The University of Maine at Machias announced last week that the campus will be welcoming its first Koch Speaker on Environmentalism and Freedom on October 6.
As the name suggests, the series is underwritten by a grant from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the philanthropy of the conservative billionaire of the same name, which has been the subject of scrutiny both inside and outside of academe. In May, an internal faculty review committee concluded Florida State University had jeopardized its academic autonomy in agreeing to give the foundation veto power over the hiring and retention of faculty members in the economics department, in exchange for a $1.5 million grant. The faculty senate at George Mason University has sought to review the terms of $30 million in grants the university received from the foundation, but have been rebuffed; GMU is a private university and not subject to public-records disclosure.
Charles Koch and his brother, David, have given more than $100 million to libertarian causes, from the effort to repeal climate-change initiatives in California to the training of Tea Party activists via Americans For Prosperity, a group they founded. They seek to promote "economic freedom" — by which they mean freedom from taxes and government regulation, policy changes that would further enrich the Kochs, whose company is one of the top ten air polluters in the country. Between 2005 and 2008, the brothers vastly outspent ExxonMobil in giving to organizations fighting efforts to address climate change, with substantial amounts passing through Charles's foundation.
Recently, the foundation has been giving grants to libertarian economists to allow them to bring like-minded speakers to their campuses. This year, its grants allowed Fox commentator John Stossel to speak at the College of Charleston, Cato Institute economist Robert Higgs at the University of Alabama, and historian Burt Folsom to address Michigan's Alma College on the topic of how FDR's "wasteful spending" prolonged the Great Depression. In each case, the grants were awarded to economists or the economics departments at the institutions. The Koch foundations currently support programs at 193 universities, according to a list on their website.
At UMM, the Koch foundation approached Jon Reisman, an associate professor of economics and public policy, and former GOP congressional candidate, who has worked with the Koch-supported American Legislative Exchange Council and attended a Koch-sponsored conference of business and economics professors in Wichita. "I'm always looking to bring speakers to campus, and if I can get money for it, all the better," Reisman says. "I think we need to have a discussion about the tensions between environmentalism and economic freedom, which is something the Kochs want to promote."
The grant is small — $6000 according to university spokesman Erik Smith — and only sufficient to bring two speakers. (The first, Robert Nelson, is a senior scholar at GMU's Koch-funded Mercator Center.) Reisman says if things go well, he'll reapply for next year.
Reisman, who was frank and forthcoming about his Koch connections, says the grant helps ensure intellectual diversity at UMM, where, he notes, libertarian faculty are a distinct minority. "I have been concerned that environmentalism as a central organizing framework comes into conflict with freedom as a centrally organizing value," he said. "The Koch company is being attacked because they have a philosophy the left finds threatening."
Smith noted that Reisman — not the Koch foundation — determines who the speakers will be, and that the university welcomes differing viewpoints. "It gives us the opportunity to offer students differing perspectives on issues," he notes.