Koch Grant Sparks Debate at SCU Over Philanthropy, Free Speech, Academic Independence

Santa Clara University welcomed the $11 million gift to build on a fledgling effort of promoting entrepreneurship to students of all majors, from the arts and humanities to science and engineering. The private Jesuit school said it would expand and rebrand a business hub on campus as the Ciocca Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in honor of the family that chipped in a $7 million share of the grant earlier this spring.

The remaining $4 million ignited backlash—swift and fierce.

More than 1,000 students, staff and alumni signed a missive denouncing the grant. Professors called it a betrayal of Jesuit values. Student activists hoisted signs demanding that university officials put “people over profit.” The Faculty Senate Council voted 30-0-2 for a resolution calling on the administration to refuse the money.

Why the outcry?

Because the $4 million came from libertarian oil heir Charles Koch, by way of his eponymous grant-giving nonprofit.

This isn’t the first time SCU has accepted money from the Koch Foundation. In 2007, the Civil Society Institute, an SCU economics organization received $5,000 from the organization for “educational programs.”

But this latest batch of cash comes amid growing backlash against ideologically driven philanthropy, and the Koch family’s enormous influence over the public sphere. Concerns over the $4 million gift range from the impact of the Koch petroleum empire on the environment to the Koch Foundation’s sway on public policy and higher education. Many wondered: Would the money come with strings attached?

“Will there be academic freedom?” SCU political science professor Dennis Gordon asks. “That’s the question that continues to come up.”

Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch My Campus, a nationwide organization dedicated to fighting donor influence in higher education, claims she knows the answer. “It’s fiscal control,” she asserts in a phone interview. “It’s using your donation to coerce institutions into your agenda.”

Still others defended Koch Foundation’s generosity, batting away criticism as reactionary and devoid of nuance. Peter Minowitz, a professor in SCU’s political science department, says detractors get so hung up on the Koch family’s transgressions that they fail to realize it’s also done a lot to lift people up.

“Be wary of the tendency to identify the boogeyman,” Minowitz says. “There’s that danger, that if you are too indiscriminate in identifying evil everywhere, you become blind to the good and oversimplify things.”

He adds, “We need to loosen our standards of what makes you irredeemable. There is a disturbing herd mentality. We preach diversity, but how committed are we to it?”

Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are each ranked by Forbes as the eighth richest people in the world. Each boasts a net worth of $60 billion. The pair are best known for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to promote partisan causes and political candidates. They bankroll partisan think tanks and lobby against taxes and regulations.

According to Inside Philanthropy magazine, liberal donors such as the Russell Sage, Soros and Ford foundations also shower American colleges with gifts—just not nearly at the same scale as the Kochs and their allies.

In recent years, the Koch Foundation has emerged as one of U.S. academia’s biggest private patrons, spending $200 million on business programs, professorships and conferences. In 2016, about $50 million of the foundation’s gifts—twice as much as the year prior—got divvied up among 249 colleges. In 2017, the nonprofit bequeathed a combined $120 million to more than 300 colleges.

The donations have been condemned by the American Association of University Professors, whose president last year called them politically motivated, an attempt to polarize higher education by creating ideologically motivated curriculum. Evidence at campuses throughout the country seem to bear that out.

Early last year, a student-led lawsuit against George Mason University—recipient of some $50 million-and-counting in Koch gifts—unearthed previously private records showing how the school granted Koch officials a say in hiring and performance reviews of professors funded by the donations.

The alarming disclosures prompted University President Angel Cabrera to apologize for the flagrant breach of academic standards, and to order a review of donor policies.

Similar accusations have roiled a host of other campuses throughout the nation, including Florida State, Wake Forest and Arizona State universities. In 2014, the Koch Foundation donated $1 million grant to create the Center for Political Thought and Leadership within the School of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Matthew Garcia, who helmed the department at the time, accused the Kochs’ philanthropic arm of influencing faculty recruitment. “The dean of humanities told me to shut up when I spoke out,” Garcia tells San Jose Inside.

Part of what raised Garcia’s suspicions was a senior professor’s willingness to give up a tenured position at Emporia State University to take an assistant role at ASU’s Koch-funded department. Amid faculty pushback, ASU rejected the candidate. But Garcia says his disillusionment over the apparent breach of academic independence ultimately led him to jump ship for Dartmouth College.

At SCU, the objections also stem from concerns about Koch Industries’ business practices being at odds with the school’s values. According to federal regulatory records, the company has been fined a total of $836 million for hundreds of legal violations—the vast majority for environmental crimes and infractions.

In 2000, the company paid $30 million to settle claims related to more than 300 oil spills in six states. At the time, it was the largest-ever civil penalty imposed under US environmental laws. That was the same year a federal grand jury returned a 97-count criminal indictment against the company for covering up illegal releases of 91 metric tons of cancer-causing benzene from one of its Texas oil refineries.

For SCU engineering professor Ed Mauer, who’s spent the past few decades researching climate change impacts on North and Central American water supplies, linking arms with a Koch organization is unacceptable. “The Koch family is one of the primary forces behind the misinformation campaign to distort science,” Mauer says.

SCU President Michael Engh bats away concerns about undue influence. The Kochs, he assures, played no part in hiring Christopher Norris, executive director of the Ciocca Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or any of his fellow administrators.

As for the eight faculty slated for hire under the terms of the $4 million grant deal, Engh says SCU will call the shots. “The gift agreement explicitly acknowledges that Santa Clara remains independent from any influence by the Koch Foundation,” he says.

Koch Foundation spokeswoman Tonya Mullins says the nonprofit has made strides to become more transparent about its philanthropy. “Each of our gifts is tailored to ensure scholars have the resources and freedom to pursue their vision,” she explains.

SCU leaders vowed to form an oversight committee to put to rest any concerns about improper influence. Engh, who says there’s no plan to revoke the grant, made a call for unity. “Do we focus solely on what divides us?” he asks. “Or do we seek the common ground and work to improve humanity from there?”

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.


  1. But the Koch brothers have openly opposed Trump… doesn’t that automatically grant them access to the apparently exclusive society of liberals?

    From the article: “The donations have been condemned by the American Association of University Professors, whose president last year called them politically motivated, an attempt to polarize higher education by creating ideologically motivated curriculum.”

    Only those naive enough to be swayed by the manipulative politics of college professors would miss the stunning hypocrisy of this statement.

    Politics on campus? Bring out the fainting couch…

  2. It’s funny that articles talk about the Kochs’ political spending but I seldom see mentioned the fact that they are prolific donors to the arts and to research focused on finding a cure for cancer. The Kochs’ efforts in promoting free market principles are, unsurprisingly, anathema to professors unfamiliar with free markets or life outside of their sheltered world of academia.

  3. “Jesus Would Not Deny Climate Change”?

    I can’t recall that He ever said anything about it, one way or another.

    You might be able to get away with saying: “Jesus (so far as is known) never denied climate change”.

    But then, you also have to agree that: “Jesus (so far as is known) never blamed sheep herding or olive growing for causing climate change.”

    I would have to say that Jesus’ contribution to the climate change debate is pretty much of a zero.

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