How Charles Koch Is Buying Credibility With Academic Investments

Lambert here: Trust the science! Except when it’s bought and paid for, of course.

By Tom Perrett, a researcher and contributor at DeSmogBlog. He has a long standing interest in environmentalism and political ecology, having undertaken a research project on degrowth for the Schumacher Institute. Originally published at DeSmogBlog.

In 1996, Richard Fink, an executive at Koch Industries and a top advisor to Charles Koch, outlined a three-tiered strategy for getting the petrochemical industrialist’s free-market ideas out into the world: through academia, think tanks, and activists’ organizations. Fink described the first tier of this “structure of social change” strategy as “investment in intellectual raw materials” and the “exploration and production of abstract concepts and theories” that academia would develop.

Nearly two and a half decades later, Koch influence in the academic sphere is far ranging. Koch money funds individual courses, professorships, fellowships, and even energy research and policy programs, like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. These centers represent significant investments in the “intellectual raw materials” of free-market advocacy.

According to Samantha Parsons of UnKoch My Campus, a group working to remove the Koch influence in higher education, there are at least 40 centers at prominent American colleges and universities that are funded directly by the Koch donor network. Three of the most prominent examples are described below.

George Mason University: The Epicenter of Koch Academic Influence

Billionaire Charles Koch has focused more resources on George Mason University (GMU) than any other school, and the relationship goes back decades. As far back as 1990, entities controlled by Charles and David Koch were given posts on a committee to choose candidates for a professorial position. An analysis of tax records by the Associated Press discovered that between 2011 and 2014, the Charles Koch Foundation gave $48 million to GMU, and then a subsequent $10 million donation in 2016 to rename their law school after conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.

According to Parsons of UnKoch My Campus, an economics professor had used a textbook called Global Warming and other Eco Myths, telling students that if they wanted to debate climate change, they should leave and not come back.

Another GMU professor, Walter Williams, stated in 2014 that it would take “idiocy” to believe that man made climate change could overpower the forces of nature, according to a Greenpeace report. Williams also mentored Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries who served as the first president for the Koch-funded group Americans For Prosperity. Williams has written for Fox Business, denouncing “wild predictions about climate doom” and asserting that after investing in fighting climate change, “we’ll be much poorer and less free.” And in an article for the Deseret News, he wrote that “man-made global warming, for many, is an Earth-worshipping religion.”

That’s just in the economics department. George Mason University also hosts the Mercatus Center, a conservative public policy think tank, which has routinely opposed attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions and was established by Charles Koch and Richard Fink. The Institute of Humane Studies, once described by Mother Jones as “a haven for climate change deniers,” is also a fixture of GMU. It is chaired by Charles Koch.

Utah State University: Blurring Private Enterprise With Public Education

In May 2017, the Charles Koch Foundation announced plans to donate $25 million to Utah State University. The primary purpose of this donation was to establish the Center for Growth and Opportunity, whose faculty have supported the privatization of public lands and environmental deregulation. Researchers at UnKoch My Campus and the Center for Biological Diversity discovered that the Center for Growth and Opportunity would have the veto authority over the hiring of six new faculty members.

The influence of Koch funding at Utah State is clear. Strata Policy, a Koch-funded think tank, has published research that overlaps with those of academics at Utah State, and the center and Strata share some personnel. Strata’s own press releases have acknowledged the symbiotic connection between the two institutions.

A few examples illustrate the symbiosis; none better than that of Randy Simmons.

Simmons is a faculty member at Utah State University, the executive director of the university’s Institute for Political Economy (IPE), and also the president of Strata. Simmons publicly denies Koch involvement in the affairs of Utah State, but IPE, the free-market center housed at the university, is intimately connected with Strata. For example, the professors who wrote a 2015 Strata report opposing renewable energy in Kansas were the same voices behind a 2016 report opposing renewable energy policy in Pennsylvania.

The 2016 Pennsylvania report, co-authored by Simmons, argued that Renewable Portfolio Standards in Pennsylvania were “counterproductive and contradictory” and that states adopting these standards for minimum levels of renewable power saw a 14 percent drop in electricity sales. Strata and IPE have collaborated extensively since, as in 2017, they launched a failed attempt to revoke North Carolina’s renewable energy policy. This example indicates the reach of Koch funding on a state level, and in important debates about the future of environmental policy. It suggests academia can provide a veneer of expertise that allows the vested interests of industrialists and fossil fuel magnates to masquerade as evidence-based conclusions, in line with Fink’s “social change” strategy.

In another instance in 2015, Strata won a contract to promote the “Transfer of Public lands Act,” an attempt to privatize Utah’s public land. This bill was originally co-sponsored by then-Representative David Butterfield, who was also on the board of Strata.

Dr. Michael Giberson, currently Associate Professor in the area of Energy, Commerce and Business at Texas Tech University, has collaborated extensively with Stata. He authored a 2019 study entitled, “The Consumer’s Interest in Reforming West Virginia’s Power Industry,” which advocated for the deregulation of West Virginia’s power system. Before working at Texas Tech, Giberson was employed at GMU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science.

The Institute for Energy Research (IER) commissioned a 2013 study Giberson co-authored, “Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates,” in which he denounced clean energy and alternatives to fossil fuels as costly and unworkable, claiming that subsidizing wind power shifts costs onto the taxpayer, paying for turbines outside the states where they live. Giberson asserted that the low prices of renewable energy mean that smaller providers are unable to turn a profit, meaning that only those providers who qualify for subsidies are viable. IER, which puts out reports and analysis critiquing renewable energy and emissions reductions, is a nonprofit whose predecessor organization had direct ties to Charles Koch. Today the group has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Koch family foundations.

George Washington University and the Regulatory Studies Center

Another organization with significant Koch ties is George Washington University and its Regulatory Studies Center (RSC). Despite claiming to be an unbiased and objective analyst of regulatory policy, an evaluation of the center’s public output reveals almost unanimous support of deregulation. For example, between 2013 and 2018, 96 percent of public comments submitted to government agencies by RSC writers recommended less regulation than currently existed, according to an analysis by consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen and UnKoch My Campus. Additionally, 75 percent of public comments submitted by the RSC in this period were written by authors with past or present connections to Koch foundations, including director Susan Dudley.

Aside from Koch foundations, GWU’s Regulatory Studies Center has accepted funds from oil companies, lawyers, and anti-regulatory strategists to advocate for limited government. Susan Dudley is a self-proclaimed “free market environmentalist,” having argued that smog should be valued, as it could blot out the sun and mitigate the effects of skin cancer.

RSC authors with past or present Koch ties have been affiliated with at least 28 Koch-funded organizations, including the Mercatus Center at GMU. Both the Charles Koch Foundation and the libertarian Searle Freedom Trust Foundation, as well as the Exxon Mobil Foundation, have each donated over $1 million to the RSC. This led Taylor Lincoln, author of a Public Citizen report which accused the center of right-wing bias and the deliberate promotion of a deregulatory agenda, to describe the RSC as “the Fox News of the regulatory policy world, except it still clings to the fiction that it is fair and balanced.”

This level of Koch funding in academia and think tanks has broader implications for policy implementation, as state governments routinely rely on the state university systems to provide independent analyses of issues before the legislature and agencies, and advocacy groups use academic findings to bolster lobbying and public campaigns.

And as Fink laid out nearly 25 years ago, these investments in academia are the foundation for society-wide structural change.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. LowellHighlander

    This, to me, constitutes another compelling reason for taxation (progressive taxation, to be sure): states’ underfunding of their public universities tempts administrators to invite the superwealthy to “donate” to their respective universities. Needless to say, the private donations will come with strings attached. And thus, the independence and objectivity of research conducted at public institutions (here, state universities) are corrupted.

    Yet another reason why governments (i.e. Federal and State) must re-assert their taxing authorities on the superwealthy.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I’ll tack on another reason to tax the superwealthy — super heavily. There is no reason that any one person should have the kind of power that superwealth confers.

  2. jackiebass

    Republicans are better than democrat at doing thing to help their cause. This is a great example. These kind of things get little press. Another examples is the census and how voting districts are drawn. Before the last census republicans put their efforts control state governments. A big reason is states determine voting districts and controlling state government means they could Gerrymander to their advantage. During the same time democrats focused on electing the president. Democrats seem to lack the vision for the future.

    1. Barbara Piper

      Being good at fraud is not the same as being good.

      And if you believe that Democrats lack a vision for the future you simply haven’t been paying attention.

  3. Off The Street

    Between Charles Koch on campus, and elsewhere, and Bill Gates in newsrooms, and elsewhere, how is the average person to believe anything anymore, even disclaimers? The role of dedicated independent researchers, bloggers and concerned citizens has never been more important.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Which is why this blog exists. And, Off The Street, we’re glad you’re here. Likewise, all others who are part of the best commentariat on the Internet.

      1. Off The Street

        Thanks, and glad I found it as I get so much inspiration from you and other commenters and columnists. Saving up for another contribution.

  4. Chris Herbert

    All of this was laid out by Lewis Powell in a 1971 confidential memorandum to Eugene Sydnor Jr., an executive at the US Chamber of Commerce. Called the Powell Manifesto, the memorandum recommended a ‘roadmap’ for business to take control of universities, think tanks, the Judiciary and eventually the government. President Nixon nominated Powell to the US Supreme Court in 1971, after he had written the now infamous memo. “The memo was circulated within Chamber of Commerce circles and became public after Powell’s confirmation to the court, when journalist Jack Anderson unearthed it to question Powell’s judicial temperament. After that, it seems to have been forgotten.

    Today, though, the Powell Memo is routinely invoked as the blueprint for virtually all of the conservative intellectual infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s — “a memo that changed the course of history,” in the words of one analysis of the anti-environmental movement; “the attack memo that changed America,” in another account.

    1. Noone from Nowheresville

      Not just conservative intellectual infrastructure. The professional management and credentialed class represented by the dems have been using it too.

  5. DTK

    There’s also the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics (which is in the list of supported colleges). The Institute uses money from the Kochs and John Schnatter (Poppa John’s pizza). Current research includes Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19: Evidence from Six Large Cities and Chain Restaurant Calorie Posting Laws, Obesity, and Consumer Welfare.

  6. Kirk Seidenbecker

    The legal origins of this behavior stem from Dartmouth College v Woodward in 1819. This had established that Boards of trustees were self-perpetuating and unaccountable.

  7. Mummichog

    There is a wonderful website Corporate Research Project
    which details the criminal convictions and civil settlement histories of American Corporations. Too bad there is not a similar site, University Research Project, which would do the same thing for academia. I imagine such a site would be very revealing.

    For instance, at esteemed MIT, the MIT Media Lab received donations from Jeffrey Epstein.
    Other reports I have read indicated that this involvement may have concerned eugenics at Epstein’s New Mexico property.

    Apparently, at these Universities, there are Firewalls (like on corrupt Wall Street) so that Departments are separated from each other. If true, you would think we would be hearing a lot of outrage from the Ethics Departments at these Universities. But, rather, we have deafening silence.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      There is a group which makes illustrative diagram-maps of the connected nodes of power in various areas. It is called LittleSis. I suppose it lives on donations. Perhaps it has a listing of every Koch-funded academic endeavor. Perhaps it could be asked to create one. Anyway, here is the link.

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