George Mason faculty wants disclosure of Koch agreements

The Charles Koch Foundation donates millions every year to the Virginia university. The faculty senate has formally requested transparency on the influence the foundation wields in regard to hiring and firing decisions.

Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle/AP/File
Charles Koch speaks in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita, Kan. 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. (The Wichita Eagle via AP)

The faculty senate at Virginia's largest university has formally asked the school to disclose donor agreements after revelations that some gift arrangements gave the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of some professors.

The senate at George Mason University has for years been debating academic independence and raising questions about the school's relationship with the foundation, which donates millions of dollars annually to George Mason.

On Wednesday it passed a resolution calling for all gift agreements to be published in a permanent online database for public review within 30 days of their enactment. If donors request anonymity their identities can be redacted.

Another resolution calls for two faculty members to be appointed to a gift-acceptance committee that would review deals to ensure they maintained the school's academic independence.

Last week the school released some agreements under a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents showed the Koch Foundation enjoyed the right to appoint members of a selection committee that could recommend professors for appointment at the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The donors' appointees could also serve on an advisory board that had the power to recommend dismissal from Mercatus if a professor failed to meet standards.

It would be up to the school administration to enact any faculty senate resolution. University spokesman Michael Sandler said school President Angel Cabrera has met with the senate to discuss these issues and wants to work to address their concerns.

"Obviously we'll take a look" at the resolutions, Sandler said.

For years Cabrera had told faculty and students that the agreements with the Koch Foundation did not inhibit academic freedom in any way. After the release of the documents, Cabrera acknowledged that they fall short of the school's standards for academic independence. He has ordered a review of all donor agreements at the school.

On Thursday the School's board of visitors adopted a resolution saying that while it "values the generosity of the many donors" who support the university, it endorses Cabrera's decision to review all donor agreements. The board's resolution directs Cabrera to include two members of the visitors' board to participate on the review committee, along with faculty and students. It also calls for the review "to engage independent, external experts."

Both George Mason and the Koch Foundation say that more recent grant agreements do not contain the problematic provisions included in the older agreements.

The George Mason University Foundation is fighting the release of other agreements. A judge heard arguments last week on whether the deals are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. He has not yet ruled.

Bethany Letiecq, president of the American Association of University Professors at GMU, said she and many others had long suspected that the agreements with the Koch Foundation contained provisions that ceded some level of academic influence, but the administration's forceful denials over the years had muted the debate. Now that the documents have been exposed, she said faculty and students are energized to seek changes.

"People are very concerned," she said, adding that the changes suggested by the faculty senate are a step toward restoring trust with the administration.

"Without these changes, where are we? We are a university that can be sold to the highest bidder," she said.

The Koch Foundation gives money to hundreds of universities to across the nation. But its ties to George Mason are among its oldest and most extensive. The university in Fairfax County outside the nation's capital has developed a reputation as a conservative powerhouse in law and economics.

The relationship received increased scrutiny in 2016 when George Mason named its law school for conservative jurist Antonin Scalia in conjunction with a $10 million Koch Foundation donation.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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