What Harm Hath Koch Wrought?

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(By George Leef)

If you ever doubted that the “progressive” demands for more diversity on campus exclude intellectual diversity, the recent events regarding George Mason University (GMU) should settle the question. GMU is notable for having both an economics department and a law school where right-of-center scholars are numerous. They are also highly regarded for their scholarly work. The law school is ranked as number 21 in terms of faculty citations.

Nevertheless, leftists who dislike the fact that GMU stands out as an island of liberty in the ocean of collectivist thinking keep fuming about the source of a fair amount of GMU’s funding, namely the Koch Foundation. They have invested a lot of time and money in demonizing the Koch brothers as enemies of the people (even though Charles and David Koch are libertarians who agree with liberal positions on a host of issues), so naturally they seek to leverage that investment to attack the island.

What is so bad about Koch funding? As this New York Times story contends, the Kochs are just buying their way into GMU with nefarious strings-attached grants that undermine the university’s academic integrity. The activists object to the fact that Koch money isn’t just ladled into the school, but targeted so support free market programs and scholarship.

But why is that objectionable? As Professor Frank Buckley, who teaches in George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School (whose very name annoys the left) points out in this article, money from left-wing donors has long been devoted to specific “progressive” programs such as establishing Women’s Studies programs and funding welfare rights activism. Targeted donations are evidently a problem only when conservatives and libertarians do it.

Moreover, Buckley argues, such targeting is needed because of the well-known tendency for university administrators to ignore the wishes of conservative donors, as was the case with the large donation from Lee Bass to Yale University, which was supposed to catalyze courses focused on Western civilization. When the university decided not to hire the needed faculty, Bass demanded the return of his money.

Buckley concludes, “Liberal donors are free to give where they want, and nobody seems to care. What’s shameless, however, is that the same donors that fund left-wing programs in academia also fund the ‘UnKoch My Campus’ protests that urge colleges to turn down Koch support.”

He’s right, but what is even more shameless, I would argue, is that the leftists are playing the dirty old guilt by association game. If the Koch money is sponsoring bad teaching or disreputable scholarship, why don’t they go after that? To make a serious case against Koch funding, the activists should demonstrate that it is responsible for academic harm. But they don’t even try arguing that GMU economists are teaching ideas that can’t be defended or that its law professors are writing terrible books.

They don’t do that because a) the effort would be extremely hard; b) it could backfire by exposing the weakness of leftist arguments to scrutiny; and c) academic arguments don’t generate publicity like noisy protests do. The anti-Koch activists aren’t interested in intellectual combat with people like Buckley or Walter Williams or Don Boudreaux. They’re just interested in trying to deprive universities of money to hire professors like them.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial turns the tables: “All of this unKoch nonsense is part of the left’s attempt to stifle conservative ideas in the guise of an attack on ‘dark money.’ The Kochs are so ‘dark’ that the progressives decided to use their name. And speaking of dark money, UnKoch My Campus isn’t a nonprofit and doesn’t file regular financial disclosures.”

Has Koch money wrought any harm to GMU? No – it has enabled some fine scholars to advance the ideas of liberty and free enterprise, as well as to oppose the ideas of statism. That is what has the “progressives” so upset.

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