Forbes Magazine ranks David and Charles Koch each as one of the country’s top ten richest people. Their business, Koch Industries, is the second largest private company in the US. The family's net worth was $82 billion in 2016.
Combined, the brothers and their affiliated organizations have donated tens of millions of dollars to universities across the nation, funding research centers and educational programs, including at the University of Arizona.
The Koch's have been accused of attempting to drive policy in higher education, and through it public opinion, to the political right through their university donations and public school programs.
Book brings scrutiny
Mayer offered the example of Topeka's public schools. The district, strapped for cash, allowed the Koch's to step in, and they offered their version of American History and Economics.
"Among other things, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t alleviate the Depression, minimum wage laws and public assistance hurt the poor, lower pay for women was not discriminatory, and the government, rather than business, caused the 2008 recession," Mayer writes.
The accusations against the Koch's are nothing new; public media has been reporting on them for over a decade. Mayer's book, however, renewed scrutiny on academic institutions associated with the brothers.
At the UA, donations from Charles Koch helped fund the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. Better known as the "Freedom Center," it was established in 2008 by UA Philosophy Professor David Schmidtz, and initially funded by Randy Kendrick.
Schmidtz and Kendrick met by chance, and, as Schmidtz puts it ,“that’s a pretty long story, but bottom line is she (Kendrick) saved my life.”
Kendrick’s motivation for funding the center was described as absolutely not political. Randy is wife to Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. She was part of a Koch-led donor network that donated almost $900 million on the 2016 election cycle.
She left the network after it refused to attack Trump, according to British newspaper The Guardian.
In 2010, Schmidtz secured more private funding for the center, allowing him to hire four core faculty members. Of these donations, $1.8 million came from Charles Koch.
The center, its funding, the associated new department of Political Economy and Moral Science and a high-school course, have all raised concerns within the UA and greater Tucson community. A campus group of UA faculty, Koch of Campus, has formed in resistance.
Recently, the spotlight has fallen on the Freedom Center for its involvement with a high-school course. Conceived as part of the Freedom Center’s outreach efforts, the class, known as Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship, is described by Michael McKenna, the Freedom Center’s director, as a project of Schmidtz’s.
The course is offered for UA credit at high-schools across Tucson Unified School Distirct. Half way through its second academic year, the TUSD governing board realized the course was never actually approved.
The course received initial approval but failed to continue along the approval process. The class, as well as its text book, co-authored by Schmitdz, has been accused of being unbalanced.
David Gibbs, a UA History professor, told the Arizona Daily Star, “the course presents a skewed version of economics that ignores concepts that don’t fit in neatly with free-market ideals.” He described the textbook as pure propaganda.
“There’s a worry that the indirect incentive is to introduce to high-school students ideas friendly to either libertarian or right-wing political causes through this high-school course,” said McKenna.
Though he personally thinks the course leans a certain direction, he said many people are overreacting to the content. Schmidtz echoed that sentiment.
“We’ve got people going and saying there’s an ideological problem; TUSD doesn’t see an ideological problem. And they shouldn’t, there isn’t one,” Schmidtz said.
He said the course is not on American History but on citizenship, and the high-schools understand that. The course was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
Tension in the community
The Freedom Center itself has been accused of perpetuating a libertarian, right-wing ideology. These accusations are based in large part of the sources of funding the center has received, as well as the political views of several of its key faculty.
The donation from Charles Koch in 2010 has raised the most eyebrows. The donation is no secret. “I am associated with the Koch brothers, I have raised money from them,” Schmidtz said.
Schmidtz continued to say that, no, it was not just for the one donation in 2010, but he declined to comment further.
McKenna empathized with people’s fear that the center had an agenda, based on the reading of "Dark Money."
“To the extent that what’s claimed in that book is legitimate, its really offensive and its really scary,” McKenna said. “If you read that book and you believe what’s going on in that book, then it’s easy to see what’s happened in the freedom center through the lends of that book.”
McKenna, Schmidtz, and a third core faculty member, Daniel Russell, all deny the presence of an agenda within the Freedom Center however, especially one dictated by the political and economic views of the Koch brothers.
They referred to it as both comical and naïve to believe philosophers as well established as themselves could be bought.
“Somebody who needed a job in philosophy so badly that they would agree to let someone tell them what to write and what not to write, would not be a good enough philosopher to hire here,” Russell said.
Part of the center’s criticism has been their perceived lack of transparency. McKenna, Schmidtz, and Russell all claimed they have never been contacted by either members of Koch Off Campus, or media outlets currently publishing related stories.
“We’re getting more attention now, as of this semester,” Russell said, “and the thing that’s a bit disheartening about this is how little information people really have.”
Schmidtz said he would share the donor list with the Daily Wildcat. As of Dec. 13, neither the Daily Wildcat or the reporter of this story have received a comprehensive donor list.
The Freedom Center: defined
The Freedom Center is a research unit housed in the college of Social and Behavioral Science; its core faculty are all tenured in the Philosophy department. Their contract with the Freedom Center gives them a lighter course load in order to focus more on research and writing.
Straddling a broad spectrum of topics joint only by their relation to freedom, the center is not an "academic center" as the TUSD high-school course is independent of it.
The center recently created a new department, approved this fall by the Arizona Board of Regents. Called the department of Political Economy and Moral Science, it was funded in large part by a grant from the state legislature, earmarked to be spent for the Freedom Center.
“The department was created because David Schmidtz wanted to create a new department, and there were funds that became available through the state legislature,” McKenna said.
Russell said one of the reasons the new department was created was to be a home for faculty who didn’t fit elsewhere. “It’s going to sound funny,” Russell said, “but as a way of creating a tenure home for people who don’t really fit in any narrow category."
If Adam Smith or Karl Marx were alive today, Russell said he doubted they would receive tenure in any existing department.
It is exactly this that worries some UA members. “Up until now, the people who have been involved were people who were tenured through traditional departments,” said Jeremy Vetter, a history professor at the UA.
“We may agree or disagree with their work, but they were tenured and promoted through a process that is recognizable. This new one seems to be designed to evade disciplinary accountability because it’s a discipline that doesn’t exist, really anywhere else.”
The root of the issues is believed to be the decline in public funding. Cash-strapped universities are more vulnerable to accepting private donations. “Its only common sense that when you take a man’s money, you take his advice. Here the advice is clearly is to slant their work in this sort of free market, far right-wing direction that would suit the ideas of their donors,” Gibbs said.
Further worrying critics is the seemingly special favors from the state legislator in support of the Freedom Center. Even as Arizona has cut it’s funding to public education, the state has allocated $2 million specifically for the center at the UA and a separate $3 million for Arizona State’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.
The Arizona State institute also received over $1 million in grants from the Charles Koch Foundation.
However, there appears to be no evidence that Charles Koch exerts any influence of the Freedom Center itself.
“You’re not allowed to find people guilty in the court of law by association — you actually have to establish facts," Russell said. "And there are no facts of the sort that would lead people to say the things that are being said about us."
Although he has donated to Koch related causes in the past, Schmidtz said that Charles Koch has never called or checked in with the center — but he wouldn’t mind if he did.
“I wouldn’t feel like he was interfering if he did, but he never does,” Schmidtz said. “He has seemingly complete trust in our ability, our willingness to make good decisions. In my own experience, you can’t get as far from interfering as he has gotten.”
Follow the Daily Wildcat on Twitter