Academe on the Auction Block

Thinking at the behest of a new patron class

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At the April 2016 meeting of the Association of Private Enterprise Education hosted at Las Vegas’s Bally’s Casino, an official from the Charles Koch Foundation introduced four men he identified as “edupreneurs.” These thinkers, he said, were notable for their success in spreading what he called “diversity of thought” at universities across the land. First, there was George Crowley, professor of economics at Troy University in Alabama and faculty member of its Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy. He bragged that funders including the Charles Koch Foundation and the center’s namesake, a former Federal Reserve vice chairman appointed by Ronald Reagan, helped him and his colleagues “take over” Troy’s economic and business programs, fight Medicaid expansion in Alabama, and work to try to “bring down the state pension system.”

Next, there was Joshua Hall of the Center for Free Enterprise at West Virginia University, launched with $2.5 million from the family of the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ken Kendrick, matched dollar for dollar by the Charles Koch Foundation. Hall explained how the courses the center provides free of charge to WVU’s college of business “creates a lot of good will, that you then can use to make inroads in other areas.” Then, Derek Yonai of Florida Southern College shared flow charts diagramming how his Center for Free Enterprise dangled “Liberty @ the Movies” socials before FSC students as a sort of gateway drug to enlist them as committed foot soldiers in the “Liberty Movement.” And Chris Surprenant, a philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans, discussed how his Alexis de Tocqueville Project in Law, Liberty, and Morality injects free-market philosophy, economics, social science, and history into high school classrooms as a prophylactic against radical collegiate warhorses such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has reported, the Koch brothers realized in the early 1980s that in order to move America in a more forcefully libertarian direction, they had to influence not just the making of policy but “the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.” But efforts by private donors to buy university curricula of their very own are more ideologically diverse than that, stretching all the way from the libertarian far right to the neoliberal center. Universities are supposed to be public goods that provide public goods—nonprofit institutions subsidized by taxpayers to teach young minds and produce independent research for the public’s benefit. As state funding for public universities has plunged over the past forty years, however, the pursuit of higher learning is returning to its pre-university roots: the patron-client model of the Renaissance. Privately funded research centers are the engine of this trend. To the extent they thrive, the very foundation of higher education in the United States will wither away.

The Grovels of Academe

In 1967, after he’d been elected governor in a state whose flagship university had become a hotbed of student protest, Ronald Reagan wondered aloud why the taxpayers of California should spend their hard-earned money to “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” At the time, state universities in California charged no tuition to in-state residents. He promptly pushed for billing students and cutting state funding, inaugurating a trend. The state used to fund 32 percent of the budget of the University of California. By 2000 it funded 24 percent, and today it funds about 10 percent. Other state governments have followed suit. In 1980, when Reagan was elected president, states contributed 54 percent of total higher education spending. By 2014, they invested only 37 percent. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the shortfall in public spending in the interim was at least $500 billion. Matters are even worse post–Great Recession: since the 2008 meltdown, the average state is spending 18 percent less per student. In 2012, money from student tuition exceeded money from state appropriations for the first time in the postwar era.

The cuts have been steepest at flagship research universities, with the state share of funding dropping from more than 30 percent in 2001 to 17 percent in 2012. This, in turn, has led to a fundamental shift in those schools’ mission. Where once public education was seen an investment in states’ brightest and most promising students, now such schools market themselves as “public ivies.” That is because they charge higher tuition for out-of-state students, which they recruit in ever-greater numbers to help make up the budget shortfall. In the University of California system, the percentage of out-of-state students tripled from 2008 to 2016, from 5 percent of the total student body to 15 percent. At the University of Michigan, out-of-state enrollees equal or outnumber in-state ones.

Increasingly, schools also turn to philanthropy to make up the gap. At Berkeley, more money comes from private support than from state appropriations. Its $366 million haul in 2015 was topped among public research universities only by the University of Michigan ($394 million), the University of Washington ($447 million), UCLA ($473 million), and the University of California, San Francisco ($609 million). If UC Berkeley and UCSF were combined, in the way that UCLA and other universities have their own medical centers and schools, their haul would be topped among all U.S. universities only by Stanford ($1.6 billion) and Harvard ($1 billion).

Private universities do not get state funding for their operating costs, and they have traditionally made up for it by charging exorbitant tuition. But as the competition among elite privates has become increasingly intense over recent decades, and as rising inequality has spiked the mega-wealth of the top 1 percent, private universities have also turned to philanthropy to maintain and grow their brands. Donations to higher education are decidedly top-heavy, with less than 1 percent of universities receiving nearly 30 percent of all gifts in 2015, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

The world of academic research centers and institutes is thoroughly awash in—indeed, wholly made possible by—corporate cash.

The amounts get larger and larger the closer you get to the elite summits of higher learning, with universities like Harvard and Stanford receiving individual gifts in the hundreds of millions of dollars from billionaire donors such as hedge funder John Paulson or Nike’s Phil Knight. This is over and above their enormous billion-dollar endowments, which rival the capital reserves of the country’s largest banks and investment funds. These have been leveraged somewhat to provide tuition remissions or reductions to students from low- and middle-income households, but not to increase the number of students accepted; to increase the supply of Harvard graduates would decrease the value of the credential. So much for the public good.

And how do schools compete for the largesse of our country’s philanthropists? That’s where our new class of edupreneurs comes in. The competition here is so intense that it can’t simply be left to university presidents, provosts, and deans, even though they spend as much time fundraising as politicians do. Almost all universities give awards to professors for teaching or research excellence, but now some universities also dole out awards for fundraising excellence, in much the way grammar schools hand out prizes to students who sell the most raffle tickets. Which brings us back to our friends at the Charles Koch Foundation, and a gentleman named David Schmidtz, a political philosopher and Adam Smith expert who in 2014 received the University of Arizona’s Eugene G. Sander Faculty Fundraising Award for his yeoman work recruiting the Koch Foundation to back the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom he directs at the university’s flagship campus in Tucson.

Hymning My Liege’s Liberty

If we want to understand how innovative Koch-backed edupreneurship has been in founding academic research centers, Schmidtz and his institute provide an excellent place to start. His Freedom Center builds on the success of the Mercatus Center, which was moved from Rutgers to George Mason University in the 1980s thanks to $30 million from the Koch family. It has since become “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas”—or so Mercatus’s website claims. The proof is in the pudding: Mercatus was reportedly the source of fourteen of the twenty-three major deregulatory initiatives that the George W. Bush administration undertook in his first term. 

Mercatus, however, is independent of the university that houses it. Schmidtz’s outfit exemplifies a new and more dangerous model: private funding that burrows within the very body of public institutions, the better to influence related departments and curricula across the university.

The story of the Freedom Center begins in 2003, when Schmidtz received the Charles G. Koch award for alumnus of the year at the Institute for Humane Studies, the other Koch-backed libertarian research center at George Mason University. Ken Kendrick and his wife Randy attended the ceremony, and invited Schmidtz to dinner. He declined, because he had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. So the Kendricks arranged for him to be operated on by one of the country’s top surgeons. He recovered and seems to have transformed himself into a sort of guru to his new billionaire friends, who endowed Schmidtz’s research center with $2.5 million.

The Kendricks also introduced Schmidtz to Karl Eller, an Arizona billboard-advertising magnate, who became a major donor on the right—the University of Arizona’s business school now bears his name. Eller carries a card with him that offers Forbes.com-style inspirational quotes of libertarian doctrine, such as “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich,” and “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.” Curiously, that robust commitment to self-sufficiency has not prevented him from doing for libertarian scholars like Dr. Schmidtz and his Freedom Center what they should be doing for themselves. “I believe in individual responsibility, and I believe in freedom economics,” Eller has said. “That is why I support the program.”

Indeed, “freedom” and “responsibility” license just a little bit of socialism on the side, for another contributor to the Center is the Arizona state legislature which, despite brutal cuts to the University of Arizona and Arizona State, voted last year to earmark $5 million of the state’s $32 million higher education supplemental budget to support UA’s Freedom Center and two other Koch-backed freedom centers at ASU.

Schmidtz is no hack but a perfectly respectable member of Arizona’s stellar political philosophy department. The problem is the way he has been able to leapfrog the entire customary governing structure of a university and, via his wealthy friends’ emoluments, enjoy a coronation as the equivalent of university dean. If aspiring political philosophers want some of the post-docs, fellowships, or conference presentations Schmidtz’s center can lavish on them, they obviously need to gain Schmidtz’s favor; Schmidtz’s favor, in turn, relies upon that of his benefactors. If students are not libertarians, they are likely to modulate their views. And as for the true believers, the financial and professional support they find is enviable.

What sorts of scholars have enjoyed the touch of his scepter? Consider philosopher Matt Zwolinski, a Freedom Center product who has also received a lot of research funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, to judge from his CV. In one paper, “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation,” he argues that because sweatshop laborers “choose to accept the conditions of their employment,” there is a moral case against interference in the working conditions of sweatshops. In another, “The Ethics of Price Gouging,” he argues that charging $12 for a bag of ice that normally costs $1.70 in order to exploit the conditions of scarcity touched off by a natural disaster should be legal; he argues that such practices are not only morally permissible but may indeed be virtuous. Both pieces were placed in the journal Business Ethics Quarterly. Zwolinski is now a full professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and director of its newly christened Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy, with funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.

It is not a sin for a philosopher to be provocative, even outrageous; consider philosopher Peter Singer’s arguments for infanticide. On the contrary, such provocations can be quite salutary in philosophy, a field that ruthlessly questions all presuppositions. But these kind of intellectual provocations appear in a different light when incentivized by private money with the explicit aim of passing laws. Zwolinski’s price-gouging piece, for example, includes a handy appendix listing states with anti-price-gouging statutes. I don’t recall John Rawls helping out readers by categorizing state tax policies in terms of how far they run afoul of the Difference Principle.

Nor does, say, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study train high school teachers to indoctrinate their students with bromides that would please Donald Trump. The Freedom Center’s “Philosophy 101: Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship” does just that—educating students, in its textbook’s “ethics” section, about “humanity’s super-power: not wings, fins, or fangs but our ability to make deals.”

Well-Being for What?

All told, the Charles Koch Foundation has invested some $200 million in higher education activities since 1980, with more than $140 million of that money allocated since 2005, funding over fifty free-market research centers and institutes at universities. And these beachheads of private campus cash have become lush islands of ideological purity by partnering with like-minded philanthropists such as Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter and the recently deceased Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.

But all this high-profile private funding has also provoked a backlash. Groups such as Kochwatch and UnKoch My Campus have galvanized public attention and even sparked protests at campuses nationwide. So the Kochtopus has rebranded. Starting in 2014, Charles Koch introduced the “Well-Being Initiative” with a blog post under his signature and a conference at the Charles Koch Institute in Washington, D.C.

One speaker was Koch beneficiary James Otteson, a philosopher and executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism. BB&T is a bank holding company formerly chaired by a man named John Allison, who retired in 2010 and now serves as “executive in residence” at the center. He was also president and CEO of the libertarian Cato Institute. In 2011 he caused a stir by promising through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide grants as high as $2 million to schools that established courses on the first principles of modern capitalism with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as required reading. That novel, of courses, preaches naked self-interest as a virtue. At conferences like these, however, the candid celebration of capitalist predation doesn’t always align so cleanly with the institutional interests of the Koch Foundation. So the focus has been rejiggered to explore “what enables individuals and societies to flourish and how to help people improve their lives and communities.” 

Otteson’s subject at Wake Forest, for instance, was Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or well-being. In 2016, Wake Forest announced the creation of the Eudaimonia Institute based on $3.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and $500,000 from Chris Wright, chairman of Liberty Resources and CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, and his wife, Liz. Otteson is its executive director.

Such associations have enhanced the professor’s well-being indeed. A friend of mine in philosophy remembers Otteson from their time as Ph.D. students at the University of Chicago, where Otteson did his dissertation on Adam Smith and David Hume. Otteson took his first job at the University of Alabama and advanced his career dramatically by teaming up with the libertarian Liberty Fund to run small but lavish conferences. My friend was invited to one in Seattle, where a dozen other professors (as well as one Liberty Fund representative) were flown out, put up in a nice hotel, supplied with meals, and paid $1,000 each. Otteson ran about a number of these conferences a year. In the summer of 2015, or so he bragged in a Facebook post, he gave eighty-eight lectures on thirteen trips to locales from Grand Rapids, Tennessee, to Thailand. (“I am sure glad professors have summers off.”)

Happiness or well-being has become an appealing subject for interdisciplinary study in the social sciences and humanities. But as Jane Mayer reported in her January 2016 New Yorker story “New Koch,” the Koch version is in part instrumental. At one conference, Richard Fink, Charles Koch Foundation vice-chairman and a longtime Koch Industries executive, gave the game away:

The Koch network needed to present its free-market ideology as an apolitical and altruistic reform movement to enhance the quality of life—as “a movement of well-being.” The network should make the case that free markets forged a path to happiness, whereas big government led to tyranny, Fascism, and even Nazism.

Otteson himself noted that calling for interdisciplinary research into well-being defused concerns of colleagues and even attracted their interest in contributing. “Who can be against well-being?” he rhetorically asked the audience at the D.C. conference. “The framing is absolutely critical.”

Because of the Eudaimonia Institute’s and Otteson’s ties to Koch money, a group of 189 Wake Forest professors petitioned the faculty senate last November to investigate the institute’s intellectual integrity and research and teaching independence. They vehemently objected to the secrecy of the deal: the donor agreement between the institute and the Charles Koch Foundation had not been made available. They cited past agreements that threatened academic independence and integrity at other colleges, such as the University of Kentucky’s Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise. Such agreements tend to come with strings attached that ensure compliance with the donor’s wishes, including renewable but conditional funding. In January, the faculty senate voted to approve the president’s creation of an ad hoc committee to review the proposal for the institute and offer recommendations. The committee issued a report on the controversy in March that requested, among other things, a thorough review of all institutes at Wake Forest. The report also quoted the pitch that Otteson had initially submitted to the Charles Koch Foundation, which appeared to have a quite different, and less interdisciplinary, vision of eudaimonia studies:

Many people consider markets and business activities as instruments of “mere” economic development, with “economic” often connoting “devoid of moral content.” This view of markets, corporations, and the managers and employees that inhabit them has generated diminished expectations about the contribution of business activities to the moral fabric of society. . . . The Eudaimonia Project intends to generate a deeper understanding of the relationship between commercial society and market institutions, and the ideal of a genuinely eudaimonic and ethical life.

Conservative supporters of Koch-funded efforts, however, like to point out that left-leaning research centers, such as Wake Forest’s Pro Humanitate Institute, directed by political scientist and former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, receive no such scrutiny: proof, they say, of a political witch hunt. They have pointed out that Harris-Perry’s funders, unlike Otteson’s, are unknown. And perhaps if there were a billionaire backer of the institute whose business interests and political priorities were advanced by it, it would be easier to take their concerns seriously. Nonetheless, they inadvertently raise a useful point, though one that implicates the Kochtopus as much as anything else: Shouldn’t we be concerned about anyone who is funding any academic research centers on political and social subjects, no matter their ideological direction?

The View from the Inequality Suite

Last October, the launch of two separate multimillion dollar efforts to get to the bottom of poverty were announced. At Harvard, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, named after private-equity investor Glenn Hutchins, who seeded it with $10 million, announced a $2 million effort to dig into the racial wealth gap. Its director, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates—a shining example of edupreneurship—was thrilled at the prospect of moving from the humanities into the more practical realm of policy studies. “I’ve always seen our mission as a public policy institute like the Aspen Institute and the Brookings Institution, except looking at race and class,” he told the Boston Globe. “This will establish our presence as a think tank.” But some in the Boston community responded that if shrinking the racial wealth gap was the goal, $2 million would be better spent, well, shrinking the racial wealth gap. “I could do a lot with that money,” Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods told the Globe. “We don’t need another study.” Why not, for example, focus resources on lobbying for a $15 an hour minimum wage or early childhood education, and skip the academic middleman?

On the other side of the country, Christina Romer, UC Berkeley economics professor and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama, announced her school’s new Opportunity Lab to great fanfare at the former site of that Bolshevik bastion, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Romer opined that what could save the country was “good, policy-oriented research.”

How would this research proceed? At the event launch, economist David Card shared his findings that talented minority and low-income students are not properly identified for gifted and talented programs. (What impoverished urban areas need, apparently, is a more efficient way of determining just who gets to escape into the meritocracy and who should be left behind.) Housed at the Center for Effective Global Action, which is funded largely through foundation grants, the O-Lab is looking to hire a professional fundraiser who can “develop new ideas for attracting prospective donors and private companies to research opportunities.”

More and more rich liberals have been endowing research institutes like these. But the solutions they concoct for poverty and inequality are often absurdly complex. Maybe that’s because obvious solutions don’t need research, or because the simple solutions that might work best—dampening wage theft, instituting a minimum basic income, or increasing union membership, say—would undercut the economic conditions that made the liberal donor class rich in the first place. So the preferred research models, like Card’s, tend to focus on advancing “opportunity,” much like the “ladders of opportunity” President Obama and Hillary Clinton promised to build, and “the opportunity to access” health insurance advocates of Trumpcare promoted as their goal, instead of, you know, health insurance. In this policy universe, anything that smacks of actual redistribution feels verboten. At most, economic intervention comes packaged in an elite-pleasing behavioralist guise, like former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein’s pet principle of the “nudge”: small, often cost-free, shifts in incentives believed to produce better social outcomes, which have the added benefit of leaving underlying power relationships undisturbed.

The pursuit of higher learning is returning to its pre-university roots: the patron-client model of the Renaissance. Privately funded research centers are the engine of this trend.

And this is on the benevolent end of the spectrum. Other liberal centers more directly advance their sponsors’ economic interests. Take, for instance, the now defunct Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina Law School, which launched in 2005 with former Democratic senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards as its inaugural director. The basic dictates of libertarian self-interest theory might lead us to believe that Edwards’s desire to direct a policy-research center devoted to inequality had something to do with preparations to launch a 2008 presidential campaign themed around bridging the divide between “Two Americas.”

Others seem simply ego-driven. Consider the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, born in 2009 via $30 million from the Danforth Foundation—advertised at the time as the largest-ever gift in support of an academic research center. Danforth, a retired senator and ordained Episcopal priest, is a Republican moderate, horrified by his party’s evangelical-driven push rightward. Washington University happens to be terribly indebted to the Danforth family and their Ralston Purina animal-feed fortune. Sen. Danforth’s brother William was Wash. U.’s longtime chancellor; the university’s main campus is named after the family. So when he came calling with a bundle of cash and a request for an institute dedicated to producing academic amplifications of his own worldview, the university naturally obliged.

Once we examine the funding logic of these operations up close, the ensuing research distortions are hard to miss indeed. Consider the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The center is housed at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, named after former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg; Bloomberg has given more than $1 billion to Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. The center’s mission, its website explains, is “reducing gun-related injuries and deaths through the application of strong research methods and public health principles.” A two-page pamphlet from the center details the many ways its research has supported state and federal efforts in favor of gun control or beaten back efforts to liberalize gun laws. The cover page of the center’s website also promotes the 2013 book Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence, by the center’s codirectors, Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick, with a forward by Bloomberg. As a politician and policy maven, Bloomberg has made gun control his number-one policy priority.

Now, many of us are against unregulated gun ownership, religious extremism in politics, and the ever-growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. And we may well be inclined to use universities to advance such causes. But beware the slippery slope: the more thinking is directly subsidized, the less it is actually free—which is to say, empowered to range where the relevant thinkers please, without any worries about a funder’s intellectual preferences. Private money for academia comes with a cost—especially when the funders are corporations, even if the beneficiaries are putatively liberal.

The Friends of Frackademia

One of the numerous memes that Democratic-aligned bloggers flogged in the wake of Trump’s election ridiculed the deficient expertise and competence of the new president’s cabinet picks compared with their predecessors in Obama’s White House. For instance, Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, seemingly didn’t know that the Department of Energy oversaw the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and had famously professed, during a presidential primary debate in 2011, his determination to eliminate it (though he couldn’t remember its name). Compare that to Obama’s energy secretaries Ernest Moniz and Steven Chu, both physicists, and the latter the recipient of a Nobel Prize.

But not even the former Texas governor could match the physicists in whoring for corporate dollars from the energy industry. Moniz was the founding director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, or MITEI, the university’s self-described “hub for energy research, education, and outreach” on low-carbon and no-carbon energy options. MITEI’s founding donors were BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Saudi Aramco, and Italian oil and gas company Eni. Its sustaining members (i.e. biggest donors) include GE, Chevron, French oil and gas company Total, and Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil. 

“Dr. Moniz’s work at MIT demonstrates his ability to work collaboratively with a wide spectrum of stakeholders on a broad range of energy issues,” a White House spokesman said upon Moniz’s nomination. And we can only assume that MITEI’s stakeholders are well pleased with Moniz’s collaborative prowess. As ProPublica reported, he was a paid member of BP’s Technology Advisory Council, while BP gave $50 million to MITEI. He served on GE’s “ecomagination” advisory board on growth strategy for sustainable products and practices, and GE gave money to MITEI. He was a trustee of King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, which is funded by Saudi Aramco, a company that gave money to MITEI. And money wasn’t flowing only to MITEI; Dr. Moniz got paid to sit on several boards and advisory councils for energy companies and energy-related initiatives.

These investments were perhaps best recouped with MITEI’s 2011 report “The Future of Natural Gas.” Moniz was lead author. It argued that “natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future.” As the Public Accountability Initiative detailed in its reporting on the fracking industry’s influence on academic research, Moniz and his coauthors had numerous conflicts of interest over and above the limited number of energy-industry financial ties disclosed in the report. Moniz, for example, received compensation in excess of $300,000 as a board member of ICF International—a consulting firm to oil and gas companies that cited shale gas “as a key profit driver for its energy business,” according to a report by the Public Accountability Initiative—before hiring Moniz to give his MITEI stamp of approval.

Even in today’s baksheesh-riddled American university scene, Moniz’s White House appointment set off alarms. “I worry that as an energy secretary he won’t display the proper preference for independent research, which he didn’t display at MIT,” Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and coauthor of AAUP’s ethics guidelines for academic-industry partnerships, told the Boston Globe. Independent research doesn’t, of course, attract money like industry-funded research does. The public cost of such arrangements, as ever, is largely hidden—while MITEI’s industry funders can proudly brandish the priceless imprimatur of their client institution’s confident assurance that fracked natural gas is “truly a bridge” to our low-carbon future. (Except for, you know, all the carbon it produces.)

Moniz’s predecessor at the Department of Energy, Steven Chu, is no slouch as an edupreneur either. At Berkeley in 2007, he delivered the largest deal between an academic institution and industry in history to date: $500 million from BP to launch the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) for biofuels research. At the time there were widespread worries, now only amplified, that biofuels did not provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels for reducing carbon emissions. The Berkeley faculty senate and faculty members such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich objected, but as then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau told them, according to Mother Jones, Berkeley would inevitably have teamed up with some oil company or another, if not BP.

Birgeneau’s own edupreneurial wisdom was reconfirmed this past March when Shell ponied up $25 million to EBI to study new energy technology, including solar. (EBI’s lead administrators have yet to rebrand and drop the “B” from the project’s name. Give them time.)

Chu’s and Moniz’s sterling reputations as scientists prove that even the best academic credentials can be corrupted. In fact, academic credentials attract corporate money like cold leftover dorm pizza draws rats: they certify the quality and trustworthiness of the research produced. Indeed, both men have something in common with Koch-backed edupreneurs like David Schmidtz: brokering deals with moneyed interests is how they’ve advanced their careers. In the scientists’ cases, in exchange for granting elite funders access to their universities’ expertise, talent pool, and reputation, they have been freed from the very norms and governance structures that, for centuries, have allowed universities to build these resources in the first place. Such casually discarded conventions include departmental collaboration and voting, peer review, and—most important—independence from undue influence.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the world of academic research centers and institutes, especially insofar as they deal with profitable industries such as energy, health care, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and technology, is thoroughly awash in—indeed, wholly made possible by—corporate cash. The point is not only that this corporate money enables compromised research, such as Syngenta-funded studies seeking to establish that its weed-killer atrazine is not dangerous to human health and the environment, or Coca-Cola-funded research that blames the rise of obesity on anything other than diet and highly sweetened carbonated beverages. There is also the research that this money restricts, and even silences—the studies whose conclusions big-money funders may find disagreeable.

What’s the bottom line? Nowadays the big-money philanthropist doesn’t just want his name on the building; he wants control over what happens inside. This is not really “philanthropy”—the provision of public good without expectation of reward, out of (from the Greek) a “love of mankind.” These donors are instead looking for and getting great deals: money in exchange for policy recommendations and contacts favorable to them and their interests. At a time when universities are desperate for money, this cash-driven set of research mandates effectively turns professors and administrators into clients, who dare not criticize or challenge the funder’s views. For as anyone in philanthropy will tell you, the smartest person in any room is not the person with the highest IQ or best credentials. It’s the donor.

 

David V. Johnson is senior editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has also written for The New York TimesUSA Today, AeonThe New RepublicBookforumJacobin, and Dissent, among other publications. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter @contrarianp.

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