Students receive part of $1,800 records request seeking Kochs’ influence on hiring at KU
A student group investigating the Koch brothers’ influence on Kansas University has received some of the $1,800 worth of documents it requested from the university.
Schuyler Kraus, KU senior and president of Students for a Sustainable Future, said that she believes the documents returned so far reinforce her group’s concern that the Kochs are buying their way into the university and spreading their political ideology under the guise of academia. School of Business representatives — including one of the faculty members students are looking into — dispute that theory.
Students for a Sustainable Future paid KU in September to fulfill an expansive records request seeking documents elucidating donations and associated restrictions by Koch family foundations, plus the hiring process of three teachers in the School of Business.
KU is still preparing portions of the request.
“Students for a Sustainable Future’s request sought 10 years of emails for several professors, so the time required to obtain and review this information is understandably substantial,” KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said. “Because the emails are from professors, they must be reviewed to ensure that private student information or information about in-progress research — both of which are protected — is not included.”
Just before Thanksgiving, the students did receive records related to KU’s hiring of Art Hall, founding executive director of the Center for Applied Economics within the School of Business; George Bittlingmayer, Wagnon Distinguished Professor of Finance and Otto Distinguished Professor of Austrian Economics; and Koleman Strumpf, Koch Professor in Business Economics.
Kraus said they were chosen because of their ties or possible ties to conservative activists Charles and David Koch, billionaires who own Wichita-based Koch Industries.
“Although they (the Kochs) don’t have direct control over the curriculum, if they have control over the hiring procedure they effectively do,” Kraus said.
According to documents Students for a Sustainable Future shared with the Journal-World:
KU first hired Hall in 2004. His employment offer for the 2012-13 school year lists his annual salary as $108,000 and notes: “A contingent upon funding designation indicates that this position is partially or fully funded by restricted funds, grants, funds contingent upon grants, or endowed funds.”
From 1997 to 2004, Hall was chief economist for the Public Sector Group of Koch Industries Inc., according to his resume. He has a doctoral degree in economics, previously held a number of government and private sector jobs and taught economics at Baker University’s Wichita campus and the University of Georgia.
Bittlingmayer, who has an extensive background in academia, joined KU in 2000 after 12 years at University of California, Davis.
When KU sought a candidate for its Koch Professorship in Business Economics, Bittlingmayer led the search and hired Strumpf — who has a doctorate from MIT and undergraduate degrees from Stanford — in 2006 with an initial salary of $145,000.
KU’s job description for the professorship explains that it is “part of a broader initiative aimed at promoting economic research with policy relevance. That initiative includes the recently established Center for Applied Economics.”
Details about the Center’s path to establishment aren’t provided on its website.
An endowed gift was made in 2003, according to the business school. However, KU Endowment spokeswoman Lisa Scheller said Tuesday that she did not have the authority to provide more information, as it relates to a private gift.
Kraus said she was disappointed that the hiring portion of her request did not yield more records, including conflict of interest disclosures as requested.
Documents show the Koch Professorship was posted, advertised and yielded a number of applicants, two of which were recommended for interview. But Kraus noted that if similar searches took place for Hall’s and Bittlingmayer’s jobs, KU did not provide records that show it.
Students for a Sustainable Future is also analyzing syllabi, required readings and publications to identify how much promotes Koch ideology, Kraus said.
She said she understands universities are cash-strapped and eager for donations, but she believes those funds should come with more transparency. She said the Kochs “exemplify” a problem happening in other academic fields with strong ties to industry.
“I want academia to be a place that is honest and truthful,” Kraus said. “I want it to be a place we can look to for genuine, honest research.”
Neeli Bendapudi, who became KU Business dean in 2011, has defended the school, saying Hall and other faculty members alike are required to have strong credentials and, when presenting viewpoints in different forums, required to qualify those as their own.
Hall said no one at Koch is telling him what to teach.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
He said KU invited him to interview for his job and that he does not know “what other options were on the table” for the position. He said he did not pre-arrange to take the job with the Koch Family Foundations but that people there knew he was looking for an opportunity to get back into public policy work and were probably talking to KU.
Hall said he typically approaches his own analyses from a market-based perspective, a philosophy shared by Charles Koch and lauded in his book “The Science of Success: How Market Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company.”
Hall reiterated the issue of academic freedom.
“When there’s a point of view being expressed that’s part of academic freedom,” he said. “If I’m testifying before the Legislature I’m mandated by KU policy to say that my opinions are my own.”
The Koch investigation is the only project right now for Students for a Sustainable Future, which has about 10 active members, Kraus said. Members are communicating with students investigating the same thing at other universities, and they’ve formed a network, online at unkochmycampus.org.