This week, Kochs Off Campus!, a grassroots organisation of faculty members and alumni at the University of Arizona and local Tucson residents, staged a day of action to highlight the encroachment of corporate influences on public institutions and public educational facilities in Arizona.
The event, co-hosted by Unkoch My Campus and held on Tuesday, October 28, focused on “state capture” through education, highlighting how billionaires and corporations attempt to use their donations to academic institutions to advance their private interests.
The Day of Action is the latest in a series of events and initiatives that Kochs Off Campus! have taken to challenge corporate power and influence within Arizona, both on and off campus. The group is currently attempting to persuade the University of Arizona to sever its ties with the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom (or Freedom Center), associated with UA’s Philosophy Department. Tucson.com has reported that power at the Freedom Center was centralized under Director David Schmidtz, who is part of the faculty network at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center.
Charles Koch himself has provided $1.8 million in funding in $200,000 annual gifts to the Freedom Center through his foundation over the years. The Kochs Off Campus! group, however, points to the $10 million in public funds that the Freedom Center has received since 2014, after the Koch network initially helped get it off the ground in 2008. They argue that public money shouldn’t deliver a private curriculum, as the Freedom Center does through a libertarian-themed major that it administers. “Institutes like the UA Freedom Center are beachheads in the Koch network assault on our institutions of higher learning,” the group warned back in 2017 when they launched.
During a webinar to support the Day of Action, Alex Hertel-Fernandez, author of State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, spoke about the broader state-wide implications of the Koch influence in Arizona. Hertel-Fernandez, who is also an Assistant Professor in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Health, outlined the strategies employed by legislative councils and advocacy groups to influence policy making within Arizona.
Fernandez described how a “right-wing troika” — composed of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the State Policy Network (SPN), and Koch-funded advocacy group Americans For Prosperity — had conspired to force upon state lawmakers and the public a free-market agenda including privatization, the deregulation of environmental and health protections, and the disenfranchisement of labor unions. The State Policy Network, a collection of 66 think tanks with a combined budget of $80 Million, was formed by ALEC to provide an ideological and intellectual foundation for libertarian ideals within states, proliferating ideas that would become legislation in statehouses across America. It has openly stated its uncompromising goal to “defund and defang the unions.” In Arizona, SPN is represented by the Goldwater Institute, which received at least $2,921,912 between 2002 and 2016 from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, two dark money funds often deployed by the Koch donor network to conceal giving.
ALEC’s influence is also particularly strong in Arizona. According to Documented, a leaked list of ALEC conference attendees in 2019 featured 29 state lawmakers from Arizona — almost a third of the lawmakers in the state legislature, and the most legislators from any single state.
The ALEC influence in Arizona goes back to least 2010 when, with input from Corrections Corporations of America, Arizona Senator Russell Pearce wrote the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (SB 1070). This act enabled law enforcement officers to demand proof of immigration status whenever they interacted with local residents. An NPR investigation found that both Pearce and the Corrections Corporations—which operate government-contracted prisons and jails— have seats on ALEC’s boards, and that ALEC helped to draft the model legislation that became SB 1070. In a state where 13 percent of residents were born in another country (and one-in-six are born in the U.S. to an immigrant parent), the impact of these laws were massive, directly impacting at least one-quarter of the popular.
According to The Guardian, SB 1070 was condemned by Jacinta Gonzalez of the Latinx advocacy group Mijente, who stated that, “Our communities are facing the brunt of policies that are being passed not because they are promoting public safety but because they line the pockets of corporations.”
Fernandez suggested that another way the “troika” proves effective at consolidating political power is by undermining institutions, such as labor unions, that were once crucial to the working class. Largely due to the coordinated efforts of ALEC, SPN, and Americans for Prosperity, Arizona is now a “Right to Work” State, meaning that private sector workers can refuse to join unions, which has correlated with declining union membership across the country. Chris Brunelli, the Director of ALEC, wrote that “winning is what ALEC is all about”, and that, “at ALEC, we bring together, in an intellectually and challenging environment, State legislators and corporate and business executives, wherein we provide the mixture of determination, dedication, preparation, and teamwork—those elements so necessary to winning.”
Following the webinar, a number of University of Arizona alumni, students, and faculty gathered at the school’s campus in Tucson, where the group says they reached thousands with their message to kick Koch money out of the public institution. Signs at the protest issued calls to “Save the Postal Service” from Charles Koch’s goal of defunding it and to protect the rights of labor unions. And, of course, more than one sign called to “Keep Koch $$$ out of Arizona now!”
Image: Kochs Off Campus! Day of Action at the University of Arizona campus. Credit: Kochs Off Campus! on Facebook.