Koch Money on Campus is More Complicated than You Think

by Sophie Hurwitz

On Feb. 3, the students at Wellesley College relived what was starting to seem like a familiar storyline. Word spread that the controversial “Freedom Project” – a group “devoted to the promotion of freedom of expression, pluralism and tolerance” on campus and elsewhere – had received media attention yet again. College President Paula Johnson emailed the Wellesley community in response, saying that though the Charles Koch foundation was one of the benefactors of the Freedom Project, they did not have any control over which speakers their money paid to come to campus.

That day, Boston Globe reporter Annie Linskey released an article alleging that the “Freedom Project” is, in fact, attempting something quite different from its stated values. Instead, Freedom Project is an attempt to teach Wellesley students the same libertarian ideas as the Kochs, billionaire brothers who created a large network of nonprofit groups which funnel millions of dollars towards conservative political causes each year. “With patience, and a lot of money, Kochs sow conservatism on campuses,” the headline read.

One of the Freedom Project’s primary patrons is the Charles Koch Foundation. Koch, who is ranked the 11th-richest person in America, has inherited much of his wealth from his father’s manufacturing, oil refining, chemical development, and agribusiness companies. The Kochs are some of the biggest conservative donors in national election. According to NPR, their donor network spent $889 million to influence the 2016 elections alone.

Aside from their political donations, the Kochs are increasingly large spenders on college campuses.

And the Kochs spend a lot of money on different campuses, both at specific on-campus foundations like the Freedom Project and via grants which often sponsor entirely new buildings or centers. Their website explains that higher education grants are meant to support “a variety of programs that engage students with the principles of free societies.”

The Boston Globe asserted that the Koch donations to Wellesley and other schools are an attempt to convert the student body to the same libertarian ideals of the Kochs. However, the Koch Foundation and the administration of Wellesley College both say that the Charles Koch Foundation has no influence over what the Freedom Project does on campus. “Wellesley embraces the diversity of viewpoints held by our students, and the College encourages all students to make their voices heard,” said Sofiya Cabalquinto, a spokeswoman for Wellesley. “The Freedom Project is just one of many ways in which Wellesley students engage in a diversity of political viewpoints and participate in critical thinking and debate.”

But that is not the whole story. Margaret Flynn Sapia, a co-director of the Freedom Project, was quoted as saying Wellesley is “the poster child for liberal intolerance.” Sapia, however, says that’s not her position at all. She sent a letter to the Wellesley community, as well as the Globe’s letters to the editor page, arguing that the piece had misrepresented Wellesley. She said she chose to participate in the Freedom Project to ensure free and open discourse.

“I knew that attending the annual Koch Foundation Donor Summit as a speaker would be controversial,” Sapia said in her letter. She went on to describe herself as a lifelong liberal, raised “in a house full of proudly Democratic women who exemplified truth seeking and liberal leanings.” However, she said that the Freedom Project’s mission “Is, in essence, a-political. Our wide variety of viewpoints and (predominantly liberal) Freedom Project fellows are obscured behind the incorrect assumption that we serve as a Koch ally.”

Many other Freedom Project students share her sentiments. Some of them even join the Project each year and accept the Koch-funded stipend out of a desire to challenge the speakers that the Project brings to campus. They, along with many other students at Wellesley, end up spending much of their time questioning the speakers that Freedom Project money is being spent to attract – often conservative provocateurs who attack various marginalized groups.

Unofficial Influence

Charles Koch and his foundation have no official say in which speakers get selected. Thomas Cushman, the sociology professor who spearheads the Freedom Project, even goes so far as to say, “Most of our speakers are liberal.” However, the project has consistently funded speakers that cause controversy on campus, as the definitions of ‘liberal’ that Cushman and most Wellesley students use are rather different.

On Feb. 13, the self-described ‘apolitical’ Freedom Project produced another controversy by inviting Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and former Northwestern University professor who has done research on transgender and intersex people, to speak. Many students have accused Dreger of promoting transphobic views, such as the theory of autogynephilia, which she promotes on her website.

Students were especially upset because this is the college’s first year with transgender women publicly attending as students, and there have been no other speakers on trans issues. In addition, some students said, she is not a reputable source on her own topic; her positions are not shared by most researchers, and do not match up with the lived experiences of many transgender people. Her “theories have been disproven by several reputable peer-reviewed studies,” said Wellesley student Nick Blinzler in a Facebook post, referencing (among other things) a study by researcher Julia Serano of Berkeley.

The Freedom Project is bringing in Dreger to talk about a controversy she is only tangentially related to, on a disproven theory she has done no actual scientific research on. Just because someone is a reputable academic/authority in one field doesn’t mean they should be brought in as an expert in other, unrelated fields,” Blinzler wrote. Even Sapia, one of the students who spoke at the Dec. 2017 Koch retreat, expressed concern with “how the speakers are selected” in an email to the Wellesley community about Alice Dreger. “My contentions are two fold – both as to the nature of her arguments regarding transgendered people and her academic credibility.” Dreger values her own voice as a researcher over the lived experience of transgender people, and transgender students felt they had no choice but to defend themselves and fight back.

Students leveled similar criticisms against another speaker the Freedom Project paid to come to campus back in 2016: Laura Kipnis, a controversial anti-Title IX activist. The Sexual Assault Awareness and Advocacy group on campus released a video critiquing Kipnis’ claims, which the Committee on Ethnic and Racial Equality – a governing group at Wellesley that includes students, professors, and administrators – joined with a letter of support. The committee commented on the apparent lack of qualifications of the speakers the Freedom Project pays to be on campus, which is a trend that many students, including Boyk, say continues today.

The story of Koch money and controversial speakers is much bigger than just Wellesley’s 2,400-student campus.

Over 300 different colleges and universities received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2005 and 2013. At many institutions, the Koch funding is not funneled to the institution itself, but to a specific think tank or initiative within the campus led by a conservative or libertarian faculty member. The Freedom Project at Wellesley is just one example. It is independently funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and other groups. At Harvard, just down the road in Cambridge, the Open Campus Initiative has also emerged, in mid-2017. Like the Freedom Project, the Open Campus Initiative aims to “support freedom of thought, speech and association.” The group had only invited “widely criticized right-wing speakers” to campus as of April 2017 despite indicating that they intended to invite liberal speakers as well.

Koch-funded groups tend to be named for core American values: freedom, and open discourse, and other things that are very difficult for anyone to disagree with. They are, on the surface, not aligned with any specific policy position. Even Boyk, who has spent much of her time on campus working against the Freedom Project, agrees. “The purported goals of the Freedom Project are great,” she said. “But I’m not sure that those are the actual goals of the Freedom Project. I don’t know that they’re actually aiming to have meaningful conversations and challenge people’s opinions as much as they are to be provocative and controversial.”

The level of Koch funding different campuses have received varies from a few thousand dollars a year to several million dollars at others. 

According to the Associated Press, George Mason University received $48 million from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2011 and 2014. In 2016, the university renamed their law school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as one of the conditions of a further $10 million gift from the Foundation. The Chronicle of Higher education reported that George Mason University hopes to use the Koch money to reverse a decade of enrollment and prestige decline of its law school.

As college tuition continues to rise (even at state colleges, the total amount of state appropriations per student decline), students will continue to need greater and greater percentages of that tuition subsidized by the school. Rising tuition costs mean that colleges and universities are becoming more and more beholden to big donors who can attach controversial strings to funding.

A Decentralized Network

Although the foundation’s grants are not explicitly geared towards increasing student conservatism, they also funnel money towards conservative campus activist groups. According to SourceWatch, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) received $20,000 from the CKF between 2002 and 2015, as well as $913,986 from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which are groups that shield the identities of their individual donors but have known ties to the Koch family.

YAF is “committed to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values,” and serve as “the principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement.” The YAF website suggests that its various campus chapters hold events such as “A Funeral for Halloween” (mourning the fact that it is no longer considered socially acceptable to dress up in a way that appropriates other cultures, such as white people dressing up as Native Americans), or “Freedom Week” in which students re-enact the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aside from those events, the YAF pays for conservative speakers to come to campuses.

Essentially, the Charles Koch Foundation outsources its activism to eager college students it knows will advocate for conservative and libertarian views.

In terms of funding organizations like the Freedom Project, it is true that the Foundation has no control over who speaks. However, the real place where the Kochs advance libertarian ideals on campus isn’t through speakers’ series like this, but through groups like YAF. At Trinity University, partnered with YAF to bring Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative activist, to campus.

Liberal students are tired of protesting speakers on their own campuses again and again. At Wellesley, the sequence of the Freedom Project bringing an uninformed or offensive speaker to campus, followed by student protest, is old news. “We hope that the Freedom Project will think carefully in the future regarding whether or not to bring speakers to Wellesley’s campus who continually marginalize and inappropriately stereotype members of the campus population who must already devote immense amounts of time and emotional energy to the thankless activity of affirming their own existences,” read a letter from the transgender advocacy group on campus, Siblings.

The Charles Koch Foundation’s influence on Wellesley’s campus and others will remain, whether it be in more subtle forms like the Freedom Project or more obvious forms like YAF. Their influence means that students who would otherwise be studying are instead defending their right to be on their campuses from those who would marginalize and stereotype them. Students are exhausting themselves fighting against what seems to be an unstoppable, infinitely funded source.

Sophie Hurwitz is a first-year student at Wellesley College. She is also a writer for the St. Louis American and The Wellesley News.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo was created by Rachel Indest, a first year student at Trinity University and member of The Contemporary. One image was adapted from a cartoon by DonkeyHotey, which is under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Leave a Reply