Curious angst over Koch bucks

Pedestrians walk among CyRide busses Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, on the Iowa State University Campus in Ames. Scott Morgan/Photos for the Gazette
Pedestrians walk among CyRide busses Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, on the Iowa State University Campus in Ames. Scott Morgan/Photos for the Gazette

Koch money is flowing and some Iowans are angry.

Iowa State University is expected to enter an agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation, providing more than $3 million to establish an economic research unit, as first reported by The Gazette this week. The plan has drawn criticism from within ISU and around the state.

The foundation, one branch of a larger Koch network, lists more than 300 colleges and universities it supports, including every Ivy League school and the vast majority of Big Ten and Big 12 schools.

Is it possible those sponsorships are meant to support researchers who share Koch’s goals and interests?

Of course. That is what all outside funders intend when they sponsor research.

ISU and the University of Iowa accepted more than $1 billion in external funding combined last year, more than half of which pays for research. ISU’s proposed $3.7 million Koch deal would represent less than 1 percent of ISU’s annual external funding.

Most of UI’s and ISU’s external funding comes from three categories- the federal government; businesses and corporations; and foundations and associations. It’s not hard to think of reasons these entities might want to influence academic research, and not all of them are good reasons.

External funding in higher education presents important questions about academic independence and outside influence, but those concerns didn’t seem to exist in Iowa until the Koch Brothers opened their checkbooks. The reaction is visceral and unfounded.

Koch world confounds traditional political analysis because it is not strictly political. They have invested in projects meant to have a much longer-term impact — research programs, activist training, and data-gathering operations.

If you want to see the product of their conspiracy, look no further — here I am.


My bookshelf is filled with literature about economics and civil liberties, published for free distribution by Koch-backed organizations. I’ve participated in those groups’ educational seminars, bookmarked their websites, and donated my own money to a few.

To be clear, I have no formal affiliation with any Koch-funded organization, nor have I ever been paid by one, to my knowledge.

Few are more responsible than the Koch’s for the resurgence of classical liberalism within right-wing politics. Because of them, there is a growing movement of Republicans who are skeptical of criminalization and corporate welfare, while supporting peace and social tolerance.

When public universities accept outside funding, they can and should establish agreements which protect intellectual independence against undue influence. Indeed, emails obtained by The Gazette show faculty at ISU took considerable time and effort to ensure that’s happening in this case.

A true threat to intellectual freedom would be a university turning away a legitimate funding opportunity under threat of backlash by angry political activists.

If Iowans’ concern over higher education funding is sincere, and not politically motivated — why didn’t it come up sometime during the last $1 billion?

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