Holding sway at Florida State University.
On May 23, 2014, I watched Florida State University’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee pass a motion to fast-track John Thrasher as president of FSU without so much as an official application.
Thrasher has no academic credentials, but check his political profile: This Florida state senator’s career has been shaped by campaign donations from corporate darlings Charles and David Koch. And, he was named Legislator of the Year by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which lobbies for laws that would protect business interests at great cost to the environment and the public good.
Thrasher also chaired Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign. Rick Scott: a governor with deep ties to the uber-conservative tea party; a governor who was caught red-handed in 2011 at the Charles and David Koch corporate secret donor conferences.
This is a story of one the most egregious cases of corporate influence in American higher education—the Koch brothers’ ubiquitous presence on the campus of FSU, from the president’s office to content in the classroom. It’s a story that makes me despair for the decaying integrity of an institution I hold dear, while also inspiring me to fight hard to save it.
That the Charles Koch Foundation has long been a significant presence at FSU is undisputed. It funds the Florida-based nonprofit James Madison Institute and FSU’s DeVoe Moore Center, two think tanks that claim expertise in “limited government, economic freedom, federalism, and individual liberty,” key concepts of the profit-first approach for which the Kochs are known. The Koch brothers also crafted a memorandum of understanding with FSU’s department of economics that essentially promised to help fund two of the department’s programs—the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise program and the Excellence in Economic Education program—but only if the Charles Koch Foundation were allowed to influence faculty hires and curriculum.
The Kochs’ overwhelming presence in the institutional infrastructure means their conservative, market-driven philosophy is omnipresent. Private donor relationships with public universities in the United States have a long tradition that I support and encourage, but the Kochs’ involvement on campus oversteps those traditions not only by its sheer magnitude—the Charles Koch Foundation has contributed more than $4 million to FSU’s economics department already—but also by disregarding academic freedom and the mission of the university.
The James Madison Institute is notorious for climate change denial and its past alliance with the corporate-supported ALEC. Everything that the institute and the DeVoe Moore Center produce supports “free market enterprise”—in other words, unregulated capitalism. This approach operates without regard for long-standing intellectual principles such as academic freedom and shared governance, even when set at an institution of higher learning like FSU.
Intellectual inquiry and academic freedom are put in place to guard our ability as academics to seek the truth and speak the truth. Everywhere Koch influence has infiltrated FSU, the “truth” has been reduced to the narrow confines dictated by the ideology of “economic freedom” and “individual liberty.” Social welfare and equity, on the other hand, lose out.
At FSU, the Kochs have demonstrated that Koch money comes with strings attached or it is yanked. Those strings poison the very mission of academia. The more we swallow the poison, the sicker we become.
But the mission of FSU is not dead yet. When Thrasher was appointed president of FSU, a new collective notion of academic freedom was born out of despair among faculty, staff and students that corporate money, power and ideology had entered our university at all levels and taken hold. We are fighting back, working hard to expose corporate influence, and insisting on transparency and scrutiny of donor intent.
Lakey is a doctoral candidate in English literature and former public relations chair and political action chair for Graduate Assistants United at Florida State University. She founded the Foundation Against the Corporatization of Education and is the research and writing chair for FSU Progress Coalition, a student organization working closely with UnKochMyCampus.org.