Institute for New Economic Thinking
By Phillip E. Mirowski
June 25, 2018
At the beginning of May 2018, there was a brief furor over donations from Koch family-affiliated philanthropies to fund the Mercatus Institute and the newly-named Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University (GMU). Although articles concerning the admirable efforts of the GMU student organization UnKoch My Campus appeared in many of the prominent news outlets, the attention span of journalists seemed to barely outpace that of interest in one of Donald Trump’s tweets, with even less consequence. But more to the point, the silence of the economics profession concerning the revelations was pretty deafening. Briefly, I would like to revisit why this was so and why it matters.
The details of the controversy can be briefly summarized: the assortment of Koch family foundations and allied charitable cutouts (which some libertarians have dubbed the “Kochtopus,” but will henceforth here be shortened to ‘the Kochs’) have been making targeted donations to more than 300 schools since 2005, predominantly to economics departments. But George Mason University has been the most lavishly favored, garnering more than a third of the estimated $150 million bequeathed to universities from 2005-2015. The event that stirred campus resistance at GMU was a massive donation of $10 million from the Kochs tied to a $20 million donation from an anonymous benefactor to rename the Law School after Antonin Scalia, “formally” earmarked for “student scholarships.” The first thing one notices was the budgetary legerdemain which obscured the relationship between faculty selection and line items in budgetary terms. Thus, the GMU Provost S. David Wu could tell his Faculty Senate in April 2016 that the bequest came with “no strings attached…The entire $30M is for scholarships for students and nothing else.” This narrative might have prevailed, if not for the document dump by UnKoch My Campus at the end of April, a result of a FOIA suit by Transparency GMU, which detailed the series of negotiations with the Kochs (including the overwhelming role of figures from the Federalist Society as intermediaries: another Koch funded arm), including stipulations of how designated representatives would have input into GMU hiring decisions. This forced GMU President Angel Cabrera to reverse earlier statements that existing donor arrangements had not been allowed to influence internal academic matters. This, in turn, was the trigger which attracted the national press. As Inside Higher Ed put it: “academic values have long held that donors don’t get to pick who holds chairs, or evaluate them.”
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