Brown University faculty reject push for Koch-funded scholarship
Brown University (Screen Grab)

More than 60% of Brown University faculty members voted Tuesday to postpone a vote on the creation of a new academic center until next month, giving professors more time to assess whether administrators have adequately strengthened the institution's gift policy to ensure that wealthy right-wing donors are not bankrolling science-denying, corporate-friendly research.

The proposed Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) would absorb and expand programs from the Political Theory Project (PTP), which has received funding from the Koch Foundation led by fossil fuel billionaire and GOP mega-donor Charles Koch, The Brown Daily Herald reported this week.

Students Against Koch Influence (SAKI)—a campus group that has been organizing opposition to the proposed PPE Center—acknowledged that "more work is to come in writing and codifying the new policy" but celebrated the delay as "a huge first step."

According to UnKoch My Campus—a national nonprofit working to prevent Koch and his network of affiliated benefactors from purchasing undue academic influence in an attempt to bolster their political-economic agendas—Brown University received nearly $4 million from the Koch network between 2005 and 2019, including more than $2.2 million since 2017.

"We know that the Koch network has been infiltrating university programs for decades, using their donations to buy influence over research in order to amplify approaches to public policy that support their regressive legislative goals at the state and federal levels," UnKoch My Campus said in a statement this week.

"Oftentimes these policy goals seek to halt action on climate change, privatize public goods and services, and strip healthcare and other rights from our nation's workers," added the group, which is supporting SAKI's campaign against Koch influence at Brown. "Not only is academic freedom undermined, but it allows the Koch network to leverage a school's prestigious reputation and legacy in order to launder their impact on our democracy, climate, and economy."

Some proponents of the PPE Center contend that even though Koch money financed the PTP, it is not undergirding the proposal to establish a related academic center on campus.

That includes Provost Richard Locke, who reportedly told faculty during Tuesday's meeting that none of the "efforts to try to link the PPE Center to these outside groups... (through) guilt by association... provide evidence that there is a linkage between these outside groups and funding for the PPE Center."

However, SAKI countered that "we expect to see significant sums of Koch network money influencing the PPE. This is because the PTP has taken millions of dollars from the Koch donor network, including hundreds of thousands in the past few years."

According to SAKI:

It is clear that the PTP and the proposed PPE Center are inextricably linked to the network of pro-corporate donors organized by Charles Koch (the "Koch donor network"), which seeks to legitimize and promote climate change denialism and anti-democratic policy. Clear evidence shows that for the Koch donor network, academic institutions such as Brown are a key part of their "structure of social change." Brown has also been explicitly mentioned in a 2015 University of Arizona grant proposal describing a plan to create a broader PPE Network in the U.S.
We are fully supportive of a program that encourages debate between opposing viewpoints and brings together economists, philosophers, and political theorists. We agree that Brown should have more diverse views on campus.
However, we do not support a program that accepts money from a network whose intent is to undermine democracy, spread disinformation, and obstruct climate policy. Allowing the PTP and the PPE on our campus legitimizes the Koch network's project, which goes against our university's values. Extensive research shows that Koch money has dangerous strings attached to it. We, as students, do not want to be part of this pipeline.

Students have implored faculty members to oppose the PPE Center, and Brown professors have expressed their own concerns about the proposal, the Herald reported earlier this week.

Naoko Shibusawa, associate professor of history and American Studies, circulated a letter outlining faculty critiques in December. Shibusawa recently told the campus newspaper that she thinks the struggle over the PTP and PPE Center reflects a "larger existential struggle within our own university community about anti-democratic and harmful campaigns such as voter suppression and climate denial."

The Herald reported earlier this week that Brown's Advisory Committee on University Resources Management is "currently reviewing a faculty proposal that would alter the university's policy on gifts and grants to make it so faculty members cannot accept funding from 'sources involved in science denial.'"

According to history professor Brian Lander, Brown Scholars for Climate Action suggested to the committee that the university "should set minimum standards for which organizations it does business with, and that Brown should not accept any funds from organizations that promote climate misinformation."

During Tuesday's faculty meeting, J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology, referred to the proposal under review and emphasized the need for "a screening system that will allow us to reject donations from groups denying basic science."

As the Herald reported Wednesday:

Roberts then motioned to postpone the pending vote on establishing a PPE Center until the next faculty meeting in March. He claimed this would "allow faculty to assess whether the university has developed a sufficiently robust policy to prevent financial or gift arrangements from entities engaged in science disinformation from damaging the reputation or scholarly integrity of the university."

Soon after, professors voted to postpone the item until March 1, with 62% of faculty members in support of delaying the vote for a month.

Meanwhile, SAKI has demanded that oversight of the PTP be "given to professors who do not have any ties to the Koch donor network" and that the project "refuse all funds from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, DonorsTrust, and Tom McWilliams."

In an op-ed published last week by the Herald, sophomore student Ethan Drake—a member of the PTP-sponsored Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society during his first year at Brown—wrote that "I did not come to Brown to study at an institution that promotes the presence of the Koch anti-science, anti-democratic ideology."