The Best Education Money Can Buy: The Kochs and ASU, Part II


A few weeks ago, I wrote a
blog post about the Arizona legislature’s decision, in the midst of the RedForEd uprising over education funding, to once again provide special funding for “freedom schools” at both ASU and UA. These schools grew out of earlier programs funded by the Koch network and are closely aligned with the Kochs’ conservative politics, supposedly serving as a balance to the Marxist indoctrination camps being run by other ASU faculty like myself.

But apparently, the Arizona legislature has once again proven even too embarrassing for its ostensible allies like the Kochs to publicly defend. On May 21, John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times criticizing the legislature’s attempts to regulate student speech on campus and to silo ASU’s freedom school, the Center for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) from the rest of the university. In true New York Times editorial page fashion, Hardin presents himself as the last sane man, positioned between Stalinist students on one side and know-nothing politicians on the other, calling for a return to civil academic discourse.

At first it might seem strange for a Koch representative to be criticizing SCETL, a Koch invention, but it makes sense if you understand the Kochs’ long game in higher education, which many of the useful idiots the Kochs sponsor in the Arizona legislature are too dense to grasp. They don’t want SCETL to be a separate safe space for conservatives who feel oppressed by being forced to think about the experiences of people unlike themselves, as many in the legislature envision it. Instead, they want it to be a model for the future of all higher education across the country, in which wealthy donors like the Kochs control what gets taught on campus and who does the teaching.

The freedom schools are only one part of a decades-long push by the Kochs to control America’s colleges by using the power of their purse strings. As recently revealed by a team of student activists, they have been most successful at this at George Mason University in Virginia, where donations by the Kochs and other conservative groups have turned the university into a bastion of conservative thought and even founded a law school named for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia* dedicated to turning out future generations of lawyers and judges dedicated to Scalia’s radically right-wing interpretations of the law.

*Fun fact: the name of the school was changed from Antonin Scalia School of Law to the Scalia Law School after people realized that the original acronym (ASSOL) was perhaps a little too indicative of the infamously bigoted and confrontational late Justice.

As revealed after the student activists after months of fighting for transparency, wealthy conservative donors were given a large amount of input on hiring decisions and even admissions and this influence was largely hidden from public view. And George Mason accepted the money with these strings attached because, like many other public universities around the country, they have been hit hard by more than a decade of disinvestment in higher education by their state legislature.

Sound familiar? Yep, as with K-12 education, most states cut higher education funding after the 2008 crash. States with Republican legislatures cut more. And, you guessed it, just like with K-12, Arizona cut the most and had refused to replace that money even as the economy improved. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona cut per-student funding for higher education by 53.8% from 2008-2017. And who was responsible for those cuts? Republican politicians, frequently backed by the Kochs. And into that breach has stepped donors like the Kochs, offering funds not only for radical experiments like SCETL but for hiring in traditional academic departments as well. They are making us sick and then selling us the cure.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with wealthy philanthropists, even unsavory ones, supporting education and culture. We wouldn’t have Carnegie Hall without it. But that money should not come with strings attached, whether for separate explicitly conservative programs like SCETL or ASSOL, sorry I mean Scalia Law School, or for traditional programs. And the radical cutting of public funding for higher education, perpetrated by Koch-backed Republican politicians, puts universities into difficult positions in which they feel they cannot turn down the money even with the strings.

As I was writing this, it was announced that David Koch, who is 78 and in poor health, will retire from Koch industries. His brother Charles is 82. The Kochs themselves won’t be around forever and, if we judge from this viral video of Wyatt Koch, the idiot son of forgotten Koch brother Bill who is a character from Step Brothers come to life, the next generation of the family is in some questionable hands. But the Koch network, the vast apparatus of foundations, think tanks, and political action committees the brothers have funded, will live on, as will their long-term goal of radically altering education in the United States at all levels. Those of us who value true public education have to keep fighting back.

David Boyles is an English instructor at Arizona State University.