Koch foundation gives thousands at Iowa State University
Money comes with no strings, but some worry about influence of partisan groups
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Iowa State University will hold a three-day First Amendment celebration this week that includes national speakers, free food and a “Democalypse” march in which students experience how life changes without free speech and other First Amendment rights.
Its sponsor may be surprising: the Charles Koch Foundation.
The charitable organization is founded and bankrolled by Charles Koch, whose ultra free-market philosophies and GOP political donations have made him and his brother, David Koch, enemies of liberal groups across the country.
ISU has received $127,000 since 2014 from the Koch Foundation, according to records The Gazette obtained through an open records request. The money is roughly split between ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication for annual free speech celebrations and the Department of Economics, mostly for undergraduate research.
ISU faculty who got the Koch grants say the money doesn’t come with strings attached and helps provide educational opportunities that wouldn’t fit into cash-strapped state budgets.
“For us, it’s been a real nice source of resources for our undergraduates,” said ISU economics professor Peter Orazem. “I would suspect most of them (students) aren’t going to be ultra right-wing conservatives.”
Still, The Gazette’s review of ISU’s Koch gift records found language allowing the foundation to exert influence over sponsored events and gather student information that could be added to mailing lists. ISU’s Economics Department also is in discussions with the Koch Foundation about a larger financial commitment.
The Koch Foundation did not respond to two requests for comment.
Charles Koch’s charitable institutions gave $55 million to hundreds of colleges and universities from 2012 through 2014, according to a 2015 review by the Center for Public Integrity. One of the top recipients is Virginia’s George Mason University, which got $14.4 million in 2013 from the Charles Koch Foundation, the center reported. Koch is on the board of directors at the university’s conservative Mercatus Center.
Koch isn’t the only political player making grants to colleges and universities. Others include Robert McNair, a conservative; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and George Soros, a liberal financier, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
But Koch appears to be attempting, in some cases, to influence academic programs and connect with students who may adopt libertarian values prized by the Kochs, the center reported. In an audio recording, Kevin Gentry, a Koch Foundation official, told a group about the organization’s strategy for reaching young people, it reported.
“The (Koch) network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,” Gentry said, according to the report. “So you can see how this is useful to each other over time. No one else has this infrastructure. We’re very excited about doing it.”
While traditional academic giving may provide funding for a new building or an endowed chair, the Koch Foundation model often seeks to influence hiring, said Peter Schmidt, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, who has covered Koch gifts to colleges and universities across the country.
“There are people concerned about the philanthropic model that involves (funders) having a say in who directs the new centers, who is hired as faculty,” he said. “The concern is the colleges become dependent on the foundation’s money to keep these people employed.”
Jonathan Sturm, an ISU music professor and Faculty Senate president, said last week he didn’t know about the Koch Foundation’s grants to ISU and said gifts from partisan groups should be “carefully scrutinized and possibly avoided.”
ISU’s journalism school did not seek Koch funding.
“The Koch Foundation is very interested in First Amendment issues and they approached us,” said Joel Geske, an associate advertising professor who served as associate director from 2013 to 2016.
ISU started hosting a First Amendment Day in 2003 and Lee Enterprises, a newspaper publishing group based in Davenport, became the major sponsor in 2004 with an $80,000 gift, records show. The school stretched the money for more than 10 years, but was planning to eliminate the celebration after 2015. The Koch Foundation, whose representatives had visited the ISU celebration, asked ISU to consider applying for funding, Geske said.
The department got $5,500 from the foundation in June 2015, $8,100 in March 2016 and $50,000 in September 2016, records show.
“Koch said we need to think bigger,” Geske said.
The Greenlee school put together an application in February 2016 that laid out what the school would do with three years of funding from the Koch Foundation. The plan included a First Amendment workshop to teach other schools how to host their own First Amendment Day celebrations.
“The Charles Koch Foundation/Institute can promote the workshop through their appropriate channels and are welcome to assist in identifying professors and educators (high school educators are welcome) to participate in the First Amendment Workshop,” ISU officials noted in the February 2016 pitch.
Mark Witherspoon, editorial adviser to the Iowa State Daily student newspaper and workshop organizer, said last week he wasn’t aware of this proposal language and no one from the foundation has recommended participants for the workshop.
“It’s our week and we plan it like we want to plan it,” he said.
Speakers for the workshop, scheduled for Friday, are Gene Policinski, former director of the First Amendment Center and chief operating officer of the Newseum; Andrea Frantz, journalism professor at Buena Vista College; and Witherspoon, according to an online schedule.
Several ISU economics faculty members have together received nearly $63,500 from the Charles Koch Foundation since 2014.
Foundation grants paid for stipends for undergraduate research on topics that included the effects of possible hospital closings, patronage of small town theaters and a case study of a tree farm, records show.
Koch also provided money for students to travel to conferences to present their projects.
“It allows us to take a bus to Berkshire Hathaway,” Orazem said, referring to a trip in which university students from across the country are invited to attend the company’s annual shareholder meeting.
Orazem, who served as the Koch Visiting Professor of Business Economics at the University of Kansas from 2004-05, said he aligns with the Koch brothers in some ways, but not all.
“Anyone who does microeconomics probably would fit,” he said. “They have this thing about Austrian economics, and I don’t do that.”
Documents the Economics Department provided to the Koch Foundation as part of the grant programs show the names and emails of students who got funding. Those names and emails were blacked out in copies provided The Gazette.
“We request student contact information at your discretion, with your students’ permission to share their information with the Charles Koch Foundation and/or Charles Koch Institute,” the foundation noted in a form completed by ISU. “We will use the contact information to keep students apprised of career and educational opportunities through the Charles Koch Institute and Foundation as well as several of our partner organizations.”
ISU spokesman John McCarroll said he didn’t think the university got approval from students before sharing their names and emails.
“I don’t believe we went to the students and asked them for permission to release that information to the Koch Foundation,” he said.
But because students are encouraged “and in some cases required” to send thank you notes to the foundation, the students are providing their own personal information, he said.
The Economics Department is in talks with the Koch Foundation about additional financial support, ISU spokeswoman Annette Hacker confirmed Friday. ISU denied a request for emails and other documents concerning these negotiations, saying they are exempt from Iowa’s open records law because they are drafts.
Joshua Rosenbloom, economics department director, did not return a call Friday for comment.
The University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa do not have grants from the Charles Koch Foundation, and spokesmen from both schools said they are not aware of faculty seeking grants from it.
Athletic departments at the UI and ISU do have Koch ties in that Learfield Sports, which has multimedia contracts with both schools, announced in 2015 a multiyear sponsorship deal with Koch Industries.
“Centered around men’s and women’s basketball and football, the platform provides Koch multiple opportunities for heightened brand awareness through in-venue signage; digital inclusions and social media campaigns; game sponsorships; and radio broadcast features,” according to a 2015 Learfield news release.
As state support becomes a smaller share of university funding, more public institutions may seek money from partisan charitable groups.
Some universities have crafted contracts that set firm ground rules for these gifts.
Faculty at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., initially were up in arms about the university’s 2015 plans to accept $2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to create a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, according to an article Schmidt wrote in the Chronicle for Higher Education. The final deal, tolerated by faculty, put a firewall between Koch and hiring decisions and says the gift won’t be used to influence laws or elections, Schmidt reported.
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