Academic Pollution: Greenpeace Traces Koch Money on Campus

by Connor Gibson

September 17, 2014

INTERACTIVE DATABASE: Koch Foundation Funding to Colleges and Universities

Key findings from our full report:


  • Koch financed just seven universities in 2005, rising to about 250 in 2014
  • Koch compensated a Florida State University Ph.D student over $500,000 while Koch and FSU negotiated contract

Part 1 of a blog series taken from our full report.

Over the last several years, Greenpeace has exposed how foundations controlled by Kansas billionaires Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries, have sent tens of millions of dollars to groups that deny climate change science, undermine policy solutions to the problem, and attack subsidies for clean energy competition while preserving handouts to fossil fuel companies.

Koch Industries itself has a sordid history of environmental problems, from toxic gas leaks to pipeline ruptures and explosions to contamination of U.S. waterways from petroleum coke and industrial chemicals.

Koch’s pollution isn’t limited to the physical world. Koch pollutes our democracy by raising and coordinating hundreds of millions of dollars to funnel through the “Kochtopus” network of front groups, bankrolling political campaigns to advance the business interests of Koch Industries and the ideologies that have made Charles Koch rich.

Now Greenpeace is tracking Koch’s intellectual pollution of college campuses. Charles Koch has rapidly expanded giving to universities, sending $50 million to 254 U.S. and Canadian institutions of higher education. Koch’s investments in universities has skyrocketed in recent years, from just seven schools in 2005 to about 250 today. This massive shift in investment comes at the supervision of Koch Industries executive Richard Fink. Fink’s political strategy, the “Structure of Social Change,” is built around universities, which provide ideas for Koch political groups to manufacture into policies they later advocate for.

Greenpeace’s interest comes from a years-longbacklash against Koch’s attempts to control academic discourse by students, faculty and alumni. We have mounting evidence that Koch-funded departments are helping wage Koch Industries ongoing campaign to undermine the climate change science and policy solutions, all of which is detailed below.

Evidence at schools like George Mason University, Florida State University, Clemson University and Suffolk University fits a familiar pattern: Charles Koch expects a specific return on his large investments.

Charles Koch’s University Contracts: Strings Attached

As detailed by reporters like Lee Fang, Dan Berrett, and Dave Levinthal, Koch-funded university programs tend to promote a specific agenda, at the expense of independence and academic freedom. Few grant agreements are publicly available, leaving students at most universities in the dark about the influence of Koch and other corporate donors. The following schools offer a window into that world:

Florida State University

New internal emails from FSU published by the Center for Public Integrity show how Koch worked with FSU’s Economics chair, Bruce Benson, who was offered another $105,000 from Koch to stay at FSU and see the Koch contract through to completion (though Benson says he didn’t end out taking the money). In a lengthy memo, Benson clearly described to his staff the “ethical/moral issues” they were committing to in signing a deal with the Charles Koch Foundation:

“some will object to having any group trying to use our department (or any other department) as a means of furthering their political agenda. I have considerable sympathy for these normative arguments. Indeed, I wish that universities were free of political manipulation. Unfortunately, the reality is that we live and work in an environment that is subject to all sorts of political manipulations”

Benson wasn’t the only FSU official Koch offered money to during negotiation with FSU. While working on his economics dissertation under FSU’s Bruce Benson and James Gwartney, a graduate student named Matt Brown was compensated $549,931 over a three-year period as he helped FSU negotiate its contract with Koch, according to IRS 990 tax filings from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and whistleblower information shared with Greenpeace.


The first FSU Koch Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2008, but was later critiqued in a FSU Faculty Senate report in 2011. The faculty Senate’s review resulted in an Amended FSU/Koch Memorandum of Understanding in 2013. FSU students and faculty still report that provdes inappropriate influence to Charles Koch.

Utah State University

As reported by Dan Berrett for Inside Higher Ed in 2011: “In at least one case besides that of Florida State, Utah State University, the grant agreements give the foundation a role in reviewing candidates for positions.” Berrett notes that USU’s “hiring processes are spelled out more explicitly” than at other schools. The Utah State University Koch grant contract mandates Koch-funded, tenure-track professors follow specific “Objectives and Purposes” that vaguely describe Charles Koch’s ideological preferences, which are described in more tangible ways in contracts with West Virginia University and Clemson (see below).

USU’s contract makes it clear that Koch can pull funding at any time, despite requiring professors to be tenured or on track to tenure, potentially leaving the university on the hook after ceasing a relationship. Koch also includes a legally-shaky “Confidentiality” clause that requests Utah State hide public records “subject to disclosure requirements of public Universities under Utah law,” in order to avoid FOIA requests for communications and documents relating to Koch’s partnership with Utah State.

USU now has a “Koch Scholars” program that pays students $1,000 to join study groups. The Koch Scholars reading list includes Charles Koch’s The Science of Success.

West Virginia University

West Virginia University’s Koch contract makes “human freedom” and “free market economics” the central objective of WVU professors hired on Koch’s dime. The Charles Koch Foundation explicitly required supervision from Professor Russell Sobel (now at Citadel College), and gave Koch preferential power over which professors to hire at WVU, naming J. Lamcombe and Andrew Young as prospects for tenure-track professor hires, threatening to revoke money if those men were not hired on. Both Lamcombe and Young currently work at WVU.

Koch made the hiring process clear, contracting WVU to follow specific protocol:

“Prior to the extension of any offer for the Donor Supported Professorship Positions [professors hired with Koch grants], the Dean of the College of Business and Economics, in consultation with professor Russell Sobel or his successor, shall present the candidate’s credentials to CGK Foundation.”

As with Utah State University and Clemson, WVU’s contract explicitly leaves the school responsible for continuing to fund professors hired on by Koch grants if the Koch foundation pulls out.

Clemson University

Clemson’s Koch contract includes similar hiring control and “Objectives” as Utah State University and West Virginia University, with explicit language ensuring that Koch-funded professors would “support the research into the causes, measurements, impact, and appreciation of economic freedom.”

It’s a red flag for Koch to narrow its programs at Clemson to promote “economic freedom,” a concept that’s actually created by Koch itself through the Fraser Institute in Canada, working in conjunction with professors in Florida State University’s Koch-funded economics department, like James Gwartney (see Charles Koch Institute’s Economic Freedom website and Fraser Institute‘s 2013 Economic Freedom of the World report, supported by Charles Koch Foundation, p. 251, written by by James Gwartney Charles G. Koch Doctoral Scholarship recipient Alice M. Crisp, p.250).

The other major index of “economic freedom” comes from the Heritage Foundation, another organization funded by Koch foundations. Heritage Foundation’s metrics prioritize privatization, lower wages, weaker labor protection laws, and less regulation – i.e. more potential to pollute for free and harm people without suffering any consequences, one of many examples where Charles Koch’s ideological campaigns match his business interests.

The most prominent activist group founded by the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, currently displays the following on its website: Americans for Prosperity is…ECONOMIC FREEDOM IN ACTION.

Charles Koch: Violating Academic Freedom

When Charles Koch finances the very idea of “economic freedom” and then bankrolls university departments to teach the concept to its students, he is doing so at the expense of another crucial freedom: academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has made it clear that Koch contracts at schools like FSU, Clemson and Utah State violate the principles of academic freedom by narrowing professor’s duties to serve what Koch outlines, rather than offering grants free of strings for schools to make independent choices about how to explore subjects with their students. Former AAUP president Cary Nelson told Inside Higher Ed:

Although the Koch Foundations objectives are written so as to sound upbeat and cheerful, they amount to code words calling for the dismantling of the welfare state. Economic freedom, sounds like mom and apple pie until you realize it means the government shouldnt collect taxes, and free voluntary processes means buy health care on your own if you can afford it.

It is wholly inappropriate for an outside foundation to use a university to promote its ideological biases in this way. The Kochs can fund positions to hire faculty members who study these issues, but not control what stand the faculty members hired take on them. That distinction is part of the firewall protecting academic freedom.

This is consistent with documentation of Charles Koch’s direct approval of high school curricula with very specific ideological goals, including dismissing ideas that the “Rich get richer at the expense of the poor” or that “Minimum wage, ‘living wage,’ laws are good for people/society.” This high school program was created by Youth Entrepreneurs, an organization founded by Charles Koch in 1993, supported by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, which Mr. Koch has chaired and funded for decades.

In his ongoing capacity as the IHS chairman, Koch has described in clear terms how he believes universities should to serve as an extension of business interests if they are to accept corporate money. Here is Charles Koch in his own words, speaking to the IHS Board of Directors in 1974:

[W]e have supported the very institutions from which the attack on free markets emanate. Although much of our support has been involuntary through taxes, we have also contributed voluntarily to colleges and universities on the erroneous assumption that this assistance benefits businesses and the free enterprise system, even though these institutions encourage extreme hostility to American business. We should cease financing our own destruction and follow the counsel of David Packard, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, by supporting only those programs, departments or schools that ‘contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.'”

In the speech, Koch cited the Lewis Powell memo, penned by the Supreme Court Justice who previously served on the board of major corporations like Phillip Morris. Powell’s 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce demanded aggressive involvement of business leaders in the realms of politics, media, courts and education. Charles Koch appears to have taken Powell’s call to action more seriously than any other business executive in modern American history.

But in pursuit of his goals, Charles Koch not only threatens academic freedom but shoots holes in his own ideological convictions. Through groups controlled by Koch and his “grand strategist” Richard Fink like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Koch attacks regulations that he doesn’t find favorable, an ironic exercise of the very “corporate cronyism” that Koch decries his public opining.

Now it is time for politicians, pundits, professors and legal professionals alike to questions if they are serving their various constituencies, or if they are being used to deploy the decades-long mission of Charles Koch.

Database of Koch Funding to Colleges & Universities:

Connor Gibson

By Connor Gibson

Connor Gibson is a former member of Greenpeace's Investigations team. He focused on polluting industries, their front groups, and PR operatives, particularly on the Koch Brothers.

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