One of the favorite pastimes of leftist academics is to concern troll that Koch money is corrupting academia and hurting academic freedom. (Full disclosure: I don't get Koch money, though I'm pretty sure I've given like 2 or 3 talks over the last decade in which part of the honoraria came from Koch funding.)
What are their complaints about Koch money and the centers it often funds?
A. The centers do not produce honest research, but instead promote an ideological agenda.
B. The lure of easy money corrupts professors and graduate students, inducing them to advocate positions they would not otherwise support.
C. The money allows libertarians or supporters of free markets to have outsized influence in academia.
D. Because the centers are not supervised by other departments, they are a threat to academic freedom at the host institutions.
E. The centers in question are governed by different rules from other centers; in particular, they supposedly allow funders to have significant discretion over what these centers do.
Let's examine these at some length.
Burden of Proof
Anyone asserting A-E bears the burden of proof. They need to do proper social science to prove these claims. But, oddly, they never try to meet this burden. They usually make the accusation and then demand others prove them wrong. But obviously that's not proper.
Imagine Koch money really does corrupt the people who get it. Nevertheless, it might turn out that getting some corrupt people to debate the other corrupt people in academia overall improves the quality of research and output. Academics tend to be ideological hooligans who work in and want to work in echo chambers, so perhaps sprinkling in a few hooligans of a different stripe forces people to do better work, since now they have to hear and deal with actual challenges for their work. I won't belabor this point here. You can insert the familiar argument from Mill about the value of intellectual diversity, and then insert the known studies about how academics discriminate in favor of hiring people who share their politics. This isn't healthy and almost certainly corrupts research.
What if Libertarianism Is Correct?
Whether the money corrupts depends in part on whether the ism it defends is correct. There cannot be a fully content-neutral evaluation.
Consider: Take the mix of wacky mediocrities and propagandists who regularly post at Crooked Timber. Suppose I could pay them $5000 to take a magic pill that would cause them to stop believing the silly things they advocate and start believing true things instead. While their motive in taking the pill is not the right kind of motive, by hypothesis, taking the pill improves their overall epistemic state. So overall the money would improve them rather than hurt them. It's too bad that the Crooks aren't willing to believe the truth for the sake of the truth, but at least the money improves them.
Something similar could happen with Koch money. If, say, libertarianism is true, and the money induces people to be libertarian, then it improves them. If libertarianism is false, nevertheless, it might induce people to move closer to the truth. For instance, maybe it makes leftist academics that it influences a little less overtly racist, a little more open to immigration, a little more in line with mainstream economics, and so on.
Again, it depends on the truth of the ism.
Bullshit Ideas about Academic Freedom
At Wake Forest University, the faculty senate voted to reject the Eudaimonia Institute’s funding on the grounds that it interfered with faculty freedom. To protect academic freedom, the senate demanded discretion over each of the following:
1. Whether the Eudaimonia Institute would be created.
2. Whether and from whom the institute would receive funding.
3. The right to determine whom the institute may hire.
4. The right to decide what the faculty affiliated with the institute may present or publish.[I]
Obviously, if the Senate had gotten its way, this would have destroyed rather than promoted academic freedom. Faculty freedom means not that the faculty as a collective exercises complete authority and control over each individual professor. Rather, it means that the professors do not have to ask permission from other professors about what to write and say. It means the economics and philosophy departments don’t need to ask Marxist studies or English for permission to hire new faculty or publish new books, and vice versa.
Consider an analogy. Suppose billionaire Arnold Cunningham becomes convinced that Mormonism is the correct religion. He pours billions into producing Mormon pamphlets, crafting beautiful and alluring Mormon temples and meetinghouses, funding missionaries, shooting and airing catchy pro-Mormon commercials, and the like. Suppose his efforts pay off and Mormonism soon becomes the fastest growing religion around the world.
Now suppose that all the other churches and religious denominations in, say, the United States get angry. They think Cunningham and his money have a pernicious influence. Accordingly, they get a new law passed which states that any new Mormon meetinghouse, any new Mormon bishops, and any new religious material, pamphlets, missionary work, talks, meetings, and commercials must first be approved by a majority vote of all the other non-Mormon churches, mosques, and temples in the country. Any new money going to Mormon causes must first get their collective approval.
It would be absurd to cast this new law as a law protecting religious freedom. But the senate at Wake Forest seems to think it would count as protecting freedom.
Obvious Double Standards
The Koch Foundation advocates a libertarian or classical liberal ideology. That by itself does not imply it is dogmatic or corrupt, but nevertheless the people at the Koch Foundation have a point of view. They are not interested in advancing Marxism, Keynesian economics, orthodox Rawlsianism, or left-liberalism. Since many academics dislike the libertarian point of view, they conclude that Koch funding is bad, and then rationalize a number of bad arguments to this effect. But what’s intriguing about this is how they do not apply similar standards to their own sources of funding.
For instance, Wake Forest also hosts a number of left-wing, progressive research institutes—e.g., the Pro Humanitae Institute and Anna Julia Cooper Center—which receive funding from various left-wing foundations and sources. The Pro Humanitae Institute’s directors and faculty are not in any obvious way more impressive or accomplished than Jim Otteson, who at the time of the controversy was the director of the Eudaimonia Institute. (Jim has since been hired by Notre Dame, a much better university.) The Pro Humanitae Institute pushes left-wing social justice causes. As far as I can tell from their website, it focuses far more on activism than on scholarship.[i] Indeed, as far as I can tell, it does not focus on scholarship at all; in contrast, the Eudaimonia Institute is research and teaching center with no apparent activist activity. The Anna Julia Cooper Center focuses on “advancing justice through intersectional scholarship”; by its own self-description, scholarship is meant to serve a political outcome.[ii] Even though I publish on social justice issues and have a first rate academic résumé, I doubt they’ll invite me to speak anytime soon. I don’t share their politics, and their website reveals they only invite people with their political viewpoint.[iii]
The faculty at Wake Forest have not caused a stink about these groups. UnKoch My Campus has not demanded these centers be subject to the same scrutiny as the Eudaimonia Institute. No one has signed a petition demanding that the faculty associated with such centers be subject to group control over what they may say, present, teach, and publish. No one, other than a campus conservative magazine, has asked them to disclose their funding or demanded proof that their funders are not interfering with hiring or other decisions.[iv]Oddly, they do not appear to have hired any conservative or libertarian scholars, but no one takes that as evidence that their donors are exercising veto power.
Why the difference in treatment? It’s possible that the well-motivated faculty petitioners at Wake Forest simply overlooked these two centers. It’s also possible that the well-motivated faculty petitioners scrupulously examined how these two left-wing centers were funded, examined how hires were made, and then concluded they were free of any corrupting rules or behaviors. But, there’s no evidence this happened. Rather, most likely, the faculty have not raised concerns about academic freedom simply because the centers push the political agenda of the majority of the faculty.