News broke last week that in 2008, Florida State University entered an agreement with businessman Charles Koch that gave the libertarian control over the hiring of some professors in exchange for a $1.5 million donation to the school’s economics department.
Koch and his brother, David Koch, are well-known political activists who use their fortune to fight ideological battles. According to Forbes the two had a serious hand in funding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s election. In return, Walker signed the state’s now-infamous anti-union bill into law.
At first glance, FSU’s deal with Charles Koch seems like another instance of impropriety. The deal set up a three-person advisory board that a Koch representative sat on and reviewed applicants who applied for a position funded by the donation.
It may appear that FSU sacrificed its academic freedom in exchange for a mere $1.5 million. Indeed, according to the St. Petersburg Times, Yale University decided in 1995 to return a $20 million gift from alumnus Lee M. Bass when the Texas financier asked for veto power over appointments. One Yale administrator said the move would have been “unheard of.”
On the other hand, it’s not 1995. Times have changed. The recession continues to have an enormous effect on university budgets. This month the state Legislature approved a budget that gives $3.48 billion to state universities – 4 percent less than this year.
Now, the state’s largest universities are facing tremendous budget holes. According to WCTV in Tallahassee, USF is looking at a $9 million shortfall for the next fiscal year. FSU’s financial hurdle is nearly $40 million. Additionally, those figures assume the schools raise tuition by the maximum yearly increase of 15 percent.
In light of such a tremendous fiscal challenge, it’s understandable that FSU would appease a wealthy donor. Yet, the university should be commended for doing so in a way that did not come at the expense of the students, who the money is intended to benefit.
The money donated by Koch provided for the hiring of two assistant professors, according to the Times. Nearly 500 people applied for those positions. An FSU faculty board reviewed the applications and thought only 50 were worthy of further review. The Koch-influenced advisory board recommended only 16 of those 50, Yet in the end, the two professors hired for the position did not come from that list of 16, but from faculty recommendations, FSU President Eric J. Barron wrote in the Times.
Barron maintains both hires are “excellent additions to the faculty” who had the ultimate say on who was hired.
In this instance it seems the university’s academic freedom was hardly, if at all, compromised. As a result, the school now offers more classes to students. Other universities should follow FSU’s example when pursuing similar agreements.