Here’s How Colleges Are Spending Money From the Koch Foundation

As part of a transparency effort following ethical controversies, the organization shared its newest grant agreement with The Atlantic.

People stand on the campus overpass at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona (Matt York / AP)

On Tuesday, the Charles Koch Foundation announced that it would be making a significant change: The philanthropic behemoth would begin publishing details about the multiyear contracts that it makes with universities. The contracts, known as “grant agreements,” lay out the “term, scope, and purpose” of the funds the foundation gives to organizations. The effort at transparency was big news, not least because it came on the heels of a controversy over what exactly was in the libertarian organization’s agreement with George Mason University.

“There has been a lot of mischaracterization of our grants in the past,” Brian Hooks, the foundation’s president, told The Wall Street Journal. “The opportunity to be crystal-clear about how our foundation interacts with universities is a good opportunity.” The foundation awarded more than $49 million to more than 250 colleges in 2016, according to the Associated Press. And a new grant agreement that Koch shared with The Atlantic—the first since the announcement of the foundation’s transparency push— shows exactly what goes into those contracts.

The new grant is with Arizona State University, and is being given to the Academy for Justice, a coalition of criminal-justice scholars housed at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; it is a five-year grant for $6.5 million. The academy, which is led by Erik Luna, a professor at the law school, recently produced a four-volume publication that addresses criminal-justice topics such as racial profiling, mass incarceration, and use of force by police, as well as potential reforms. The grant, Luna told me in an interview, will help build on the model they used to create the report—injecting rigorous academic research into real-life policy conversations on criminal-justice reform.

That was the university’s initial proposal for the grant, and the agreement reflects that the money will go to that project. And, as the foundation outlined in its newly released statement of giving principles, “the faculty call the shots” when it comes to exactly how the funds are used. The agreement describes the grant’s purpose thusly: “As stated in the proposal the mission of the Center is to pursue scholarly research and analysis of criminal laws, procedures, policies, and practices.” It also explains how leadership will be selected, consistent with the university’s proposal: “The Center will be led by a Director, (the “Center Director”), who will be selected by the University according to its normal procedures.”

The agreement also outlines how much money will be contributed each year and to what. “Salary and fringe benefits for two tenured or tenure-track professorships”; “Costs and expenses for the Center Director Stipend”; “Costs and expenses for the Administrative Assistant,” and so on.

The transparency effort has been welcomed in the education community, but cautiously. It’s nice, some say, that the foundation will be announcing its new agreements, but what about the details of the old agreements?

Connor Gibson, a researcher with Greenpeace, told Inside Higher Ed that the new effort doesn’t address “existing concerns” and hides conditions outlined in previous agreements. Several critics point to the case of Koch’s grants to George Mason, in which the foundation retained the right to be involved in grantee’s hiring processes. After students and faculty submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for information about GMU’s ties to the foundation, the institution’s president, Ángel Cabrera, released the grant agreements dating back to 2003. All but one of the agreements explicitly stated that the university had final say in hiring, but Cabrera admitted that the limited involvement the foundation still had in hiring fell short of academic standards. “The issue was that the agreements granted donors the right to participate in selection and evaluation committees, a circumstance that falls short of the standard of academic independence we should expect in every gift,” he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

There has also been similar criticism by students and faculty of grants at Wake Forest University, Florida State University, and elsewhere. The foundation counters that the grant agreements, both then and now, are in line with the giving principles they’ve recently restated. “This move builds on our long-standing giving principles and takes things one step further,” Hooks told me. “We’re excited to be at the forefront of how philanthropies engage with universities.” The new agreement explicitly states several times that hires will be made according to university procedures and does not mention foundation involvement in faculty selection.

Here’s a full copy of the Arizona State University agreement: