Money and Influence: The Koch Brothers and Kenyon College

By Michael Wakin
Over the past several decades, Charles and David Koch, the Kansas-based billionaire brothers, have stood on the vanguard of a libertarian crusade to push a conservative agenda and fundamentally shift American government to the right.

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By Michael Wakin

Over the past several decades, Charles and David Koch, the Kansas-based billionaire brothers, have stood on the vanguard of a libertarian crusade to push a conservative agenda and fundamentally shift American government to the right. The Koch brothers have constructed a private political infrastructure so vast and well financed that it rivals the Republican National Committee. This infrastructure consists of think tanks, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions, all of which promote and galvanize the Kochs’ libertarian ideology. In recent years, the Koch brothers have intensified their conservative crusade on college campuses. The Koch brothers see higher education as a fertile ground to plant their ideological seeds and create a pipeline of students who espouse their libertarian orthodoxy. Kenyon is one of the many institutions that has accepted grants from the Charles Koch Foundation.  

Throughout their lives the Koch brothers have denounced an intrusive American government. They argue for narrow government intervention, reduced corporate and individual taxes, a minimal social safety net, and negligible regulatory oversight in industries, especially in the health care and environmental spheres. The Koch brothers are majority shareholders in Koch Industries, a conglomerate that has subsidiaries in industries such as petroleum, natural gas, chemicals, and more. Koch Industries is the second-largest privately owned company in America, making Charles and David Koch the eighth and ninth richest men in the world respectively.

A critique often levied against the Kochs, who have directed millions of dollars toward organizations to challenge the science behind global warming, regards their company’s egregious environmental record. Koch Industries has been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in pollution fines and was considered the No. 1 producer of toxic waste in the country in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While the Kochs have said that they are motivated by values, it is clear that their vision for policy seamlessly aligns with their financial bottom line.

In recent years, an array of Koch-controlled private charitable foundations has given millions in donations to colleges and universities all over the country. According to Polluterwatch, a project of Greenpeace that aims to hold polluters accountable, Koch foundations had donated $144,714,489 to colleges and universities between 2005 and 2015. In recent years, Koch donations have only swelled. As outlined in its annual report, the Charles Koch Foundation has given $77 million in 2016 and $90 million in 2017 in gifts to higher education institutions across the country in order “to liberate people from the internal and external barriers preventing them from realizing their potential.”

Kenyon College lies on the extensive list of institutions which have been financially buttressed by the Charles Koch Foundation. Since 2012, Kenyon College has accepted a total of $100,500 from the Charles Koch Foundation, comprised of eight different grants. The college has received an average of $12,500 per year with the largest grant coming for this academic year, at $35,000. The majority of funds are directed by William Luther, an assistant professor of economics and the current project director on all Koch grants. Professor Luther stated in an email that he applied for and received grants for the purpose of running an economics reading group and speaker series. Among the eight grants, on May 24th, 2016, Kenyon College received a grant of $8,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation to support a conference on public civil discourse organized by the Center for the Study of American Democracy. These contributions have been minuscule in comparison to other corporate and alumni gifts. To put the Koch contributions into context, the Kenyon Fund raised $3,735,716 in the 2016-2017 years alone.

Some members of the Kenyon community have voiced opposition to Koch-affiliated funds, while others have expressed faith in the college’s decision-making process and see no harm in accepting these funds.

The Charles Koch Foundation has a history of contributing to higher education with certain strings attached. Numerous public emails and records reveal attempts by the Kochs to gain influence over institutions of higher education by adding contingencies to their funding. Demands have included the names and private emails of students, control over curriculum decisions and faculty hiring, and authority over media coverage.

At West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, the Charles Koch Foundation planned to established “Donor Supported Professorship Positions,” as outlined in a grant agreement. The agreement required that one of the Koch-supported positions be on a tenure-track and if the university did not offer the positions to Dr. Andrew Young or Dr. Donald J. Lacombe, The Charles Koch Foundation would withhold funding. Furthermore, the agreement stipulated that UWV “shall present the candidate’s credentials to the [Charles Koch] Foundation” before making any official offer for the Donor Supported Professorship Position.

In a 2010-11 grant requirement to the College of Charleston, the Charles Koch Foundation mandated that the college provide the names and private emails of students who participated in Koch funded programs or activities if a roster was present. The purpose of this contingency was to inform students of opportunities at the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Human Studies at George Mason University– a libertarian leaning institution. The foundation also required it be consulted before the university made any public statements surrounding Koch-funded programs.

Similarly, on the campus of Florida State University, which received more than a million dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2010 and 2013 according to the Atlantic, a memorandum finalized by FSU and the foundation in 2013 states that “FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any propose publicity which includes mention of CKF.”

At Kenyon, there has been no evidence of Koch-affiliated groups ever attempting to exert any control over the college’s decision-making process despite a record of gifts dating back several years.

Grants must be approved by Kenyon’s grants committee, the provost, associate provost, the director of corporate and foundation relations, and the chair of the department. William Billiter, the director of corporate and foundation relations, stated that Kenyon had no hesitation in accepting Koch funds throughout this process. The Charles Koch Foundation “has had no influence on the books selected for the reading group nor the speakers hosted in the series,” Luther wrote in an email. He added that he is grateful for the Koch contributions because they allow him to provide opportunities for students otherwise unavailable.

In comparison to other institutions, the money Kenyon College receives from Koch-affiliated organization is modest. Between 2005-2015, Koch groups have given more than $94 million to entities at George Mason University, $2 million to both Florida State University and Texas Tech University, and millions more to a litany of other universities. Koch money is highly concentrated in public institutions with large student populations. Kenyon College—a small, private liberal arts college —does not seem like an ideal space for the Kochs to spend their resources spreading libertarian ideology.  

Koch’s presence can also be found on Symplicity, Kenyon’s Career Services Manager. Dating back three years, Charles Koch Institute internship opportunities have appeared on Simplicity thirty-four times. However, these include a total of only four original positions; “the rest are just being repeatedly posted. As such, we are unable to determine if they are renewing a posting because they are hiring more or because the positions aren’t filling and thus they have to extend the posting dates,” wrote Cheryl Garrett, an administrative assistant in the Career Development Office, in an email. Ms. Garrett added that the Charles Koch Institute has not taken a particularly aggressive approach on marketing their internships given that there are various companies across different industries that have similar or higher job listings.

Despite the minor presence of Charles Koch Institute internships on Symplicity and the relatively modest donations from the Charles Koch Foundation, accepting money from the Koch brothers, who are climate change skeptics and have amassed an egregious environmental record through Koch Industries, seems at odds with Kenyon College’s recent effort to improve its environmental consciousness. On February 16th, 2016, President Decatur signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, binding Kenyon to the goal of carbon neutrality by roughly 2040. Kenyon College also recently established the Office of Green Initiatives, tapping David Heithaus as director.

DivestKenyon, a campus organization whose mission is to protect the environment and support marginalized communities, voiced their opposition to Kenyon accepting funds from Koch-affiliated groups. In a statement DivestKenyon wrote “accepting and relying on money from the Koch brothers, an entity that is so diametrically opposed to the values we uphold, would be unethical.” Heithaus expressed similar feelings when it came to the source of the money “The question is what opportunities are you missing by not taking the money and I find it difficult to imagine the opportunity that is so impactful and fantastic that you should sacrifice your values to take that money,” said Heithaus. “I don’t think that, as an institution, we should be seeking money from organizations like the Kochs,” he continued.

On the issue of accepting money from the Kochs given their environmental record, Mr. Billiter struck a less absolutist – and perhaps more realistic – posture. He made the point that if the college had to examine every ideological position and portfolio investment of a donor or foundation, “we wouldn’t be able to take money from anybody, ever.” He added, “If we get money and it’s not blood money or really tainted money and it helps our students do their work or our faculty help our students do their work, we’ll take it.”

The Koch brothers’ troubling involvement in higher education, aggressive effort to delegitimize climate science, egregious history of pollution, and exorbitant spending to influence policy that enhances their financial bottom line pose a pressing and personal question for our community — do we have a moral responsibility to stop accepting money from the Kochs? It is a question that touches on the preservation of academic integrity in higher education, the well-being and sustainability of the environment, and the outsized influence of a few billionaires on our political process. It’s also a question of practicality and financial realities. I certainly don’t have an easy answer, but, to the extent that the Kochs’ donations make our small community part of the larger national conversation about these issues, I believe we have an obligation to consider our answer.


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