The RSC’s leadership has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus around climate change.

Duke and George Washington are hardly alone.

George Mason University and its right-wing think tank, the Mercatus Center, have long been the Koch network’s top academic recipients. Charles Koch and his late brother David had “decision-making roles” in the center’s academic appointments through at least 2009, according to The New York Times.

Florida State came under fire in 2014 when it was revealed that the university had accepted millions of dollars from the Koch Foundation in exchange for aligning its curriculum with Charles Koch’s philosophy, giving him a say in which professors were hired. Tufts University announced plans to divest from fossil fuels but then its Koch-funded study center issued a controversial attack on the state’s efforts to limit carbon emissions.

The money these universities accept from the Koch network is, in some ways, more damaging and insidious than the university’s investment in fossil fuel companies. Money is fungible, but academic credibility is not.

— Jasmine Banks is the executive director of UnKoch My Campus. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.