A Philosopher's Blog

FSU & Charles Koch

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2011
Florida State University in Tallahassee

For Sale?

Because of the financial crisis (and other factors), public universities are having a harder time with their finances. As businesses often do, some schools have addressed their financial woes by cutting employees. The cuts often begin with adjunct and visiting faculty and then move on to full time staff and even regular faculty. In truly dire circumstances, some administrators even find their bonuses being trimmed.

While cutting positions often appeals to some folks, perhaps because it gives them that business feel, there are also attempts to increase revenue in various ways. Tuition has, of course, been increasing steadily. However, that somehow never seems to keep up with the financial needs of the schools. Schools also seek outside money, often in the form of grants and gifts. However, even these sources are often not enough.

Florida State University  hit on on interesting method of securing funds. A while ago, the FSU economics department entered into a contract with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. In this contract, FSU received $1.5 million to create two endowed chairs to “promote political economy and free enterprise.” While this all seems rather good, one concern is that the contract specifies that Koch’s representatives have the right to reject candidates selected by the faculty hiring committee. In short, the representatives have veto power over hires.

One practical concern is, obviously enough, that FSU seems to have sold out for relatively little. While $1.5 million seems like a substantial sum, it actually amounts to very little when considering the budget of FSU. At the very least, they should have asked for more in return for granting this level of influence. To be rather crude (and perhaps  unfair), if one is going to be a whore, at least be a well paid whore.

More importantly, there is also the matter of ethics. Having served on a few hiring committees I am well aware about how they are supposed to function. As one might expect, candidates are supposed to be assessed based on their academic merits rather than their ideological views (and based on private conversations, it appears that a specific ideology was used to assess the candidates).  Since universities are supposed to operate on the basis of academic integrity and academic freedom,  granting such decision making power in return for a cash payment seems to be questionable, at best.

One obvious reply is that the idea of academic integrity and freedom are little but pleasant myths. After all, it is well known that people are often hired based on having the right connections and the right ideology.  The deal with Koch merely puts things in writing and puts cash on the table. As such, to single out this situation for special condemnation would be an error, given that the basis of criticism has no real substance.

To counter this reply, while it is true that some people do not take the matters of integrity and freedom seriously, it is not true that no one does so. To use an obvious example, the search committees I have served on have been above board and run with integrity and respect for academic freedom. There is also the obvious fact that appealing to a common practice does not show that the practice is right or correct. That is, of course, why there is a fallacy called “common practice.” Naturally enough, if the Koch Foundation is wrong for what it has done, those who do the same sort of things (be they left or right leaning) would also be in the wrong.

Another obvious reply is that schools need to relax their concerns over these principles in the face of the economic woes. Just as an individual might do things that /she might not otherwise do for money when in dire straights, universities also have to swallow their pride and set aside what principles they might have left so as to secure they money they need. To make this into a properly ethical argument, an appeal can be made on utilitarian grounds. While allowing people to purchase veto power over endowed faculty positions might have some negative consequences (like allowing people with money to ensure that certain ideologies are pushed), the positive consequences could outweigh the negative. After all, accepting such money can allow schools to address their budgetary woes and continue to provide students with educations. While this education might be of a different sort than what would be offered if the money was not needed, it is still an education.

The counter to this reply is that the negative consequences could very well end up outweighing the positive consequences. Using the analogy of the individual, doing questionable things for money can have a corrupting effect on the character and can damage one’s reputation.  If it turns out that the cost exceeds the benefits, then accepting such money would not be a good thing.

As I see it, accepting money in return for such veto power is a violation of professional hiring ethics. Naturally, I do agree that if money is offered with conditions and accepted, then there is (on the face of it) an obligation to stick to that agreement. As such, by taking the money, FSU has obligated itself to the terms of the contract. However, they should not have entered into that agreement.

Naturally, it might be wondered if I would still hold this view if my continued employment was contingent on my university accepting such a deal.

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3 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on June 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of the robber barons donated huge amounts of money for education. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to resurrect the tradition. HOWEVER, there is a risk, as has been recognized, i.e., the benefactor(s) may use their influence to slant courses to reflect their point of view.

    When accepting donations from wealthy benefactors, it is critically important to avoid being influenced by the benefactors viewpoints. It must be very clear that any strings attached do not interfere with academic freedom.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on June 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    2 endowed chairs for $1.5M! Sounds like a great deal for the Koch foundation.

    I suspect that most endowed chair appointments (in any discipline) are subject to the approval of the Foundation writing the checks. I also suspect that these appointments are subject to the approval of the Dean, Provost, and Chancellor as well. If there was truly a political “litmus test” involved, then FSU should not have accepted the money. On the other hand, since the endowment is to “promote political economy and free enterprise” I suspect that Marxists need not apply.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      It is a good deal. They would get to shape research at a major university.

      In most cases, the money is for a general mission (“advance the study of ethics”) and there is not veto power over the hire. From some inside sources, people who did not match the Koch view of how things should be were removed from the list, even though they were qualified academics.


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