Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Universities donít go better with Kochs

The Koch family, most recently brothers Charles and David, has operated on the far-right edge of traditional politics, supporting Americans for Prosperity, the tea party and the John Birch Society.

The latter has spent Koch resources hunting communists, fellow travelers and dupes supposedly hidden among the clergy and high school and college faculty. Koch Industries is an energy and chemical company that is the nation's second-largest privately held company.

Most recently it appears that Florida State University was selling something the Kochs' charitable foundation wanted to buy. FSU set up a "Koch Committee" made up of faculty members as part of accepting $1.5 million over six years from the Kochs. This committee provided an "approved" list of faculty candidates for academic positions.

Now FSU President Eric C. Barron acts surprised by a firestorm of criticism coming his way. Universities often sell the name of a building or even the name of the entire institution to donors. This may be tacky, but does not threaten the basic mission of the college.

Allowing a donor with a political agenda to be involved in hiring faculty is another matter entirely. It violates the very essence of what a university is.

Barron says with great pride that individuals chosen for the faculty positions did not come from the applicants that were pre-approved by the "Koch committee." Seriously, President Barron, should there even be a pre-approval committee at a public university?

It is hard to believe Barron is so naïve as not to realize the Kochs were buying something of value. It might be a university's reputation, it might be its integrity. Even with all their money, the Kochs seem to be looking for what The Chicago Sun Times calls "that veneer of intellectual credibility," which is the unique and priceless thing of value a university has.

FSU is not the only university that's received donations from the Koch brothers. In Idaho, Boise State University has also received Koch gifts.

We hope BSU President Bob Kustra would carefully consider what could be at stake if that institution takes any Koch money with similar strings attached.

Barron has had to reiterate the point that the Koch Foundation exerts no overarching power over the university and that "Florida State is diligent and resolute in maintaining its academic integrity."

It is appalling, and indicative of the danger to a university's reputation, that this needed to be said at all.

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