In his 1871 volume, The Conduct of Life, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson pithily observed that “money often costs too much, and power and pleasure are not cheap.”
While Mr. Emerson intended his remarks more broadly, his words apply to universities and the sometimes deleterious effects of donations on academic freedom. These effects were vividly apparent in 2020 and 2021 in the cases of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Valentina Azarova.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer and MacArthur-winning creator of the New York Times’s The 1619 Project. In spring of this year, she was named as the new University of North Carolina (UNC) Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, but it soon emerged that, unlike previous Knight Chairs, Ms. Hannah-Jones would not be tenured. Ultimately, Ms. Hannah-Jones opted to join Howard University rather than UNC when it emerged that outside pressure interfered with her appointment. UNC’s tenure committee had recommended tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones, but the university’s board of trustees, under pressure from conservative donors – in particular, UNC School of Journalism and Media namesake and major donor Walter Hussman – did not implement the recommendation.
The Azarova case
Here in Canada, similar issues arose when the University of Toronto law school’s appointment of Valentina Azarova as director of its international human rights program came to an abrupt halt. This happened just as a major donor shared concerns about the appointment with a U of T assistant vice-president who handles donor relations. The university claims that the law school canceled the hire because of immigration and timeline challenges, but considerable evidence suggested that the underlying reason was donor pushback due to Ms. Azarova’s published criticisms of Israel. An independent review endorsed the university’s position, but critics pointed out that the reviewer declined to judge the credibility of university officials’ claims or their consistency with other evidence. In April of this year, the Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a rare censure of U of T for failing to uphold academic freedom in the case.
It’s clear that the UNC board caved to donors in the Ms. Hannah-Jones case. The immigration issues make the Azarova case a little murkier. However, the former dean who abruptly nixed Ms. Azarova’s appointment over a Labour Day long weekend did so just after learning about the donor’s concerns. Further, a U of T administrator gave the concerned donor confidential information about the search process as this was all going down. It is crucial for academic freedom that universities avoid both donor influence on hires and the appearance of donor influence on hires. At a minimum, U of T failed to do the latter.
While breaches of academic freedom, collegial governance and institutional autonomy in cases like these are deeply troubling, I am even more worried by the ways in which donor funds can threaten academic freedom in the normal course of things – that is, when there is no appearance of a scandalous breach.
The Koch-funded Goldwater Institute’s campaign
The bankrolling of charitable foundations by petroleum billionaires Charles and (the late) David Koch provides the clearest example of how philanthropy can threaten academic freedom. This plays out in funding for advocacy, journalism and scholarship that is strategically calculated to (as the group UnKoch My Campus puts it) “place private interests over the common good.”
Free speech is an extremely broad notion, extending to unscholarly and even bad-faith speech, while academic freedom exists to support research and teaching in the pursuit of truth and understanding in the service of society. In the domain of advocacy, the Koch foundations fund a range of different initiatives calculated to conflate academic freedom and free speech, and indeed to heavily prioritize free speech over academic freedom within the context of universities.
Perhaps most concerning among these is the Koch-funded Goldwater Institute’s campaign to introduce campus free speech legislation across the U.S. The model bill developed by the Goldwater Institute purports to strengthen free speech on campus, but its approach undercuts academic freedom and institutional autonomy in a range of ways, including dictating university policy and forcing universities to remain neutral on “public policy controversies.”
By way of illustration of a public policy controversy, the model bill’s authors offer fossil fuel divestment. They write that university divestment violates institutional neutrality, as does pressure to divest from university sustainability offices. And yes, it is pretty on-the-nose for a putative free speech bill funded by oil billionaires to explicitly rule out fossil fuel divestment. Let’s be clear: silencing criticism about fossil fuel investments is a feature, not a bug. Further, the model bill is highly punitive, laying out disciplinary sanctions for students who protest speakers and legal payouts for colleges that don’t toe the line. All of this is calculated to have a chilling effect on dissent.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported in early 2018 that 16 states had either introduced or passed campus free speech legislation or had introduced campus free speech measures without legislation. Of these, half were based on the Goldwater model bill. The AAUP decries campus free speech laws as a “false friend” of academic freedom and as a political agenda “masquerading behind ‘free speech.’”
Another organization that receives substantial Koch funding is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE is sometimes hailed as a champion of academic freedom, and often provides supports to scholars whose academic freedom is violated, but that’s not their stated purpose. The “Mission” page on FIRE’s website mentions freedom of speech/expression eight times and discusses it, along with religious freedom, due process and freedom of conscience, in some detail. But the webpage does not once mention academic freedom. Further, FIRE explicitly frames its purpose in terms of students’ and professors’ individual rights, whereas the AAUP – arguably, the most important and longest-serving English-language champion of academic freedom – focuses on academic freedom in support of the common good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, FIRE has supported several of the state-level campus free speech bills in a range of ways from endorsement to drafting assistance.
The Speech Wars
When Koch money isn’t underwriting the “false friendship” between free speech and academic freedom through donations to advocacy groups like the Goldwater Institute or FIRE, it is whipping up free speech panic in the media. In particular, the Koch Foundation was one of three major funders for the Atlantic’s series The Speech Wars. The project ran from March 2018 to October 2019. Over that period, it published an astonishing 118 articles with the support of The Speech Wars funding. One hundred and eighteen! Did you even know that the Atlantic published 118 articles on any topic during that eighteen-month period, much less 118 articles on free speech? The Speech Wars made the Atlantic – a leftish bastion of publishing respectability – into the main PR firm for the alleged free speech crisis.
Only 20 (or about 17 per cent) of these articles were primarily about free speech on campus, but the others often touched on campus issues. Frankly, whatever the focus of the other articles, 20 articles over 18 months on campus free speech topics in a prestigious large-circulation magazine is a very large megaphone.
Those 20 campus free speech articles offered a broad range of perspectives, many of which defended campuses against the charge of being in the grip of a free speech crisis. It was clear throughout the project that the Koch funding did not oblige authors to take any particular perspective or draw Koch-friendly conclusions. So what’s the harm?
The harm of The Speech Wars was in convincing the public that there is a speech war: a free speech crisis sufficiently grave as to warrant 118 articles in a single publication over the course of a year and a half. Why would a general interest magazine spend so much time on the free speech crisis if no such crisis exists? One pretty clear answer is that they were generously paid to do so. The effect however was increased public credulity in the idea of a free speech crisis, that credulity in turn reducing the public’s trust in universities.
In the same way, Koch (and similar) funding for research grants, workshops and conferences produces credulity, interest and activity in related scholarly areas by university researchers and administrators. Let’s face it. Funding is scarce for many universities and university researchers. Donor support for research is increasingly necessary to survive in the research landscape. Donors have the right to fund topics they are interested in, and university scholars have the right to pursue external funding opportunities to advance their research. As a dean, I am incredibly grateful for the donor support my faculty and its members receive. However, donor support can tug entire disciplines, departments and institutions in scholarly directions that they would not otherwise have pursued. This gives industry and wealthy philanthropists an outsized influence on the kind of scholarship that happens.
External funding for universities and university researchers also gives the donor the imprimatur of scholarly respectability. Since I started writing publicly about academic freedom, I have several times been invited to write or present something for Koch-funded projects. Typically, with these sorts of groups, the Koch funding is buried pretty deep. (The Koch-funded FIRE, for instance, doesn’t list its funders on its website or publications. It received about $12 million in donations in 2020.) As a matter of principle, I won’t knowingly work with Koch-funded organizations, so I’ve gotten into the habit of researching the funding sources of any group that contacts me.
I do this even though every such invitation I have ever received has been very clear that I could argue for any position I like – no strings attached. Alas, that’s not where the strings are. For many years, a favourite strategy of young Earth creationist organizations was to foster the appearance of an academic controversy over evolutionary theory and the age of the Earth by sponsoring public debates with scientists, many of them held at universities. These donor-funded events didn’t prevent scientist participants from saying what they pleased. The aim was simply to have the optics of a genuine debate: two equal parties on the same stage. Further, sponsoring a wide range of dissenting views makes Koch foundations seem innocuous even while they pay big bucks to fuel free speech panic and thereby undercut academic freedom and university autonomy.
In sum, then, even when donors don’t improperly interfere in academic searches and tenure files, some kinds of donor funding routinely threaten academic freedom in a range of ways. Things are a bit better in Canada, thanks to public funding, strong faculty unions, good university policies and frankly less attention from the big U.S. funders. But what happens in the U.S. always has ripple effects here. Consider, for instance, the campus free speech interventions by the Ontario, Alberta and Québec governments.
I’ll devote my next column to some proposed solutions to the challenge that I have described here. In the meantime, what is the real cost of donations when it comes to academic freedom? In the marketplace of ideas, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.