Activists Target GMU Over Charles Koch Foundation

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Liberal activists have raised alarm bells for the past four years over the funding of universities by the libertarian philanthropist Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch, who head Koch Industries, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative and libertarian grassroots activism and into universities across the country. The Kochs are the boogeyman of the Left, while the Left stays silent about its own wealthy donors, such as George Soros.

In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, liberal student activists and professors formed a group called Transparency GMU and have zeroed in on the Charles Koch Foundation. George Mason University has been the recipient of gifts from the Charles Koch Foundation over the years. In 2016, liberals were enraged when the Charles Koch Foundation gave a gift of $10 million to the law school, named after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The university also received $5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to establish three faculty positions in their economics department and that gift agreement was released to the public.

George Mason University is a public university in the commonwealth of Virginia, and Transparency GMU argued that these donations and agreements should be made public. However, the university pointed out that the George Mason University Foundation made the agreements and those agreements are private agreements between philanthropists and the university foundation, not the public. In an ongoing court case, the university was dismissed from the case, while the George Mason University Foundation remained as the defendant in the lawsuit.

Transparency GMU contended that these agreements are a matter of open and public records, claiming that without this information, foundations could hamper academic freedom due to their gifts and donations. The group also claimed that the George Mason University Foundation is an entity of the university, performs a university function, and manages private funds that qualify as public business. George Mason University Foundation asserted that the foundation is private, is not a part of the public university, and therefore it is not subject to open records laws.

George Mason University spokesman Michael Sandler elaborated on the university’s position, pointing out that philanthropists and donors have the right to request anonymity when they make donations, and the foundation is separate from the public university and so these agreements are private and protected from the public. He added that without philanthropists, universities continue to struggle to find new sources of funding for higher education. George Mason University, said Sandler, “is very fortunate to have a good relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation. The foundation has generously supported the university’s expansion of scholarships, of faculty positions, of programs that help Mason educate more students and hire more faculty.”

Regarding concerns about potential influence from the Charles Koch Foundation, Sandler said that the foundation has been supportive of academic freedom and independence, “Our relationship with the foundation is built on a shared belief in the importance of open inquiry, and all of our gift agreements with our donors, including the Charles Koch Foundation, reflect these values.”

The Charles Koch Foundation, contrary to Transparency GMU’s claims, emphasizes the importance of maintaining an open and free society. The foundation gives grants to a variety of higher education institutions, such as Harvard, Florida State University and MIT. Instead of attacking the foundation, Transparency GMU activists should realize that the foundation focuses on criminal justice and policing reform, free speech, foreign policy, technology and innovation, and removing barriers to economic opportunity; all platforms that tend to be bipartisan politically.