Can Koch money hijack academia?
By Alberto Mingardi
It is one thing to expose people for their donations…and quite another to show that such donations resulted in the hiring of unworthy teachers and researchers.
The UnKochMyCampus movement has been big news lately, mostly because old Koch Foundation’s agreements with George Mason University were disclosed. Don Boudreaux has written a forceful note on the subject. Don basically asks the Kochs’ challengers to measure their allegations against the benchmark of academic standards. This is a sensible request: it is one thing to expose people for their donations (wait a minute, didn’t we want rich people to donate to universities?), and quite another to prove that such donations resulted in the hiring of unworthy teachers and researchers.
The New York Times has devoted a long piece to the issue, aiming to explain what the Kochs “got for their money”.
In that piece we read that the Kochs’ donations to campuses are “estimated at nearly $150 million from 2005 to 2015, benefiting more than 300 schools”.
This would mean an average of $500,000 per school over 10 years.
If “an estimated $50 million of that went to George Mason” (or so the article writes), this would mean that the other schools received an average of $334,000 over ten years; that is a staggering $33,400 a year per school.
Just a quick comparison. In the social sciences, the average ERC grant in Europe is 1.5 million euros over five years. It’s true that that is to finance research, with an explicit prohibition of using the money to hire faculties. But that comes, nonetheless, with the possibility of hiring research assistants and younger scholars, who are just starting to make their waves in academia.
Sure this is not a comparison we can make much of. But it’s just to give you a sense of the magnitude. It is also perhaps worth noting that, where GMU is concerned, total assets were $1.6 billion in 2017 and GMU’s 2018 total budget is projected to be $1.0 billion. So, assuming that the GMU budget has been steadily rising, its total over those 10 years was likely over $5 billion. Let’s see: $50 million is 1% of $5 billion. Is that significant? Yes. Is it huge? Not really. Like the Kochs or hate them, it doesn’t seem they’re committing so many resources that the academic establishment should be worried that it has been hijacked.