CKF’s John Hardin Publishes Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal on Academic Freedom

The Charles Koch Foundation’s John Hardin discusses the importance of student access to a diversity of ideas on university campuses in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. In it, he highlights examples in which academic freedom and student access to a broad range of ideas are under assault from political special interest groups which seek to silence those with whom they disagree. Hardin discusses the value of private support, “This profoundly matters for students, who benefit from expanded access to new ideas and concepts, and for professors whose intellectual enterprise depends on their ability to decide what they teach, what they study and what their research explores.”
The full op-ed can be found below.

“The Campaign to Stop Fresh College Thinking”

By John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation
May 26, 2015

College should be a place where students encounter a diversity of ideas—just ask many of the more than 1.8 million students who are graduating this year. That diversity often relies on charitable foundations, which support countless educational programs across the country. For example, the Charles Koch Foundation, where I work, has responded to hundreds of grant requests from colleges and universities. These requests have led us to support educational initiatives in economics, philosophy, entrepreneurship, criminal justice and other disciplines at more than 250 institutions of higher learning.

Yet student access to a broad range of ideas is under assault. Across the country, political groups from outside the academy are organizing campus crusades to silence those with whom they disagree.

Look at what’s taking place at Mississippi State University. The school will soon launch its new Institute for Market Studies, which was made possible in part by a $365,000 grant from our foundation. Yet before the first book could even be opened, the political-action committee American Bridge filed an open-records request seeking emails between professors and between the school’s faculty and our foundation. This overtly political fishing expedition is designed to intimidate the faculty at MSU, discouraging them from participating in the new institute.

Strong-arm tactics such as these have no place on a college campus, but the MSU incident is not unique.

Similar campaigns, disguised as student initiatives under the “UnKoch My Campus” label, have targeted colleges in Michigan, Kansas, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere in the past year. They want schools to stop accepting our gifts and push the programs these support off campus.

Left-leaning groups are not the only users of pressure tactics. Organizations on the right, such as state Republican groups, have targeted professors with whom they disagree as well. Recently, a University of Wisconsin professor was singled out for espousing ideas with which they disagreed.

Regardless of who initiates them, these attacks are typically organized by political special-interest groups, which mask their true motives by claiming to seek “transparency” in the funding relationships between universities and philanthropists. Yet they only target those with whom they disagree, and the information they claim to seek—the amount of money provided and its purpose—is almost always already publicly available. The grants they target also follow the standards laid out by each university and were thoroughly reviewed by faculty and administrators.

These groups’ real motivation is easy to discern. They don’t want students and scholars to expand their educational horizons. Rather than engage in a vigorous and civil debate about the merits of different ideas, they seek to prevent those with which they disagree from ever being heard.

It’s important to set the record straight on what private grants are and how they work. Last year, institutions of higher learning raised a record-breaking $37 billion in private support. This profoundly matters for students, who benefit from expanded access to new ideas and concepts, and for professors whose intellectual enterprise depends on their ability to decide what they teach, what they study and what their research explores.

At the Charles Koch Foundation, our grants are always a response to requests from administrators and educators. We support professors who add to the variety of ideas available on college campuses. And in every case the school maintains control over its staffing and teaching decisions.

Our grant agreement at Michigan State University, another recent target, is typical of the programs we support. It also illustrates the absurdity of the political attacks.

The grant, about $20,000 a year, enabled political-theory professor Ross Emmett to design and launch an extracurricular reading group for interested students. The group included a two-week discussion of Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto.” After that, the group discussed two books— G.A. Cohen’s “Why Not Socialism?” and “Why Not Capitalism?” by Jason Brennan. As Prof. Emmett has written, he hopes the reading group will give students a chance “to discern and make judgments about truth, to engage ideas and decide for ourselves.”

That’s what a college education is supposed to encourage. But the political attacks disguised as transparency requests will only make it harder for schools to foster that environment. Earlier this spring, Prof. Emmett spent two weeks in legal limbo, worrying that his email correspondence about his scholarly work could be taken out of context by political groups based in Washington, D.C., such as Greenpeace.

At campuses across the country, political groups like American Bridge hope to intimidate and silence those who might contradict their own worldview. Students, faculty and society will suffer if they succeed in driving the diversity of ideas from America’s college campuses.

Mr. Hardin is the director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation.

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