Colleges Receive Gifts, But Are Strings Attached?

May 13, 2011

Larry Abramson

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Some faculty members at Florida State University say their school has sold out to a conservative group that dangled a big donation.

Recently released details show the university gave the Charles Koch Foundation a role in hiring decisions, in exchange for a big grant.

Three years ago, the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation struck an agreement with Florida State to encourage the study of economic institutions and political economy.

The foundation, known for its links to conservative causes, gave the university $1.5 million to fund two faculty positions. David Rasmussen, dean of FSU's College of Social Sciences, says his school maintained control over who would teach, and what they taught.

"There was never an acid test that said this person who we hire must think this kind of thing," he says.

But the grant created a special advisory board, chosen by the Koch Foundation, that has a role in choosing faculty. And that decision is leading to a world of controversy for the university.

FSU professors have assaulted the idea of giving donors any voice in choosing professors. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says for years, corporations have been endowing chairs and splashing their names all over the ivory tower. As examples, he cites "The Taco Bell Distinguished Professor of Hotel and Restaurant Administration in Washington. The Lego Professor Learning and Research and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT."

But Nelson says even those arrangements never gave donors a place in hiring decisions ordinarily reserved for faculty.

Nelson also teaches at the University of Illinois and says his school once considered giving a similar role to a donor. "When details were released the faculty Senate rose up in arms and the agreement was canceled," he says.

The trouble with Florida State, Nelson says, is that faculty members did not vote on the Koch proposal.

Rasmussen describes the Koch Foundation more as a collaborator than as a master. Faculty, he insists, is always in control.

"The economics department says, here are the two people we really like, goes to the advisory board and says, will you approve these two people? They said yes, and then they funded the positions," Rasmussen says.

Whether or not this arrangement crossed a line, schools flirt with that boundary all the time, especially when they hook up with foundations with a definite point of view.

The BB&T Charitable Foundation has endowed about 60 universities with grants to explore, in its words, the "moral foundations of capitalism."

John Allison, the former head of financial giant BB&T Corp., now helps the foundation find universities that are open to discussing the benefits of the free enterprise system. Foundation agreements often include the expectation that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged will be taught.

"The universities know that we like to have Atlas Shrugged included in the course on the moral foundations of capitalism," he says. "Typically there are other books included; often Karl Marx is included. We think it's very important for students to hear both points of view."

Allison says the BB&T Foundation never has a say in hiring decisions. In fact, he says, the schools he works with already have faculty members who share the foundation's goals and just want financial support to expand that work. Allison says he is trying to spread ideas that he feels are pushed to the sidelines at most schools.

"They're way minority ideas," he says. "Because most universities are dominated by liberal professors."

Florida State also gets BB&T money; Rasmussen says that at a time of dwindling state support, students are the net winners from these deals.

"Because of the BB&T and Koch Foundation gifts, we've got three great teachers who are teaching about 1,000 students a semester," he says.

Most of the money given to universities is restricted in some way. So despite the criticism, foundations and corporations will continue to press for a platform in academia. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.