Despite never having held any elected office, Charles and David Koch are two of the best-known, most influential political figures in the U.S. The brothers, who own and operate the megacorporation Koch Industries, have spent vast amounts of money on political advertising and campaign donations in recent years.
The Koch brothers promote a deeply conservative, anti-government approach to public policy — one that aligns closely with their business interests.
The political activities of the Koch brothers have been well documented by the media. However, one of their endeavors, which could have a significant impact on a major Florida university, has been largely ignored.
Over the past several years, the Koch brothers and their affiliated groups have donated millions of dollars to a number of American colleges and universities.
Among these donations was a $1.5 million contribution to the Florida State University Department of Economics given by Charles Koch in 2008. The donation included a stipulation that allowed Koch to select members of an advisory committee with veto power over new faculty hires.
News of this arrangement between Koch and the university first surfaced in 2011. However, the Kochs’ relationship with FSU has come under scrutiny during the university’s search for a new president.
Many members of FSU’s presidential search committee have ties to the Koch brothers and to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative policy organization heavily supported by the Kochs.
The leading candidate for the FSU presidency, Sen. John Thrasher, R-Fla., is currently the chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. Scott has received immense support from the Koch brothers for his hard-line conservative and pro-corporate stances. Like the Kochs, Thrasher is known as a strong opponent of unions, particularly in the public sector.
FSU students, alumni and faculty have protested Thrasher’s front-runner status as part of a broader complaint about the lack of student representation in academic decisions.
These attempts by the Koch brothers and their allies to control the academic environment at FSU should be troubling to all college students in Florida and around the country.
The purpose of the university system is to enable students to receive the best possible education to prepare them for their careers. Academic freedom in America’s colleges and universities should not be sold to the highest bidder.
If the Koch brothers are able to run roughshod over the interests and values of the FSU student community, it seems likely that they and other wealthy, politically inclined Americans will replicate this strategy at other universities.
University administrators and faculty members should be evaluated based on their qualifications and not on whether their political beliefs align with those of wealthy donors.
[A version of this story ran on page 6 on 8/27/2014 under the headline "Koch influence on FSU sets risky precedent "]