Even as it settles into new campus digs, the UA's Freedom Center is raising fresh concerns about its well-heeled, right-wing benefactors.
Semantics could be part of the problem; in recent years, conservatives have merchandised the term "freedom" for everything from pep rallies to fried potatoes. So it's hardly surprising that this simple word would, in the eyes of some, become code for an often saccharine brand of nativist politics.
But here on the UA campus, it mostly sparks questions about just how "free" the Freedom Center really is from its reactionary donors and their bare-knuckle libertarian agenda—particularly when one of those benefactors is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. (See "Freedom From Regulation?" Currents, May 5.)
Charles Koch and his brother, David, are energy tycoons known for pouring millions of dollars into ultra-conservative causes. Among their favorites are the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is linked to the creation of the Tea Party movement.
The new center is staffed with Philosophy Department faculty, and led by David Schmidtz, a 15-year department veteran and leading libertarian intellectual. According to a UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences publication called SBS Developments, the center grew out of classes Schmidtz has long taught on the "philosophy of freedom."
In a previous interview with the Tucson Weekly, Schmidtz characterized the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation as a minor Freedom Center patron, having pledged a mere $1 million. Among the center's other contributors is a major donor that the University Foundation—which administers such donations—has refused to identify.
This only adds to the worry about the corrupting influence of private money, particularly from the powerful Koch brothers. "I think it's problematic for academics, and creates potential conflicts of interest," says David Gibbs, a professor of history and government in the UA's Political Science Department.
Those are hardly idle concerns. At Florida State University, Charles Koch recently sparked an uproar when he demanded—and received—the ability to screen faculty hires for a new economics program he funded.
That isn't happening at the UA, according to John Paul Jones III. He's the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, which includes the Philosophy Department. "I've looked into this," Jones writes in an e-mail to the Weekly, "and can report that there has been no donor influence over the hires we've made at the Freedom Center."
But to Gibbs, it defies logic that the Kochs would simply donate to the UA's top-rated Philosophy Department with no strings attached. Instead, he sees it as "deep lobbying," or an attempt to place the seal of academic legitimacy on their extremist libertarian views.
"When you think of lobbying," he says, "you think of a lobbyist coming in to twist a congressman's arm over a particular piece of legislation. But deep lobbying is where you influence the whole climate of opinion. And that's what is going on here.
"It's a very long-term project," Gibbs says. "Since the 1970s, a lot of rich individuals have been trying with great success to shift the climate of opinion radically to the right. The Koch brothers, of course, have become famous for doing that. There's really nothing comparable on the left."
That dovetails perfectly with the Freedom Center, which Gibbs labels "a libertarian think-tank with window dressing. They moderated some things on their website, and some of the people on their board are, in fact, distinguished philosophers, which gives it some legitimacy and cover. Given the record of the Koch brothers, it's difficult to see how it would be any other way."
Schmidtz was out of town and unavailable for comment. But in the earlier interview with the Weekly, he defended the Koch brothers and his center's independence. Schmidtz called the Koch funding "as honest a dollar that has ever been earned and given to me. I haven't really been troubled about that."
He also said that faculty members within the center—including four new hires—are hardly lock-step libertarians. Rather, he maintained that they enjoy complete academic freedom. "The Koch brothers really have nothing to do" with the center, he said. "If the Kochs have an agenda, I only know what I read about it in the newspaper."
UA philosophy professor Tom Christiano serves on the center's advisory board. He says academic independence will not be compromised, regardless of who gives money. "The Freedom Center is still a work in progress, and undoubtedly, we'll have to be vigilant, probably more vigilant than in the past, to make sure that decisions aren't biased by ideological considerations."
Regardless of who donates what, some find the cash-strapped university's increasing reliance on outside funding troublesome. Among them is Rachana Kamtekar, an associate UA philosophy professor with no ties to the Freedom Center. "It's not always going to be possible to ensure that the sources of money are clean," Kamtekar says. "And that's the problem with big money. A lot of it is not clean."
Unlike research funded by a specific industry, such as pharmaceuticals or defense, she believes the more esoteric Philosophy Department has largely dodged outside meddling—at least for now. "I don't think anyone has changed their research to please any of our donors," she says. "That gives me hope, because I have concerns about that connection.
"But the big elephant in the room," Kamtekar says, "is that state funding (is an ever-decreasing percentage) of the university's budget. I don't even know what it means to be a state university any more."
While there have been concerns about donor involvement regarding four new appointments to the Freedom Center, acting UA Provost Jacqueline Mok cites stringent policies prohibiting such influence. "Although a donor might designate his or her gift to support a particular program or area of study," Mok writes in an e-mail to the Weekly, "we would not permit a donor to make a hiring decision for the institution."
That doesn't let David Gibbs rest any easier. "The use of the money here is something that I think poses serious problems," he says. "In academics in general, and especially in philosophy, debates are supposed to be decided on the merits—that the stronger argument, the one with more weight and logic behind it, should prevail. But what's going on here has nothing to do with the quality of argument.
"This has to do with money," he says. "And in my view, that poses very serious problems for the integrity of scholarship."