Tyler Cowen, Koch Brothers Funding, Mercatus Center, George Mason University, and Academic Freedom

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

It’s not exactly breaking news to assert that big donors– such as the Koch Brothers– spend money to manipulate public policy. Some expenditures take the form of political contributions, while other funding seeks to shape the production and dissemination of ideas– either through the media or in academia.

Last week, documents released during discovery in a lawsuit filed against George Mason University provide a window into the details of how this influence is exerted. The suit was filed by the activist group Unkoch My Campus, and sought to compel George Mason University (GMU) to release donor agreements, citing Virginia public disclosure laws. Emails and supporting documentation are found here.

Wowsers! Let the games begin.

Antonin Scalia Law School, Federalist Society, Corrupt Admissions Decisions

The NYT (here and here), WaPo, and Truthout each featured coverage last week of the disclosures. I found Truthout most useful for distilling the salient points about donor influence at the recently renamed Antonin Scalia Law School, following a $30 million anonymous donation. I’ll address the law school situation first.

The Truthout account discusses the role of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies– the rightwing organisation that has had an outsize impact on judicial selection for decades, most recently in the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court– in how the law school will use its windfall:

In the newly released emails between Federalist Society leaders, the dean of the law school and other top officials plot out additional ways to use the donation, communicating about a “five-year plan” for the law school and candidates for new professorships, potential students and judicial clerk positions.

So far, really nothing out of the ordinary, this is business as usual for the Federalist Society.  Some further details from the Grey Lady story, What Charles Koch and Other Donors to George Mason University Got for Their Money:

Emails disclosed by the university show that Federalist Society officials were also involved in hiring discussions and had suggested a student for admission. In turn, a professor at the law school wrote the society asking for help securing recommendations for prestigious federal judicial clerkships for students active in the society.

As is far from uncommon in such situations, the problem only arose with the cover-up. When asked by the faculty what conditions applied to this anonymous donation, the provost tried to obfuscate. Over to Truthout:

At a faculty senate meeting on April 6, 2016, George Mason University Provost S. David Wu told faculty and university officials that the donations came with “no strings attached, and the scholarship decisions are made by GMU. The entire $30M is for scholarships for students and nothing else.”

That story may have held– until last week’s document dump. Oops! Truthout again:

The emails between donors and the law school that were disclosed on Monday tell a different story. The emails, which law school alumna Allison Pienta requested and then released through UnKoch My Campus, show Leo and Butler sharing information about faculty hiring, prospective law students, judicial law clerk suggestions, allocation of the grant money and even about faculty taking leave to work in the Trump administration.

We all know this goes on, of course. Does anyone think that these extreme libertarian and right-wing ideas are so widespread because they’re actually better ideas? No, I don’t think so. If you do, I have some old Tsarist bonds I’d like to sell you.

But first, allow me a brief aside: kudos to the people– largely students– who’ve organised to UnKoch their university.  Just like the students responsible for the gun movement, they’re actually trying to change things– rather than throwing up their hands in despair, or capitulating to cynical realism– and saying that’s just the way of the world, folks.

Restricting Academic Freedom: Mercatus and the Economics Faculty

NC is primarily an economics and finance blog, so what I’m most interested in discussing in this post is not the goings on at the law school, but just how donor influence shaped academic hiring and retention decisions, in the economics faculty and at the Mercatus Center, described by WaPo as “a free-market research group that is based at the university but is an independent organization.” In particular, I will note the role of economist and Mercatus Center Director Tyler Cowen in at minimum signing off on these funding agreements with the Kochs and other funders. Cowen is  prominently highlighted in both the press release and underlying supporting documents, but curiously — ahem– absent in both the NYT and WaPo accounts.

These documents show Cowen– in his role as general director of the Mercatus Center– signing off on agreements creating Mercatus Center/Economics Professorships (see, e.g.,2003 Mercatus Smith Chair July 14, 2003;2007 Mercatus Smith/Koch Professorship June 11, 2007; 2007 Mercatus BB&T professorship (Boettke) June 11, 2007; 2007 Mercatus Smith Bastiat Professorship June 11, 2007; 2007 Mercatus BB&T Professorship Leeson (June 11, 2007): 2007 Mercatus Tullock Black Professorship  August 8, 2007; 2007 Mercatus Fullinwider Professorship August 8, 2007; 2009 Mercatus Charles Koch Professorship month unclear/3/9; 2011 Mercatus BB&T Professorship (Boettke)

That these agreements violate standard academic norms was conceded almost immediately after the documents were released in an email GMU president Ángel Cabrera sent to faculty on April 27, 2018:

As a result of a FOIA request, last week I was made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters. The gifts were in support of faculty positions in economics and granted donors some participation in faculty selection and evaluation. Except for the most recent one, these agreements have expired.

The agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions, and all but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures. Yet these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.[ Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Since I arrived at Mason in 2012, I have made it a priority to have all gift agreements clearly uphold our commitment to academic independence. As I have stated before, gifts may be earmarked for programs, scholarships or faculty support, but donors may not determine what is taught, what student is funded, or what professor is hired. If these terms are not acceptable to donors, the gifts are kindly declined.

Two points: first, this is as clear an admission as one could possibly expect from a university president that norms of “academic independence” have been violated at his/her institution.

Second, Cabrera asserts that the problem has been corrected since he arrived at GMU. It’s hard to say whether to credit this denial. The date of the latest disclosed agreement is 2011. Absent access to subsequent agreements, we simply cannot know whether Cabrera is telling us the truth. It’s a cliche but no less true that it’s difficult to prove a negative. In the case of the law school (discussed above), what the provost said the agreements said was simply not true. I suppose we’ll have to wait to see how the litigation plays out before we know whether there will be any more such agreements disclosed.

I’d like to delve a bit further into just exactly how “these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

I’m no expert on the sort of contract. But what leapt out at me was the role allowed for donors on the selection committee– that selected the initial shortlist of candidates; and the advisory committee– whose members were drawn from the selection committee, and who evaluated the professor’s work, and could recommend dismissal. The role of the advisory committee in annually assessing a professor’s work set off screaming alarm bells for me.

Let’s start with selection. Each of the 2007 and 2009 agreements specified:

2. Selection Committee. The Selection Committee shall have five (5) members. The decision-making rule for the Selection Committee shall be majority vote, except in the case of changing or providing additional objectives or requirements, in which case the decision-making rule shall be by unanimous vote. The members of the Initial Selection Committee (i.e., the Selection Committee that chooses an Initial Professor as defined in Section4,infra) will be: the President or Executive Director of Mercatus or the most closely corresponding position, two (2) members designated by the two donors that initiated the challenge, one of whom must be a member of the GMU faculty, the Chair of the GMU department where it is anticipated the Professor will receive the majority or all of his appointment, and one (1) member of the same department, to be designated by the department Chair. In addition to the Selection Committee, candidates will also interview with specific members of Mercatus staff appointed by Mercatus General Director (2007 Mercatus Smith/Koch Professorship June 11, 2007; [Jerri-Lynn here. My emphasis.I’m quoting here from one of the agreements I linked to above. The other 2007 and 2009 agreements are similar– if not identical.]

Boiling this down “two donors that initiated the challenge” means the donors– the challenge the agreement refers to is the fundraising goal. This agreement gives the donor control over two out of five members who do the initial selection of  the candidate.  Now, it may be true, that the final selection is done according to the normal academic norms of the institution. But by then, the fix would have been in, and the selection committee would have enormous influence over who was ultimately elected– simply by virtue of being allowed to make the initial selection.

Now for more interesting stuff.  Okay, so the donor selects the candidate. Suppose that candidate keeps his or her head down, and waits until s/he’s appointed to pursue academic inquiries, without fear or favour. How would the donor exercise subsequent control over the professor’s work?

I’m glad you asked.

Section 4 of the agreement specifies just exactly how an advisory committee– comprised of a subset of that selection committee with two donor-approved members–  will post facto sign off on the professor’s work, as laid out below.

4. Advisory Board. An Advisory Board shall be created and made up of three members of the selection committee to be appointed by the Mercatus executive director to receive an annual summary of the activities, accomplishments, and expenditures of the Professorship and to review the administration of the agreement and a budget and plan for the subsequent academic year. In doing so, it shall have the right to:

  • Consult with the Selection Committee or the Mercatus Center or the grantor regarding the qualifications of candidates for the Professorship;
  • Discuss with the Grantees and their representatives/affiliates, their administrative officers or trustees, the appointment of an occupant of the Professorship and any other matters relating to carrying out the purposes for which the Professorship is established;
  • Ensure compliance with the terms of this agreement through appropriate administrative or legal channels;
  • Make periodic assessments of the Professor’s performance and/or activities; and
  • Make a determination (based on the individual’s performance or otherwise) that the professor filling the Professorship is no longer qualified to do so, and upon this determination will submit in writing to GMU and to Mercatus a recommendation that the professor be removed from the Professorship (2007 Mercatus Smith/Koch Professorship).

The Advisory Board shall have no authority or control, either directly or indirectly over the administration of the Professorship or the selection of the occupant of the Professorship except through its determination of an occupant’s continued qualification to fill the professorship and shall only act as a body that has a continuing interest in seeing that the terms and conditions of this agreement and the obligations of Mercatus, GMU and their representatives/affiliates are carried out..

In Uncovering Koch Role in Faculty Hires, Inside Higher Ed identifies in precisely what respect these agreements are unusual (to say the least):

It is of course common for donors who support professorships to specify the academic field or subfield. So while the Koch family’s extensive giving to antiregulatory causes in politics is controversial, it is not necessarily controversial that they fund professorships in economics and even free-market economics. But academic values have long held that donors don’t get to pick who holds chairs, or evaluate them.

Indeed. I have nothing to add so I won’t make this post any longer than it needs to be.

The Bottom Line

For the last word in what’s at stake here, let me turn again to the WaPo account, quoting a GMU professor:

“It’s now abundantly clear that the administration of Mason, in partnership with the Mercatus Center and private donors, violated principles of academic freedom, academic control and ceded faculty governance to private donors,” said Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason.

Letiecq, who is president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she was bothered by language that indicated donors had power in faculty hiring and a voice in decisions about whether professors remain at the school.

“These are all gross violations of academic freedom,” she said. “Faculty hiring and faculty retention are not the business of donors, in any way, shape or form.”

To answer this question, permit me to turn to Letiecq again:

But Letiecq, the George Mason professor, said faculty members have been pushing Cabrera for information for years, trying to figure out whether academic freedoms were being violated at the school.

“And now we clearly understand that they were,” she said. “And so, the next question is, what are they going to do about it?”

That, my friends, is the question.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. allan

    The Advisory Board shall have no authority or control, either directly or indirectly over the administration of the Professorship or the selection of the occupant of the Professorship except through its determination of an occupant’s continued qualification to fill the professorship …

    It seems Mercatus misspelled “political commissars” as “Advisory Board”.

  2. IowanX

    Thanks writing about this, Jerri-Lynn. In today’s Links, Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education shows just exactly the kind of “scholarship” one gets when donors select the professors. The long-form version of this is described in a book I cannot recommend highly enough, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”, by historian Nancy McLean.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for highlighting that connection. I don’t known the McLean book, but I will try to find a copy.

  3. readerOfTeaLeaves

    Weirdly, this post made me think of the Koch Funding at George Mason Univ as a kind of academic-political AIDS. A perfectly good system is taken down because the original ‘instructions’ for the system, which functioned to maintain immunity (i.e., academic credibility) become impaired. It’s a deeply sinister process, but the AIDS virus is very good at ‘hiding’ its lethality, until the system becomes so impaired that it cannot maintain itself.

    Allow me to clarify —

    When AIDS was first discovered and running rampant, a lot of people were confused about what caused it. Haitians? Gays? This mis-attribution failed to stop the biological rampage.

    The best explanation of AIDS that I’ve ever encountered was in a conversation with someone in medicine, who said, “If the photocopier had not been invented, I’m not sure we’d have been able to think about what the AIDS virus was doing…. If you think of a photocopier, it takes a photo of an image and reproduces it. We will call that the ‘instruction original’, as all other things follow from that original, biologically robust, copy. To get more copies of ‘instructions’, you just add a new print cartridge and more paper. But now imagine that the ‘copy’ is able to somehow overwrite the original instructions — creating a new set of (error-riddled) instructions, so that it is reproducing (bad, faulty) copies endlessly. That’s what happens with AIDS. The rogue instructions overwrite the originals, and the body fails to recognize the bad copies, and so cannot protect itself, and therefore falls prey to rogue processes.”

    When I read this post, I think of George Mason Univ as an immune system that has been so impaired by ‘overwriting’ the basic tenets of academic freedom and inquiry as to be the academic equivalent of an AIDS patient.

    When academic rigor, solid systems of peer review, and merit-based promotion are all inherent in a system, you have a fairly robust immune process that can catch ideologues, slackers, shills, and cowards at numerous points in the process.

    What George Mason Univ appears to have done is taken money and ideology (i.e., bad instructions) and basically they’ll end up spewing out one tragic error after another.

    So now, when I think Tyler Cowan, I will think, “Oh, right. He’s like the economic equivalent of blaming Haitians and gays for AIDS. It might be emotionally satisfying, and he’s pretty good at dreaming up targets to blame, but he’ll never, ever be able to get to the roots of our economic problems.”

    FWIW, I associate Cowan as blaming NIMBY’s for America’s economic woes. I find his thinking to be a simplistic, solipsistic reaction to those of us who value community and abhor the way that ‘free market’ b.s., topped off by sanctimonious dismissal of those of us who are increasingly convinced that tax havens, tax cuts, and tax policies — by giving a ‘pass’ to any sort of social responsibility — seriously impair the quality of communities, and by extension the quality of life.

    Thanks, NC, for yet another amazing post.
    This one made my head spin.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        I had not realized that at all.
        Mama mia.

        I don’t think that is going to help the economy 8^\

      2. sgt_doom

        Interesting point, and to add to this discussion . . .

        If you look at the membership lists (online last time I checked) of the Bretton Woods Committee (brettonwoods.org), essentially an lobby group for the international super-rich, although some would disagree with me — this bunch ONLY lobbies the speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, not the usual riff-raff — you will find various academics spread throughout American academica. This is no coincidence.

        The Bretton Woods Committee, some years back was the last time I checked, used the same office and lobbyist in D.C. as the Group of Thirty, the lobbyist group for the central bankers (group30.org).

        This stuff has been going on forever . . .

  4. JohnnyGL


    Real News interviews Bill Black on this. I’d post from the Real News page, but they either don’t have it up or it’s inadvertently buried.

    Anyway, Prof Black makes the point that the Koch’s have absolute discretion when it comes to pulling their donations and can do it at a moment’s notice for any reason. He argues this means they’ve got ultimate veto power over George Mason administration decisions.

  5. Ed Walker

    Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, says that the basis of the cultural capital of academics is their ability to reproduce their class by control of admissions to education and the training itself. He says that cultural power is the only potential adversary of total domination by economic capital. This is a clear example of economic capital beating the stuffing out of cultural capital and seeking to bring it under control. For interested readers check out David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

    1. chuck roast

      And reproduce they do at my olde alma mater. Just a simple land grant university churning out little neoliberal shoe-shine boys.
      I used to give a small chunk of change annually to a scholarship in the Economics Department. The scholarship was named after a much admired social activist professor who was trained at Chicago and was your standard back-in-the-day-Keynesian.
      The Department began offering two different Bachelor of Science in Economics degrees. I found this to be mildly annoying and on another level an extremely presumptuous exercise in magical thinking. In an effort to stop the snickering of the rest of the Humanities faculty, and demonstrate a modicum humility, I recommended that the Economics Department develop a course in Economic Anthropology.
      It was explained to me that the Department was simply trying to meet market demand, and my idea while laudable was not very marketable.
      No more change for the future scientists.

  6. divadab

    The amazing thing to me is how cheap these Koch fellows and others buy a great deal of influence. Consider the donation of $30 million – an apparently enormous sum – and it is compared to GMU’s endowment which totals $85 million. However, with 35,000 students, total federally-funded fee revenues are in the $700 million range. SO those crazy Kochs have gotten $700 million of federal money working for them for less than a 5% investment – very crafty.

    They think that they have a perfect right to appoint professors – it’s their money paying them. But they also claim to be against government funding of anything while making vast partisan use of federally-funded resources. It’s good that at least nominally GMU is making it harder for the Kochs and amigos to buy GMU for their political use and machinations of control. As ideological substantiation. As a cadre of influence in many circles of power. However, we can already see with the execrable Citizens United ruling how this movement has corrupted the Supreme Court.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      It’s good that at least nominally GMU is making it harder for the Kochs and amigos to buy GMU for their political use and machinations of control.

      I’m not sure I agree. As the post notes, TPTB at GMU are completely at home with the Kochs and the Koch ideology and have no interest in making it harder for the Kochs to exercise this influence. I think what happened in this case is that the Kochs staked out an aggressive negotiating position in their donor proposal and the GMU people were so completely aligned that they forgot not to violate academic norms and simply approved the Koch proposal. I would be interested to see if anyone could find a single professor supported with a nickel of Koch money anywhere across this land (the Kochs fund A LOT of professorships and research centers including here at my local Big 10) that is not completely aligned with their worldview.

  7. Left in Wisconsin

    first, this is as clear an admission as one could possibly expect from a university president that norms of “academic independence” have been violated at his/her institution…it is not necessarily controversial that they fund professorships in economics and even free-market economics.

    I think is a situation where a slightly worse than normal case of the normal corruption gets outed. I don’t think anyone that pays attention to Koch-influence and the role of GMU and Mercatus is at all surprised by this. Perhaps the worst thing to note about this case, that Jerri-Lynn doesn’t emphasize, is that GMU is a public university supported In part) by the taxpayers of Virginia.

    The notion that a donor can fund a professorship in “free market economics” as if that was a subfield rather than a political disposition is completely ludicrous. Yet so long as they refrain from (directly) hiring or firing the professor all is fine.

    Here at the local bastion of “sifting and winnowing,” the Kochs have recently funded a recent center in the economics department. I dug out the paperwork. The underlying proposal is signed by, and thus purportedly authored by, the chair of the economics department and it says in no uncertain terms that the chair is ultimately responsible for hiring the person to head up the center. (Shock of shocks, the appointee was the one explicitly Koch-identified professor in the department.) What is interesting is that in this document signed by the chair, there are a couple of misplaced “I”s, like where it speaks of potential future research in the language of “I propose to do this and this,” clearly written by the (expected) future chair holder. But the proposal was nonetheless approved by the economics department, applied economics department, three other existing research centers also doing applied economic research, the relevant dean and the chancellor. Every collective approval was unanimous – not a single voice of dissent.

    The U.S. university is a deeply compromised institution at this point in time. (No doubt always was but always worth pointing out specifics.)

  8. antidlc

    I came across this…

    The Naveen Jindal School of Management at UT Dallas has launched a new program to help students gain a better understanding of the American free enterprise system.

    The Colloquium for the Advancement of Free-Enterprise Education (CAFÉ) teaches Jindal School students the foundations of economic freedom and the function of ownership rights — and how this affects business practices.

    The program is jointly funded by a grant of up to $840,000 from a local donor — a UT Dallas graduate who wishes to remain anonymous — and the Charles Koch Foundation,
    a charitable organization that supports scholarship in pressing issues such as criminal justice and policing reform, toleration and free speech, foreign policy, economic freedom, technology and innovation and K-12 education.

  9. voteforno6

    I saw a couple of older men at a baseball game this past weekend, wearing anti-Koch buttons. There were very clear at how upset they were. A current student of GMU mentioned it as well. So, this has definitely gotten traction with the student body & alums.

  10. KLG

    For a look at the poor man’s Koch Brothers co-option of academia, use “BB&T Center for” as your query at Duck Duck Go. Seems to be mostly in the South where they do fund “Centers” for this and that. I seem to remember some commotion about their contribution/meddling at Florida State. My favorite might be “BB&T Center for Undergraduate Research in Public Policy and Capitalism.” Get ’em early! Nice pictures of Ludwig and Friedrich and quotes from Smith and Keynes…

  11. The Rev Kev

    I gotta say that there is one aspect that is intriguing me about this story on George Mason University. I think that it is obvious that the Koch mob just did not run into the place and making it rain with money like at a cheap bar. I would say that they used people that were trained in intelligence work to map out George Mason University – note their table of organization, their by-laws, gather files on the staff and the procedures used, etc. This would enable them to target those positions that they would need to take over, work out where donated funds, funding agreements & grants with strings attached would be most effective, sort which committees they would need to dominate and so on. As there are other universities that the Koch organization are targeting, I would assume a standard operational manual exists for the basic procedures with detailed planning for each and every institute to attack. I wonder if the RICO laws apply here?

  12. Skip Intro

    Name and Shame: The names of professors and students who were corruptly injected into the academic system should be published, and those individuals subjected to appropriate scrutiny as cheaters and shills.

  13. Indian Jones

    O my goodness. A capitalist conspiracy! Yet, think of all the compradors who must be on board – how implicitly have they channeled their concern? Do many struggle with their consciences or mask their persecution by the capitalist Stazi?

    If capitalists rig “free” markets, why wouldn’t they make mockery of academic freedom? Doesn’t this hypocrisy thrive because the capitalist “faithful” are deeply demoralized, fearful, and corrupted?

    Is it hard to keep such a crew from mutiny?

  14. John

    It has been clear that GMU and the Mercatus Center have been Wingnut University in Virginia for a long time. It is rewarding to hear that some of the students finally want to do something about it. The Kochs should just fund their own university of bad ideas but I guess that using $30 million to parasitize a $700 million host is just basic predator capitalism.

Comments are closed.