FSU changes rules on corporate donors after Koch scandal
By Tom Flanigan
Tallahassee, FL – In today's world, no college or university can exist without outside donors. But how much influence should those donors exercise over the operation of the school in exchange? That issue recently hit a major Florida university and Tom Flanigan reports that school is now taking steps to build more of a firewall between itself and its contributors.
The controversy erupted earlier this year. That's when Florida State University in Tallahassee inked a deal with prominent oil and chemical businessman Charles Koch (Coke), who is one half of the Koch Brothers. They have received much media attention for supporting many conservative, libertarian and free market causes. The deal with Florida State went thusly. Charles Koch would pledge $1.5 million to the school's economics department. That would fund two new faculty positions who would teach subjects related to, as the agreement specified, "political economy and free enterprise." Oh, and a representative of Mr. Koch would sit on an advisory board to help select the two new faculty members. Florida State University President Eric Barron says this is not unusual.
"More and more donors across the country want to be involved. They want to know their money is spent for their intent. So it doesn't matter what university I'm at, a donor will give an amount of money for a particular purpose and then they're going to ask the question, Can I see the files on those candidates? Can I be a part of the search committee?' And a lot of universities are involving their donors because a happy donor is a future opportunity for the university."
But in this instance, a firestorm erupted. Barron admits the highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the Koch Brothers may have helped fan the flames. The St. Petersburg Times gave the story prominent play. The liberal-leaning advocacy group "Progress Florida" called for the university to rescind the deal and send back the money. Instead, Barron promised an investigation and turned the matter over to his school's faculty senate for review. Now that report is out and Barron says there were a couple of significant outcomes.
"The most significant press issue was had we sold our faculty positions? And it's simply not the case. The faculty were involved from the beginning they made the decisions all the way through the process."
In fact, Barron says the two professors who finally got the job weren't even on the list of the Koch Foundation person who sat on the advisory board. But that wasn't all.
"The faculty review committee also finds a lot of areas by which we could make improvements. And they suggest that in any kind of future agreement with a donor, there are some things we have to be careful about. We've got to make sure that if there's an advisory board, it's majority FSU faculty and the majority make the decision. There are a lot of donors that want to be involved, but we have to make sure that that involvement is as advice."
With the relationship between the university and its contributors more carefully spelled out, does Barron fear that could discourage future donors?
"My personal feeling is that the donors are interested in making sure that their money goes to a good purpose and hires a scholar, or attracts an excellent student. And so I don't think these changes will have an impact on donor relations. I think this is exactly the way things need to be. The way the faculty have outlined it is the way it needs to be."
Apparently the donor doesn't mind. In a written statement released a few hours after the faculty report came out, officials with the Koch Foundation said they supported any changes the university might make to the existing agreement. More muted applause came from Progress Florida. Its Political Director Damien Filer says the move ALMOST met the desires of the nearly nine-thousand Floridians who had signed a petition opposing the deal.
"You know, we're gratified that twenty-four hours after the petitions were delivered we had a decision from the university that we'll never have another contract like this again. They fell short of doing the right thing and rescinding this contract."
Still and all, it all seems to be a cautionary tale for any institution of higher learning that accepts outside money. Which is to say just about all of them. Be careful where the money comes from and be extra careful of whatever strings may be attached.