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The Untouchable $10 Million

It is not unreasonable for a college to turn down a gift, even a very large gift, if that gift comes with conditions that are incompatible with the institution’s mission and priorities.
But a name alone is not a condition. Except, maybe, if that name is Koch.

A faculty member at Brooklyn College says the school recently turned its back on a potential multimillion-dollar grant from the Charles G. Koch Foundation. Mitchell Langbert, who is a professor in the college’s business school, says he had been in discussions with both the college and the foundation about establishing a financial center using the theoretical grant. When the discussions stalled, Langbert asked William Hopkins, the dean of the School of Business, to make a decision on the proposal one way or the other. Hopkins rejected it, saying he needed to focus on securing accreditation for the School of Business instead.

Langbert told The New York Post, “I have never seen a dean not interested in a $10,000 grant, much less a $10 million one.”

The surprising thing is not that the money was turned down, because talks never reached a stage at which the money was actually offered. Jason Carey, a spokesman for Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Education that the college “neither received an offer from, nor submitted a proposal to the Koch foundation for a multimillion-dollar grant at this time.” Since no offer was made, no one knows whether a Koch Foundation grant would have included terms to which the school felt it could not agree.

What is surprising - but only somewhat, given today’s political climate - is that the mere prospect of the substantial grant, which appeared to be real, was not interesting enough to the school’s administrators to be worth pursuing. One might think that the opportunity to get such a large grant would be at least worth taking the time to discover what conditions, if any, might be attached to the offer. Then again, perhaps the business school is truly not interested in teaching its students about matters like entrepreneurship, free enterprise and the generation of profits - all of which are subjects dear to the hearts of Charles and David Koch. That would be a curious position for a business school, but caveat emptor.

It is ironic, though, that in the capital of American capitalism, a business school that is part of the City University of New York evidently does not feel free to even discuss the possibility of using money from the Koch Foundation to further its mission. Ironic, but as noted, only mildly surprising. It is the product of the current political monoculture in New York, in which the party line is Democrat, and that party is currently determined to demonize the Koch brothers however it can.

This situation has occurred elsewhere, too. Many colleges and universities have taken grants from the Koch brothers over the past several decades, and some of these grants have been said to contain terms restricting some instructional materials or requiring others. The potential for such attached strings, when combined with widespread personal disdain for the Kochs among those who oppose their political views, has created a low ignition point for controversy over educational institutions or organizations that decide to accept their gifts.

As a case in point, the United Negro College Fund was recently criticized for accepting $25 million from the Kochs to further its mission of providing educational opportunities to African American students. The gift was one of the largest the organization had ever received, and it immediately generated outspoken reactions, both praise and criticism. Michael Lomax, president of the UNCF, said in an interview that “we recognize that all Americans do not share the same views with one another, but we believe that our cause is a cause that all Americans can and should support regardless of their views on other matters.” The organization’s stance, however, did not prevent critics from questioning UNCF’s integrity and calling the decision “wrong” and “craziness.”

Earlier this year, The Catholic University of America accepted a $1 million grant from the Koch Foundation, and faced similar controversy. The university fought back when some critics, purporting to speak for the theology of the entire Church, said accepting a Koch donation to the university’s business school was incompatible with Catholic teachings. Presumably, these same parties would not have objected to a grant that would have furthered a course in Marxist economics, even with its attendant atheism. In a Wall Street Journal essay responding to the critics’ accusations, the university’s president and the dean of its business school said that they would not accept that “genuinely controversial positions are official church teaching,” and further said that “the groups complaining about the Koch Foundation gift are suggesting a litmus test that neither we nor they would want to apply to other cases.”

It is up to every educational institution to weigh the proposed terms of a suggested grant or other gift. But to refuse to even hear out those terms simply because of the name at the bottom of the check seems shortsighted at best; at worst, it prioritizes toeing the party line over the academic experiences of current and future students. Eventually, if the student experience is sufficiently compromised, the school will notice when application levels begin to drop.

Brooklyn College is entitled to pursue or ignore whatever funding sources it likes, for whatever reasons it chooses. But prospective students might want to take the school’s priorities into account when deciding where to apply. And alumni and other donors may remember the school’s disinterest in the potential $10 million from the Kochs the next time the school tells them how much it values their support.

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2 Responses to "The Untouchable $10 Million"

  • John Bruszewski
    July 16, 2014 - 11:50 pm

    The Kochs don’t give money without expecting a quid pro quo, even if it’s merely an effort to burnish their tarnished image, although it more often involves something more. Brooklyn College should be commended for their ethical stance.

    • Mitchell Langbert
      July 18, 2014 - 1:31 pm

      This is a case of Brooklyn College’s suppression of academic freedom. Political advocacy occurs wherever and whenever the Brooklyn faculty congregate–whether it be the green advocacy of the former departmental chair, his stated refusal to hire anyone ever associated with the military, or the open support for Obama and de Blasio stated casually in various academic settings. I’ve even heard advocacy of communism in inappropriate faculty settings.

      This story has nothing to do with strings attached because none were, all of the proposals were mine. Rather, it was a foregone conclusion that Brooklyn would not accept money that supports my views because my views are unacceptable to the school’s ideology, the ideology of the majority of faculty, who advocate a socialist or social democratic ideology.

      As a libertarian I too am entitled to academic freedom, to input into hiring colleagues, and to building a competent department, that is, to hiring colleagues with whom I can collaborate. I have been denied such academic freedom at Brooklyn. I have been repeatedly suppressed there. When I tried to develop outside resources that support my views–which none of my colleagues, who rely on public tax money to advocate their ideology, have done–I was suppressed once again.

      “Strings attached” is minor red herring to divert attention from the overt intolerance, defamation, and misdemeanor harassment to which I have been subjected at Brooklyn because of my views do not accord with the institution’s ideology.