Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » Outside Funding of Centers: A Challenge to Institutional Mission?
Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan

The Koch Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, or various libertarian-friendly billionaires fund a number of free market university research centers. Left-wing faculty, activists, and the media (often with backing from the George Soros-funded UnKoch My Campus1) complain:

  1. The centers do not produce honest research but instead promote an ideological agenda.
  2. The lure of easy money corrupts professors and graduate students, inducing them to advocate positions they would not otherwise support.
  3. The money allows libertarians or supporters of free markets to have outsized influence in academia.
  4. Because the centers are not supervised by other departments, they are a threat to academic freedom at the host institutions.
  5. The centers in question are governed by different rules from other centers; in particular, they supposedly allow funders to have significant discretion over what these centers do.

My essay in The Value and Limits of Academic Speech casts doubt on these complaints.

The Burden of Proof

Many of these complaints are in principle open to empirical investigation. Complainants could try to provide data indicating such centers have a pernicious effect, that they unfairly sway faculty, or that faculty hired in such programs have weaker credentials than others. They could try to provide hard evidence that unfair hiring practices occur. And so on. But what’s striking is that they do nothing to discharge this burden of proof—they simply assert, insinuate, and accuse. The centers are presumed guilty without any actual evidence.

What If Libertarianism Is True?

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the easy money associated with such centers somehow increases the incidence of libertarianism on campus. Suppose it solidifies professors’ libertarianism or induces non-libertarian students and professors to become friendlier toward libertarianism.

Is that corrupting? Answer: it depends. It depends both on how the money caused the change, but also on whether libertarianism is true. Or, more precisely, it depends on the degree to which libertarianism contains true claims, or whether pushing people in a libertarian direction brings them closer to the truth.

To illustrate, suppose X is the true theory of some intellectual domain. Suppose there is a pill which, if swallowed, will cause people to believe X and also memorize the evidence and arguments for X. Suppose I pay you $5000 to take the pill. If you then take the pill, you may have had impure motives. However, by hypothesis, you know have a better set of beliefs than before. The pill improved you.

My point is that even if the money sways people, that does not automatically mean it corrupts them. It depends in part on what they end up believing. If they money brings they closer to the truth, it has a net positive effect.

Libertarians think libertarianism is true, so they might assert that their research centers improve people. Their leftist critics claim that such centers corrupt. But the argument depends in part on which doctrines are closest to the truth. We cannot make a purely ideologically neutral argument.

Academic Freedom?

At Wake Forest University, the faculty senate demanded discretion over each of the following:

  1. Whether the Eudaimonia Institute would be created.
  2. Whether and from whom the institute would receive funding.
  3. The right to determine whom the institute may hire.
  4. The right to decide what the faculty affiliated with the institute may present or publish.2

They asserted that without such rights and powers in place, the Koch funding was a threat to academic freedom. But their argument makes no sense.

In general, individual departments at research universities have tremendous latitude and power to set their own standards and to choose, almost unilaterally, whom to hire. The provost, chancellor, or president may have to sign off on hires, but nearly always defer to individual departments. While tenure and promotion decisions often require candidates to be screened by an ad hoc committee with professors from around the school, these committees generally just count publications and make sure professors are publishing in the appropriate journals in their field; they do not check the actual work other professors do. Perhaps this is a mistake, but nevertheless, this is the basic structure of the research university.

Further, faculty never ask permission to present or publish on anything. They write the papers they feel like writing. They present where they are invited to and agree to speak. They publish whatever and wherever they get past double-blind peer review. Imagine that in order to start a new church or to publish religious materials, you first had to get permission from all the other churches and religious leaders. We wouldn’t call that academic freedom. Imagine that in order to start a business, you first had to get permission from your competitors. We wouldn’t call that economic freedom. Imagine that in order to start a romantic relationship, you had to get permission from other would-be suitors. We wouldn’t call that personal freedom. And so on.

In short: The faculty senate at Wake Forest obviously are not trying to protect academic freedom, but impede it. A university in which the Senate had the enumerated powers above would be a joke.

Could Bias Correct Bias?

Even if outside funding is corruptly motivated by false ideology, it might nevertheless improve the university rather than corrupt it. Corrupt money might indeed spoil a pristine academic environment. But the actual academic environment is highly biased and ideological, and so it’s possible corrupt money has an ameliorative or counterbalancing effect.

If faculty, administrators, and students are for the most part epistemically rational, disinterested, truth-seekers—then the money would most likely do harm. However, if they are mostly biased, team-oriented, ideological and activist team-players—then the money might, despite the donors’ possibly corrupt motives, improve things, in two ways:

  1. Since the academia probably discriminates unfairly against non-leftists, it might help to partially correct the unfair imbalance, and get the academy slightly closer to where it would be if only faculty were not such partisan players.
  2. By helping to place and secure faculty with points of view different from the mainstream, the funding makes it more likely that students will be exposed to vigorous debate and honest, good faith defenses of different points of view. It makes it more likely that debate in the academy will be vigorous rather than an echo chamber.

Double Standards

Many academics claim that Koch funding is bad, and then rationalize arguments to that effect. But they do not apply similar standards to their own sources of funding.

For instance, Wake Forest hosts various left-wing research institutes—e.g., the Pro Humanitae Institute and Anna Julia Cooper Center—which receive funding from various left-wing foundations and sources. The Pro Humanitae Institute’s directors and faculty are not more impressive or accomplished than the director of the Eudaimonia Institute. Further, the Pro Humanitae Institute actively pushes left-wing social justice causes. As far as I can tell, it focuses almost entirely on activism rather than on scholarship.3 In contrast, the Eudaimonia Institute is research and teaching center with no apparent activist activity. The Anna Julia Cooper Center focuses on “advancing justice through intersectional scholarship”; by its own self-description, scholarship is meant to serve a political outcome.4 Further, their website reveals they only invite speakers or hire faculty who share their narrow political viewpoint.5 But the Wake Forest faculty senate has no problem with any of this.

Billionaire Henry Samueli gave UC Irvine $200 million to fund a new building and fifteen faculty and research positions in homeopathic, holistic, and integrative medicine. The Samuelis pay the university to research and promote pseudo-science, but no one protests or complains.

Why the difference in treatment? Perhaps the well-motivated faculty petitioners at Wake Forest or elsewhere simply overlooked these centers. Perhaps the well-motivated Wake Forest faculty petitioners scrupulously examined how their left-wing centers were funded, examined how hires were made, and then concluded (despite the intellectual uniformity) that they were free of any corrupting rules or behaviors. But most likely, faculty have not raised concerns about academic freedom simply because they like the centers’ political agenda.

Similar remarks apply to government-funded centers and research grants. Government agents and bureaucracies can and often are captured by groups pushing their own agendas.6 It’s silly to treat the National Endowment for the Humanities as ideologically pure but the Koch Foundation as ideologically loaded. The honest assessment is that both are motivated.

I invoke the double standards point here because it provides evidence that many complaints about outside funding of centers are insincere. The reasons activists use to explain why outside funding is dangerous could be levied against government and left-wing foundationfunded centers and research programs as well. But in practice we only see them made against market friendly centers.

1UnKoch My Campus claims its fiscal sponsor is the Center for Media and Democracy. https://centerformediaanddemocracy.salsalabs.org/unkochmycampus/index.html. The Center refuses to disclose where it gets its funding, but it has received at least $200,000 from Soros. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2011/12/11/left-obama-escalate-war-on-banks-intodangerous-territory.html#ixzz1gWfrRwHS. It receives money from a number of other left-leaning foundations:
http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Center_for_Media_and_Democracy#Funding. See also
https://fdik.org/soros.dcleaks.com/download/index.html%3Ff=%252Fmemo%2520on%2520climate.pdf&t=us and http://freebeacon.com/issues/soros-tied-networks-foundations-joinedforces-create-trump-resistance-fund/. Note that Lindsey Berger, UnKoch’s Executive Director, also works for Greenpeace.

2https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-anti-koch-meltdown-at-wake-forest-1491521075

3http://phi.wfu.edu

4http://ajccenter.wfu.edu

5http://ajccenter.wfu.edu/events/anna-julia-cooper-lecture/

6Mueller Public Choice III