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On Academic Freedom and External Funding

06/13/2011

This has been in my "drafts" file for a while, and I decided to go ahead and post it now that some of the initial fury has died down and since I read this post by Steve Horwitz on how, apparently, some organizations that have received funding from AT&T are explicitly endorsing AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile. You might have heard about the controversy surrounding the Koch Foundation's decision to fund faculty positions at Florida State University and elsewhere.

Here's FSU professor Randall Holcombe--the subject of a Mises Institute Faculty Spotlight--discussing the controversy. The Koch Foundation defends itself here. Robert Lawson, an FSU PhD and another subject of a Mises Institute Faculty Spotlight, discusses the matter here. In September, I wrote a post comparing the funding available from the Kochs to the funding available from government sources.

A few minutes with The Google turned up "Labor Centers" at several schools (Berkeley, UCLA, Iowa, Washington, UMass-Amherst, UMass-Dartmouth, Wayne State, and Michigan; there are probably others, but I didn't spend much time searching) that have explicit pro-union missions. The Labor Center at the University of Iowa, for example, has a Labor Advisory Committee comprised of labor union officials who will

meet with Labor Center staff and UI Division of Continuing Education representatives at least twice a year to review Labor Center activities, to evaluate proposals for course offerings and teaching innovations developed by Labor Center instructors, and to suggest and discuss relevant research projects.

Scholars and journalists looking for projects might want to look into how, exactly, involvement in higher ed by organizations like BB&T and Koch differs from involvement by labor unions. Is one objectionable but not the other? Are both objectionable? Why or why not? It is important to note that possible corruption is not probable corruption. Some of my recent research projects have been supported by Rhodes College's Mike Curb Institute for Music and grants from the Rhodes College Faculty Development Endowment. I also administer a grant from the Koch Foundation for student programming, some of my professional travel has been paid for by Koch Foundation grants, and I have received honoraria for lectures sponsored by Koch Foundation grants at a number of colleges and universities.

I've gotten about as much pressure from the Koch Foundation to bias my research in a direction they find favorable as I've gotten from the Curb Institute and the College's Faculty Development Endowment. In other words, I've gotten none.

Here's a scenario. Suppose I'm in charge of a hiring committee someday for a Koch-funded position and write the following hypothetical email: Me: "Thank you, Koch Foundation, for offering to fund a new faculty position in our department. We have decided to make an offer to E. Lee Commons. He would be a great hire as his path-breaking work in eugenic business cycle theory suggests that recessions are caused by an over-representation of the defective races and classes in a country's labor market. His work also has clear policy implications: specifically, programs of systematic removal from the superior population and forced sterilization for members of these defective races and classes."

Here, I would be asking the Koch Foundation to fund a faculty member whose research has potentially genocidal implications that are clearly and completely at odds with both the Foundation's mission "to advance social progress and well-being through the development, application, and dissemination of the Science of Liberty(TM)" and, for that matter, the mission of Rhodes College as I interpret it. What would be the appropriate response from the Koch Foundation? Is academic freedom compromised if the Foundation says "we won't fund this"? On a smaller scale, what if we wanted to use our Koch Foundation grant to bring Professor Commons in to give a lecture on Eugenic Business Cycle Theory? What is the proper response? Would they compromise academic freedom if they said "you can't use our money to support this and will need to find another source of funding"? What are the right responses when the intellectual and moral character of the research is less obvious, like minimum wages, international trade, population control, pollution, etc? Would academic freedom be compromised if the Koch Foundation refused to fund a position for or a lecture by someone who is of the view that "peak oil" is upon us and that population control is necessary if we are to prevent mass starvation?

Update, 7:17 PM: As the FSU controversy was unfolding, a contact from the Koch Foundation asked me to write something about my relationship with the Foundation. I had already done so and was already planning to post this (indeed, most of the text of this post is from comments I made on a Facebook thread). The request had nothing attached to it and made no difference as I had written on the previous controversy and was planning to write something anyway, but I figured I should mention it in the interests of maximum transparency.

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Contact Art Carden

Art Carden is assistant professor of economics, Brock School of Business, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

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