Your turn: Koch ties to KU concern students

By Schuyler Kraus

President, Students for a Sustainable Future

School is difficult enough without having to weed through corporate bias. As Gov. Sam Brownback and the state legislature incrementally cut education funding, they are opening the door for donors with specific agendas to purchase influence at Kansas University. Enter the Koch brothers.

It’s no secret that Charles and David Koch have an interest in influencing public policy. What often goes undetected, however, is that their strategy extends beyond their conspicuous campaign contributions to think tanks, and “grassroots” organizations. Only within the last few years have we caught glimpses of the brothers’ disconcerting reach into higher education.

Florida State University and Clemson University have both signed controversial contracts in exchange for Koch money. When individuals took legal action to publicize the contracts, the Association for the Advancement of University Professors (AAUP) declared they contained numerous violations of academic freedom. FSU and Clemson have furtively relinquished various controls to the brothers over research results, hiring procedures and even curriculum. Not only does this lend counterfeit academic credentials to Koch ideology, it also inserts an imperceptible bias into students’ classrooms.

Considering Charles and David Koch’s agreements with other schools, we can’t help but question whether our university — right here in the Kochs’ home state — is also vulnerable. Ten months of research has indicated that, much to our dismay, KU has indeed joined the not-so-exclusive Koch club.

Since 2001, Koch foundations have donated at least $1.4 million to the KU School of Business. It started with a large amount to establish the KU Center for Applied Economics (CAE), a public policy think-tank, and hire its founding executive director, Art Hall. Recurring donations continue to constitute the operating budget for the CAE, which consists of Art Hall, his small office in Summerfield Hall, and an occasional visiting staff member. “Operating budget,” then, appears to be defined as a generous supplemental salary for Hall, who already earns $158,000 a year from the state as a “lecturer/academic program associate,” a non-tenure track position. That’s more than the average state salary for a full, tenured, professor ($118,300) and over double the salary of assistant professors ($71,800).

From 1997 to 2004, Hall was chief economist of Koch Industries’ lobbying subsidiary, Koch Companies Public Sector. Now heading an institution operating directly out of KU, Hall is able to continue lobbying for the Kochs under the guise of an academician, streamlining their political agenda straight to Topeka.

Hall has worked in cadence with other Koch affiliates to advance policies in Kansas that reflect the brothers’ agenda. In fact, several reports Hall has published under the CAE are co-authored by Koch-funded economists. He has written others for Koch organizations, such as American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Kansas Policy Institute. From public education funding to repealing the renewable energy portfolio standards, Hall’s influence is consistently present in Topeka. It’s especially astonishing that he has remained under the radar amid the overwhelming attention on last fiscal year’s $334 million shortfall in state revenue caused by Brownback’s unprecedented tax breaks. Hall deserves more credit than he has been afforded; in a 2013 presentation at KU, Hall claimed he worked on much of that tax policy “from the ground up.”

Ensuring an unbiased academic environment is in the interest of liberals and conservatives, alike. Yes, our primary focus is the Kochs; that is simply because they are the epitome of donors who exercise undue influence in academia and legitimize political agendas with questionable academic credentials. Frankly, we take issue with any private donor that seeks to do this, even if their interests were aligned with our personal beliefs. Our ultimate goal is to advocate for higher education.

Under the Kansas Open Records Act, we requested documents from KU pertaining to restrictions on Koch funding, Art Hall’s employment, and additional related items. Our request is approved — but carries an $1,800 price tag.

Perhaps this is just youthful idealism, but shouldn’t administrators be eager to alleviate our concern? As a public institution, KU is responsible to us not only as tuition-paying students, but also as taxpaying Kansans. When its dedication to academic freedom and intellectual integrity is legitimately questioned, it should be the university’s responsibility, not the students’, to prove otherwise.

Senior administrators in the School of Business requested a meeting with us after learning of our open records request. During our conversation, they emphasized that they share our commitment to academic freedom. However, we were disappointed when they were unable to provide any evidence to support their claim that they have not accepted donations under conditions that undermine said commitment.

So, the question remains. If there is nothing to hide, why is there so much secrecy?