In 1996, Richard Fink, an executive at Koch Industries and a top advisor to Charles Koch, outlined a three-tiered strategy for getting the petrochemical industrialist’s free-market ideas out into the world: through academia, think tanks, and activists’ organizations. Fink described the first tier of this “structure of social change” strategy as “investment in intellectual raw materials” and the “exploration and production of abstract concepts and theories” that academia would develop.
Nearly two and a half decades later, Koch influence in the academic sphere is far ranging. Koch money funds individual courses, professorships, fellowships, and even energy research and policy programs, like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. These centers represent significant investments in the “intellectual raw materials” of free-market advocacy.
According to Samantha Parsons of UnKoch My Campus, a group working to remove the Koch influence in higher education, there are at least 40 centers at prominent American colleges and universities that are funded directly by the Koch donor network. Three of the most prominent examples are described below.
George Mason University: The Epicenter of Koch Academic Influence
Billionaire Charles Koch has focused more resources on George Mason University (GMU) than any other school, and the relationship goes back decades. As far back as 1990, entities controlled by Charles and David Koch were given posts on a committee to choose candidates for a professorial position. An analysis of tax records by the Associated Press discovered that between 2011 and 2014, the Charles Koch Foundation gave $48 million to GMU, and then a subsequent $10 million donation in 2016 to rename their law school after conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.
According to Parsons of UnKoch My Campus, an economics professor had used a textbook called Global Warming and other Eco Myths, telling students that if they wanted to debate climate change, they should leave and not come back.
Another GMU professor, Walter Williams, stated in 2014 that it would take “idiocy” to believe that man made climate change could overpower the forces of nature, according to a Greenpeace report. Williams also mentored Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries who served as the first president for the Koch-funded group Americans For Prosperity. Williams has written for Fox Business, denouncing “wild predictions about climate doom” and asserting that after investing in fighting climate change, “we’ll be much poorer and less free.” And in an article for the Deseret News, he wrote that “man-made global warming, for many, is an Earth-worshipping religion.”
That’s just in the economics department. George Mason University also hosts the Mercatus Center, a conservative public policy think tank, which has routinely opposed attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions and was established by Charles Koch and Richard Fink. The Institute of Humane Studies, once described by Mother Jones as “a haven for climate change deniers,” is also a fixture of GMU. It is chaired by Charles Koch.
Utah State University: Blurring Private Enterprise With Public Education
In May 2017, the Charles Koch Foundation announced plans to donate $25 million to Utah State University. The primary purpose of this donation was to establish the Center for Growth and Opportunity, whose faculty have supported the privatization of public lands and environmental deregulation. Researchers at UnKoch My Campus and the Center for Biological Diversity discovered that the Center for Growth and Opportunity would have the veto authority over the hiring of six new faculty members.
The influence of Koch funding at Utah State is clear. Strata Policy, a Koch-funded think tank, has published research that overlaps with those of academics at Utah State, and the center and Strata share some personnel. Strata’s own press releases have acknowledged the symbiotic connection between the two institutions.
Screenshot from a Strata press release
A few examples illustrate the symbiosis; none better than that of Randy Simmons.
Simmons is a faculty member at Utah State University, the executive director of the university’s Institute for Political Economy (IPE), and also the president of Strata. Simmons publicly denies Koch involvement in the affairs of Utah State, but IPE, the free-market center housed at the university, is intimately connected with Strata. For example, the professors who wrote a 2015 Strata report opposing renewable energy in Kansas were the same voices behind a 2016 report opposing renewable energy policy in Pennsylvania.
The 2016 Pennsylvania report, co-authored by Simmons, argued that Renewable Portfolio Standards in Pennsylvania were “counterproductive and contradictory” and that states adopting these standards for minimum levels of renewable power saw a 14 percent drop in electricity sales. Strata and IPE have collaborated extensively since, as in 2017, they launched a failed attempt to revoke North Carolina’s renewable energy policy. This example indicates the reach of Koch funding on a state level, and in important debates about the future of environmental policy. It suggests academia can provide a veneer of expertise that allows the vested interests of industrialists and fossil fuel magnates to masquerade as evidence-based conclusions, in line with Fink’s “social change” strategy.
In another instance in 2015, Strata won a contract to promote the “Transfer of Public lands Act,” an attempt to privatize Utah’s public land. This bill was originally co-sponsored by then-Representative David Butterfield, who was also on the board of Strata.
Dr. Michael Giberson, currently Associate Professor in the area of Energy, Commerce and Business at Texas Tech University, has collaborated extensively with Stata. He authored a 2019 study entitled, “The Consumer’s Interest in Reforming West Virginia’s Power Industry,” which advocated for the deregulation of West Virginia’s power system. Before working at Texas Tech, Giberson was employed at GMU‘s Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science.
The Institute for Energy Research (IER) commissioned a 2013 study Giberson co-authored, “Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates,” in which he denounced clean energy and alternatives to fossil fuels as costly and unworkable, claiming that subsidizing wind power shifts costs onto the taxpayer, paying for turbines outside the states where they live. Giberson asserted that the low prices of renewable energy mean that smaller providers are unable to turn a profit, meaning that only those providers who qualify for subsidies are viable. IER, which puts out reports and analysis critiquing renewable energy and emissions reductions, is a nonprofit whose predecessor organization had direct ties to Charles Koch. Today the group has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Koch family foundations.
George Washington University and the Regulatory Studies Center
Another organization with significant Koch ties is George Washington University and its Regulatory Studies Center (RSC). Despite claiming to be an unbiased and objective analyst of regulatory policy, an evaluation of the center’s public output reveals almost unanimous support of deregulation. For example, between 2013 and 2018, 96 percent of public comments submitted to government agencies by RSC writers recommended less regulation than currently existed, according to an analysis by consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen and UnKoch My Campus. Additionally, 75 percent of public comments submitted by the RSC in this period were written by authors with past or present connections to Koch foundations, including director Susan Dudley.
Aside from Koch foundations, GWU’s Regulatory Studies Center has accepted funds from oil companies, lawyers, and anti-regulatory strategists to advocate for limited government. Susan Dudley is a self-proclaimed “free market environmentalist,” having argued that smog should be valued, as it could blot out the sun and mitigate the effects of skin cancer.
RSC authors with past or present Koch ties have been affiliated with at least 28 Koch-funded organizations, including the Mercatus Center at GMU. Both the Charles Koch Foundation and the libertarian Searle Freedom Trust Foundation, as well as the Exxon Mobil Foundation, have each donated over $1 million to the RSC. This led Taylor Lincoln, author of a Public Citizen report which accused the center of right-wing bias and the deliberate promotion of a deregulatory agenda, to describe the RSC as “the Fox News of the regulatory policy world, except it still clings to the fiction that it is fair and balanced.”
This level of Koch funding in academia and think tanks has broader implications for policy implementation, as state governments routinely rely on the state university systems to provide independent analyses of issues before the legislature and agencies, and advocacy groups use academic findings to bolster lobbying and public campaigns.
And as Fink laid out nearly 25 years ago, these investments in academia are the foundation for society-wide structural change.
Main image: Utah State University students project message on side of business school building. Credit: UnKoch My Campus.