Koch and George Mason University

Koch and George Mason University

Funding and Connections

From 2005-2014, George Mason University (GMU) and affiliated centers have taken just under $80 million from Koch foundations. 

The George Mason University Foundation received $46,527,725 from Koch foundations since 2005. The bulk of this funding has gone to GMU‘s Economics department and GMU‘s Law and Economics Center. This $46.5 million investment represents half of the $90 million total that Koch foundations have sent to college departments at over 360 universities since 2005.

Charles Koch continues to finance and govern two political influence groups hosted on GMU‘s Arlington, Virginia campus. Since 2005, Charles Koch’s foundation has given the Institute for Humane Studies $23,386,630, and provided $9,847,500 more to the Mercatus Center. Charles Koch is the chairman of the IHS, and has been directing the organization since the 1960s, before it re-located to GMU. Koch is also a director of the Mercatus Center, which he co-founded with Richard Fink.

In addition to financial ties, Koch has personnel involved with the university.  Richard Fink, the vice president of Koch Industries, Inc., and the former president of the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the now-defunct Claude R. Lambe Foundation, serves on the board of directors of the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Richard Fink’s connection to George Mason University is strong.  Besides teaching at the university from 1980-1986, Fink has also served on a number of boards at the university including the Institute for Humane Studies and the Center for the Study of Public Choice, the Board of Visitors, and the Student Affairs Committee.

Concerns over Koch and academic freedom for professors to teach material free of restrictions and stipulations in Koch-funded university departments have been raised by professors, students and academic freedom experts.

The Institute for Humane Studies

The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) was founded by F.A. Harper in 1961 and has been associated with George Mason University since 1985.  The mission of the IHS is “to support the achievement of a free society by discovering and facilitating the development of talented, productive students, scholars and other intellectuals who share a commitment to liberty and who demonstrate the potential to change significantly the current climate of opinion to one more congenial to the principles and practices of freedom.”  The Institute for Humane Studies provides $600,000 in scholarships each year.

According to SourceWatch, the IHS acts as “a libertarian talent scout, identifying, developing, and supporting the brightest young libertarians it can find who are intent on a leveraged scholarly, or intellectual, career path.”  In addition to the funding it receives from the Koch Family Foundations, the Institute for Humane Studies also receives donations from conservative foundations such as the Carthage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Institute For Humane Studies underwriting High School Curriculum to promote Capitalism

According to leaked Google documents created by the Charles Koch Foundation, published by the Huffington Post, the IHS staff are involved in providing trainings and course content for high school teachers who are sympathetic to Charles Koch’s preferences for unregulated capitalism. 

In some cases, IHS teaching videos have been flagged for misrepresenting facts to align with Koch’s political agenda. According to the Huffington Post:

Today, to teach its most controversial lessons, YE often relies on videos provided by the Charles Koch-chaired Institute for Humane Studies, which operates out of George Mason University in Virginia. The videos are produced and marketed under an institute arm called Learn Liberty, which offers dozens of educational videos on libertarian and conservative topics.

One such video Davis showed his students defended price-gouging. “Anti-gouging laws don’t do anything to address” shortages, the video’s narrator argues. Another video titled “Is There a Glass Ceiling?” asserts that thegender pay gap is a myth. Women earn around 75 cents for every dollar earned by men, it says, but not because of discrimination in the labor market. Rather, it’s because of “differences in the choices that men and women make.”

Other Institute for Humane Studies videos on the syllabus inform students that the cost of living isn’t actually rising, that minimum wage laws harm workers and that the poor aren’t “really getting poorer.”

The Koch-funded high school training programs were also noted for listing specific ideological conclusions that high school students should learn from Koch-trained teachers:

YE‘s course materials reflect some of the initial thinking by the Koch associates charged with designing the course. In late 2009, the Koch group made a list of “common economic fallacies” that they believed should be repudiated. These included:

  • Corporatism v. Free-market Capitalism
  • Deregulation is what caused recession in 80s, Economic problems of today
  • Rich get richer at the expense of the poor
  • FDR/New Deal brought us out of the depression
  • Government wealth transfer programs help the poor
  • Private industry incapable of doing functions that public sector has always done
  • Unions protect the employees
  • People with the same job title should be paid the same amount …
  • Minimum wage, “living wage,” laws are good for people/society
  • Capitalist societies provide an environment for greed and materialism to flourish
  • Socialist countries do just fine, people have great lives there (using this as proof that socialism works

They aimed to “inoculate” students against liberal ideas by assigning them to read passages from socialist and Marxist writers, whom they called “bad guys.” These readings would then be compared to works by the “good guys” – free-market economists like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.

IHS Internships

Charles Koch is the chairman of the Institute for Humane Studies.  Every year the IHS hosts the Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program which offers an internship in public policy.  The internship is a ten-week program that includes an opening seminar, the internship, and a closing seminar.  The opening seminar involves lectures on public policy analysis, classical liberalism, and “persuasive communication.” 

The internship entails working at a public policy think tank, either at the state or national level. Most or all of these placement organizations are financed by Charles Koch, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center, the National Center for Policy Analysis, and the Institute for Justice.  Policy interns may tackle a number of issues including environmental policy.

The Institute for Humane Studies also offers a journalism internship for which it seeks “writers for liberty.”  No formal training in journalism is required and the internship offers a choice of three program areas: investigative, print, and broadcast.

The internship starts with a week-long seminar on journalism and free society, followed by a placement at different locations.  Previous placements for print journalist interns have included the Pittsburgh-Tribune–owned by Richard Scaife, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement in the U.S.  Placements for interns in broadcast journalism have included FOX News.

The Institute for Humane Studies and Politopia

The Institute for Humane Studies also runs the website Politopia: The Land of Custom-Made Government.  The purpose of this website is to promote a new political model that is different from the “old” left/right political model.  In this model, politics are placed in the magical land of Politopia where, depending on where you live (north, west, east, or south), the politics of the land are different. 

Politopia is presented as an unbiased educational tool.  However, in its model, the role of the government in economic affairs decreases as one moves into the north, and increases as one moves farther south.  Similarly, the government’s role in an individual’s daily affairs decreases as one moves west and increases as one moves east. 

Historically, the geopolitical terms “west” and “north” have been identified with prosperity, freedom, affluence, industry, and development; whereas the terms “east” and “south” have been associated with poverty, oppression, communism, failure, disease, and insignificance.  Interestingly, Politopia places libertarian and conservative values in the more “ideal” regions of the world.

The Mercatus Center

The Mercatus Center is a conservative think tank located at George Mason University.  It is a sister organization to the Institute for Humane Studies.  The Mercatus Center was originally founded at Rutgers University by Richard Fink in the late 1970s, under the name the Center for Market Processes

Koch Industries began funding the organization when it moved to George Mason University in the 1980s, and still finances the centre today. In 1999, the organization was renamed the Mercatus Center.  Charles Koch and Richard Fink serve on its board of directors.

The Mercatus Center believes that a gap exists between economic understanding and real-world decision and policy making.  Its mission, therefore, is to bridge that gap and to “provide policy makers with the economic tools to make sense of today’s most pressing issues.”

The Wall Street Journal has called the Mercatus Center “the most important think tank you’ve never heard of,” and SourceWatch identifies the Mercatus Center as “one of the best-funded think tanks in the United States at the moment.”  From 1999-2006, the Mercatus Center received a total of $2,670,662 in funding from conservative organizations, including $1.44 million from the Koch Family Charitable Foundations.  Furthermore, between the years 2003 and 2007 the Mercatus Center received $160,000 in funding from ExxonMobil.

The Mercatus Center and Lobbying

According to, the Mercatus Center regularly lobbies in the federal government, including providing lawmakers with “Capitol Hill breakfasts and luncheons hosted by deregulation scholars.”  Mercatus has been an effective machine for pushing Koch’s conservative political and economic values.

The Mercatus Center explicitly states that it does not engage in lobbying, and definitely “does not employ nor retain any registered lobbyists.”  However, in 2005 Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, who has travelled on 19 occasions at the expense of the Mercatus Center, proposed a bill to amend the Clean Air Act.  Ney’s bill called for the Secretary of Energy to build fifteen new oil refineries and sell them to private companies.  Ney’s amendment not only fell in line with the position of the Mercatus Center, which had been trying to weaken the Clean Air Act, but it also seemed to benefit Koch Industries, Inc.–the largest private oil company in the United States and the Mercatus Center’s largest beneficiary.

Lobbying rules stipulate that any organization that spends more than $24,500 within a six-month period trying to influence government representatives, must register itself as a lobbying group.  In both 2004 and 2005, the Mercatus Center spent over $55,000 on congressional travel.  Furthermore, between 2000 and 2005 Mercatus spent $227,000 on more than 400 trips by government officials and their aides.  The Mercatus Center has never registered itself as lobbying group.

The Mercatus Center and The Clean Air Act

In 2002 the Mercatus Center led a focused attack on the Clean Air Act.  This attack was led by Mercatus Center Distinguished Senior Scholar, Wendy Gramm.  Gramm, who is an ardently opposes regulation in the energy sectors, asked for the reassessment of 44 of the Clean Air Act’s federal regulations.  Regulations included in the Mercatus Center’s requests for review were:  national public health standards for smog and soot, and standards for tailpipe exhaust pollution from gasoline vehicles, diesel vehicles, and heavy diesel trucks.  As the non-profit group, Clean Air Trust highlighted, “Gramm would like to pull the plug on virtually every effective air pollution cleanup measure adopted in recent years.”

GMU Econ Professor Affiliated with Mercatus Center calls for “Less Democracy”

According to RawStory, citing GMU student paper the Fourth Estate, GMU Economics professor Garrett Jones called for “less democracy” in an event on campus:

Jones says that less democracy and more epistocracy could lead to better governance. Democracy leaves power to the majority while epistocracy allocates power to the knowledgeable. Jones did not imply that democracy should be eliminated, but lessened by 10% for the sake of long term economic growth.
According to Jones, less democracy would lead to better governance because politicians would be inclined to work on long term growth rather than spending to impress constituents during election season. Politicians try to please the public at the expense of neglecting long- term policies because they are elected through a democratic process.

Koch Academic Freedom Concerns:

Geroge Mason University has taken over half of the $68 million that Charles Koch has sent to campuses since 2005 – over $35 million dollars.

Yet little information exists about Koch’s arrangement with GMU‘s Economics department, or the Law and Economics Center on GMU‘s Arlington campus. At schools like Florida State University, professors flagged Koch’s academic freedom violations. In an article titled Fine Print, Restrictive Grants, and Academic Freedom, written by two FSU Professors for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a primary concern was that Koch infuence could extend into the curriculum of FSU‘s economics department.

FSU and all other schools financed by Charles Koch are largely modeled off of Koch’s decades-long capture of George Mason University‘s economics department, where Koch Industries’ chief lobbyist Richard Fink used to work, along with a litany of other top Koch personnell. 

Concerns over Koch and academic freedom at GMU have been raised by GMU students in 2014 and 2015, though the administration has refused and ignored calls to make Koch’s contracts with GMU transparent to tuition-paying students and tenured faculty alike. According to reporter Dan Berrett for Inside Higher Ed in 2011,

When asked for copies of the donor agreements, the university referred the request to the foundation, saying that – since they are held by a private nonprofit organization – such documents are not subject to freedom of information requirements, a position the foundation confirmed.

The faculty has made similar requests and been rebuffed by the foundation. Spurred by concerns over the relationship with the Koch Foundation, the Faculty Senate has formed a task force to examine the implications of all the funding agreements into which the university has entered.

If we can’t have access to the agreements, it’s very difficult to determine where the intent lies,” said Peter M. Pober, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of communications.

While many faculty members at George Mason acknowledged that private foundation support of a university’s academic programs is nothing new, Pober said the important line of distinction is at what point and how the private foundation exerts its influence. It is customary, he said, for a foundation to give money to study a particular discipline, whether it be free market economics or labor studies. But it is something else if the donation is contingent upon a scholar producing research with a predetermined outcome.

In 2014, George Mason University officials again refused to provide information to reporters regarding Koch’s financial arrangements with the school. For the Center for Public Integrity, Dave Levinthal wrote, 

George Mason University donors “respect our academic freedom and understand they can’t influence what we do,” university spokesman Michael Sandler said. “Our president [Angel Cabrera] has made clear that if any donor ever threatened our academic freedom, we wouldn’t take their money.”

In an April 2013 question-and-answer session on, Cabrera said as much while responding to a question about Charles Koch’s involvement in George Mason University’s affairs.

Jennifer N. Victor, a George Mason University politics professor who specializes in how individuals and groups influence government, is nevertheless concerned.

George Mason University, she says, is earning a reputation for advocating political conservatism and libertarianism — a reputation she argues is “absolutely unwarranted,” as she’s sensed no pressure to teach a certain way or publish research that clings to a particular philosophy.

It’s potentially damaging to the image and the reputation of the university and academia, rightly or wrongly, to be associated with ideological anything,” Victor said. “It’s contrary to what the goal of higher education is.”

A 2014 report by Greenpeace USA offers more examples of multi-million dollar contracts at Koch-funded schools, and the specific concerns regarding Koch and academic freedom. In response to increasing documentation by students, professors, reporters and activists that Charles Koch’s money erodes academic freedom, the Charles Koch Foundation placed a statement on its website, and began adding “academic freedom” provisions to university contracts like the University of Louisville

See PolluterWatch’s page on Charles Koch University Funding and the Koch Academic Freedom section below the funding database for a comprehensive list of documented concerns by professors, students and activists seeking more information on Koch-funded campus operations. SourceWatch has more on Koch and academic freedom.