David Brock Response to Koch Attacks

Over the last two weeks, the Koch brothers have gone on the offensive, attacking critics — like American Bridge 21st Century, the progressive group I lead — for holding the groups they back accountable for attempts to spread misinformation about climate change and manipulate our public universities. The simple truth of the matter, however, is that we exposed them and clearly hit a nerve.

Recently, we saw the Koch-backed Heartland Institute — a known peddler of climate skepticism — attack us through an editorial on their website. Why did they attack us? Because we called them out for spreading misinformation about climate change and attacking Pope Francis for urging action to address it.

On May 26, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by John Hardin, the director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation. In this essay that reeks of hypocrisy and doublespeak, Hardin accuses American Bridge of stifling academic debate by exposing the Koch brothers’ motivations for donating a small portion of their vast fortune as grants to universities. His claims are false: Just as we hold the Koch brothers accountable for their self-serving political spending, we are holding them accountable for their attempts to impose their extreme views on America’s college students under the guise of academic freedom.

Hardin claims that we “don’t want students and scholars to expand their educational horizons,” and that we “want to silence…debate” on campus, but he fails to mention that grants from the Koch Foundation come with serious strings attached that direct the universities on what faculty can be hired, and what course materials should be taught. The school Hardin mentions, Mississippi State University, is a public institution, and not allowing the public to know what conditions two billionaires are placing on a taxpayer-funded university is the antithesis of a free and open academic debate.

Take a look at what the Koch Foundation did at Florida State University: A 2008 Koch grant to FSU’s economics department required the money go toward pushing their libertarian views — it could only be used to hire faculty and support students who share their ideology. As Bruce Benson, the chair of the Department of Economics wrote at the time about FSU’s agreement with the Koch Foundation, “These organizations have an explicit agenda…and they want to support and mentor students who share their views. Therefore, they are trying to convince us to hire faculty who will provide that exposure and mentoring. If we are not willing to hire such faculty, they are not willing to fund us.” FSU gave in to the Koch Foundation’s demands, and when it came time to hire these new faculty members, the foundation rejected nearly 60% of the faculty’s recommended candidates. This hardly sounds like the “diversity of ideas” that Hardin purports to champion.

We saw a similar occurrence at the University of Louisville just two months ago. The Koch brothers have joined with Papa John’s founder John Schnatter to fund the John H. Schnatter Center for Free Enterprise to the tune of $6.3 million. On its face, the gift seems generous, but when you look at the contract, you see that it is anything but: If the donors decide the Center isn’t peddling their economic propaganda, they can potentially pull their funding. In other words, if Louisville stops toeing the Koch line, the money walks.

Hardin dismisses the obvious manipulation of faculty and curricula at universities across the country and instead claims that our efforts to promote transparency are no different than “intimidation,” but once again, he is misleading readers of the Wall Street Journal. This isn’t “intimidation,” it’s basic economics. A free market can’t work efficiently if participants do not have accurate information and by trying to hide the conditions they place on universities, the Koch brothers are imposing inefficiencies into the academic world.

So what’s their motivation behind their spending on education? The same as their spending on politics: To create more ideological foot soldiers that will ultimately push policies that help grow Koch Industries’ bottom line.

Hardin claims that “student access to a broad range of ideas is under assault” — and he’s right, except for the part about who is restricting this access. He fails to mention that the Koch brothers are major supporters of cuts to public funding for education and want to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. The true enemies of academic freedom are the Koch brothers and John Hardin, who are pushing their extreme, self-serving libertarian agenda by placing restrictive conditions on donations to universities that need the money.

Ironically, Hardin claims that “[c]ollege should be a place where students encounter a diversity of ideas” — I couldn’t agree more and I hope he takes his own advice. But his op-ed is just another attempt by the Koch brothers to disguise their true motivations, so I won’t hold my breath.

We have been working to hold the Koch brothers — and the groups they back — accountable for a year, and now that they’re attacking us by name in the press, it’s clear our strategy to expose their self-serving influence on our political system is working.