A program proposed for the University of Nebraska College of Law would receive backing from the Charles Koch Foundation, which some faculty members consider troubling.
The program, approved this week by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, is called the Governance and Technology Center. It would study how emerging technology affects the law, how that technology is regulated and what challenges it creates for society and the law.
The NU Board of Regents and the State Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education still must approve the center.
The Koch Foundation has encountered criticism through the years for trying to influence hiring, curriculum, research or other elements of the programs it has funded.
A small national organization has sprouted called UnKoch My Campus.
The Koch Foundation is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and the late David. They have been known for supporting free enterprise, hands-off capitalism and generally libertarian and conservative causes. Their donations — many millions of dollars — have gone to K-12 education, higher education, politics, foreign policy and other areas over the years.
Richard Moberly, dean of the law college, said he has received guarantees that the foundation would not exert influence over the program.
Moberly said the days of the Koch Foundation attaching strings to its academic donations are in the past. The foundation, he said, has gained a “healthy respect” for the norms of higher education.
“The university will not enter an agreement with anyone without assurances that there won’t be outside influence,” Moberly said. The UNL Colleges of Engineering and Business are expected to collaborate on work at the center. Documents describe the gift as $5.5 million from three donors over five years.
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hat is 100% my understanding, absolutely,” Hurwitz said. “It’s an awesome program. ... I’m optimistic that this will be reputationally very beneficial to the university.”
Some UNL professors are less convinced.
“Anytime you hear the name Koch, you get a little bit leery,” said John Bender, a professor in the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
The proposal has passed the UNL Academic Planning Committee, a group of faculty members and administrators. Bender is on that committee.
English faculty member Julia Schleck said it’s her understanding that other members of that committee expressed concern, too. Schleck, a leader of the state’s and UNL’s chapters of the American Association of University Professors, said the Kochs are “well-known within academia.”
Carter, the former head of the U.S. Naval Academy, said research has to be aimed at seeking truth. He said attempts to influence research outcomes with private money are unacceptable. At the Naval Academy, he said, if someone tried to do that, “We said, ‘No, thank you. Keep your money.’ ”
Schleck said the AAUP got its start early last century because of private donors’ influence on academic programs. The AAUP advocates for academic freedom and tenure, which protects professors from being fired for their speech or research findings.
The Koch Foundation has supported programs at dozens of American colleges through the years, including Creighton University’s Institute for Economic Inquiry.
Hurwitz said the Koch Foundation has also supported programs at Ohio State, Duke, Stanford, Arizona State and many other institutions. He called himself a “classical liberal,” which he defined as valuing individual liberties, among other things.
Kevin Hanrahan, head of the UNL Faculty Senate, said he raised some questions about academic freedom and the Koch gift with the Academic Planning Committee. The committee evidently was satisfied because it recently approved the plan.
“I’m at ease with it if they’re at ease with it,” Hanrahan said.
Based on his review of the foundation, Hanrahan said, “there have been some issues three or four years ago” with the Koch Foundation and academic freedom, but not recently.
A reporter’s phone calls to the Charles Koch Foundation were neither answered nor returned.
Samantha Parsons, campaign director for UnKoch My Campus, said she believes that problems with the foundation continue.
“Koch has not stopped putting problematic terms in their gift agreements,” she said. “They’re just not as explicit” as they were in the past.
Students at George Mason University sued their school for records associated with the Koch contract, Parsons said. The students lost in a lower court and have appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, she said.
“We have universities reaching out to us once a week with concerns,” she said. “So I do not buy that they’ve turned over a new leaf.”
At Utah State two years ago, she said, a board of Koch-affiliated officials controlled the hiring of the center’s executive.
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