Economics Lesson: Criticism of FSU’s Koch Grant Unfair

Bizarre: It’s the word that best describes the brouhaha over the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation’s controversial grant to Florida State University, where I’m an undergraduate majoring in economics.

This controversy seems even more bizarre if you lean toward a free-market school of thought, as I do. That’s the perspective from which I have viewed the publicity and unfair criticism that FSU and its Economics Department have endured in recent weeks.

In 2008, FSU signed a contract with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation for an academic grant. In exchange for receiving $1.5 million for the department over a few years, FSU agreed to form a committee, comprised of two FSU economists and one economist representing the foundation, to interview applicants for teaching positions. Although none of the candidates ultimately hired came from the committee’s list of recommendations, some people have accused FSU of allowing a private group to influence hiring decisions.

Many critics don’t realize what one observer might call “undue corporate influence in education” is what I would call “a coveted academic opportunity.”

While most of the discussion I’ve seen concerns the Koch Foundation grant, some commentators also have cited donations from other sources, including the BB&T Program of Free Enterprise, as further evidence of FSU’s “guilt.” Having participated in the BB&T-funded course, I feel FSU was correct in accepting a donation to create this course, “Market Ethics: the Virtues, Vices, and Values of Capitalism.” The course is popular among undergraduates because of its discussion-oriented lectures and genuinely interesting subject matter.

Indeed, class discussions were so thought-provoking that by the end of the semester, guest observers started to show up to listen.

During the spring semester, I was selected for a scholarship program funded through a different grant. Each semester, about 10 students are chosen. They meet regularly to discuss economic research. Later in the semester, the economists who authored this research visit FSU and discuss their work.

As someone who hopes to attend graduate school and eventually produce economic research, I looked forward to each visit and tried to learn from each economist’s approach. The opportunity to engage with economists in a small and informal setting was invaluable.

In addition to these two programs and a full array of courses, FSU’s Economics Department also offers its undergraduates a wide range of other kinds of activities, thereby setting it apart from the economics programs at other universities.

Some have called economics “the dismal science,” but my studies at FSU have been simultaneously enriching and — believe it or not — fun. Indeed, the experience caused me to fall in love with learning again.

Bottom line: FSU’s Economics Department is unique in several ways. Every day, I feel privileged to be learning from such knowledgeable professors while participating in enrichment programs made possible through various philanthropic grants.

Indeed, we FSU students derive great benefits from programs such as these. Moreover, most of us can’t understand what the fuss is all about. Meanwhile, we worry that our education is being politicized for partisan reasons. Few of us believe there is any reason for the sudden media coverage of the Koch grant other than the name of the donor.

Although I understand there can be legitimate concerns about the level of donor oversight in relation to any grant, those issues simply aren’t a problem in this situation. FSU’s Economics Department had a strong free-market presence before receiving the Koch donation, and it would have continued with or without that donation.

It is my fervent hope that fair-minded observers will put aside partisanship and allow FSU’s Economics Department to continue receiving funding that enriches and improves its students’ education.

Andrea Castillo is an undergraduate majoring in economics at Florida State University.

View the original article in the South Florida Sun Suntinel

This article originally appeared in South Florida Sun Sentinel June 5, 2011
Copyright © 2011

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