A major scandal has broken out at George Mason University, and I thought it was important to comment on it. Specifically, see Saturday’s Washington Post story, which reports that – after “a student organization sued seeking greater transparency regarding the school’s ties to private donors, including the prominent and controversial financial backer Charles Koch” – GMU’s president finally admitted “that some financial gift agreements accepted by the school ‘fall short of the standards of academic independence’ and raise questions about donor influence at the public institution.” Also see DONOR INFLUENCE AT GEORGE MASON FINALLY EXPOSED by UnKochMyCampus.org, which has a bunch of disturbing information, including the following (bolded added by me for emphasis):
Documents obtained by alumni and students through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) over the past year and one half reveal that George Mason University’s public law school has been taken over by the conservative Washington DC based Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy. Since April 2016, the Federalist Society has been influencing faculty and student placement, recommending and establishing legal programs, redirecting large amounts of scholarship revenues to support the Law School’s most-politicized centers for the “Study of the Administrative State” and “Liberty and Law,” and even reorienting the Law School’s judicial law clerk program to place “conservative” law students associated with the Federalist Society as clerks to the nation’s judges.
Two years ago, on March 31, 2016, George Mason University announced that as a result of a $20 million donation from an anonymous donor and $10 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation, it was changing the name of the Law School to the Antonin Scalia Law School. This generated intense controversy about renaming a publicly-funded state law school after one of the most ideological and polarizing Supreme Court Justice in history. Accompanying that controversy were concerns about inappropriate influence by an anonymous donor and the Charles Koch brothers who have long exerted control over George Mason and its affiliated Mercatus Center and Institute for Human Studies. Less known outside of legal circles is that Justice Scalia was the founding faculty advisor to the Federalist Society in 1982 and its highest-profile member and frequent speaker for the next 34 years, with four speeches at Federalist Society events in 2015 alone.
So that’s appalling, but sadly not surprising. Here at Blue Virginia, we’ve written repeatedly over the years about GMU, including:
- George Mason: Climate Denial U.?
- Koch-Funded Mercatus Center Embarrasses GMU Yet Again with Laughable Report on “Freedom”
- Thursday Energy Forum at GMU Law School: Fossil Fuel-Funded, Climate-Science-Denying Travesty
- Please Tell Me GMU Law School Is Playing a Really Sick April Fools Joke
- Letter from Virginia State Senators, Delegates Urges State to Reject Renaming GMU Law School After Scalia
- Now That GMU Law is #ASSLAW, “what’s to stop the University of Virginia from calling itself the Coca-Cola University at Charlottesville?”
- New Book Highlights Koch Brothers’ “Deep Ties” to VP Mike Pence, GMU’s Mercatus Center & Institute for Humane Studies
Now, as the Associated Press reported earlier today, we learn that “Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.” That’s right:
The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors, and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.
The Koch foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend a professor’s firing if he failed to live up to standards.
So yeah, that’s completely f’ed up. There’s a lot more sordid detail, both in the AP story and in the UnKochMyCampus.org materials noted above. But the bottom line is that this is – or should be – a major scandal, not just at GMU but also in Virginia’s government, which has basically allowed this crap to go on for years, even as taxpayer money continues to flow to GMU. Grrrr.
By the way, for some excellent background on this situatoin, check out the following interview (see video below) by Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) with Janine Gaspari of UnKochMyCampus.org. According to Gaspari, UnKochMyCampus.org is a national campaign to “try and understand what the Kochs are doing when they donate to universities.” The answer, in short, is that the super-rich, fossil-fuel-industry Kochs are not giving large sums of money out of altruism or philanthropy, but to promote “their own [anti-environment, climate-science-denial, anti-regulation, anti-tax, etc.] political agendas.”
This has, Gaspari explains, been going on since the 1970s, when GMU became its own school. The Kochs recognized that universities have “a lot of clout” and could produce research to bolster the Kochs’ agenda. Which is how there came to be two Koch-funded “think tanks” – the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies – at GMU.
What’s particularly crazy and infuriating about this situation is that, as Gaspari explains, these Koch-supporting “think tanks” are tied to the name of a public university that receives public/taxpayer funds – our money – to de facto promote the Kochs’ agenda. Ultimately, Gaspari adds, this is about how the Kochs – or anyone with billions of dollars – are “able to manipulate the university and…the public for their own interest.” And the Kochs certainly do that, donating over $100 million (documented, through 2005) to GMU alone to influence the university, with “no transparency.” The Mercatus Center, by the way, was instrumental in pushing the recent GOP tax cut for the super rich (like…yeah, the Koch brothers; how convenient). Now here’s the vicious cycle:
What that ends up doing, and I think this is really insidious on the Koch’s part, is when you cut taxes like that well then you’re cutting funds for public universities. And then that opens up the door for universities to be vulnerable to take more money from big donors. And then when they can fund on their own terms and we can’t even see what those terms are because the policies aren’t being enforced or aren’t in place in a really strong way, then it just continues again and again like we’ve seen for the past however many years at George Mason…It’s kind of everywhere …It’s just very important to look at the scope of the Mercatus Center’s influence and that it’s not just another center; it’s a center that receives a lot of money and receives a lot of money from one of our biggest donors at Mason…When you can fund a think tank that really heavily and it’s really influential, it’s going to influence policy.
And it just keeps going. And ultimately what the Kochs want to do is have policies in place that are really beneficial for growing their own wealth or deregulating in general, so that they can for example have more petroleum being extracted to make more products that they want. And it’s just all a design to promote their own wealth; it’s not in the public interest. And George Mason University is playing a huge role in enabling the growth of the Kochs’ wealth, because they are they’re allowing this to happen.
So what the UnKochMyCampus folks did, Gaspari explains, was to file a lawsuit against the university as a last resort – after asking “nicely” starting in 2011 – to get access to this PUBLIC university’s donor agreements with the Koch brothers. Students have also filed FOIAs for eight different donors within the Koch network. Very telling is that GMU’s president, Ángel Cabrera, was asked by students in 2014 at an “Ask Me Anything” meeting about the Koch brothers money, didn’t give a straight answer, then canceled his next “Ask Me Anything” because he “realized that students were on to him” and “got scared off.”
Well, Cabrera had good reason to be scared, as the AP story, Washington Post story, UnKochMyCampus.org documentation, etc. has now clearly shown. Now, let’s just hope – or better yet, demand from our representatives in Richmond – that some good come out of this disgraceful situation.