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If You're Worried About Free Speech on Campus, Don't Fear Students—Fear the Koch Brothers

How billionaires and college administrators are using their power to silence students.
Duke University.

Duke University.

Two weeks ago, as students campaigned to ban certain forms of "hate speech" in response to the use of a racial epithet by a student, Larry Moneta, Duke University's vice president for Student Affairs, scolded the young activists, tweeting, "Freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors." He advised that the angry students read a book by constitutional law scholars, hoping they would pledge fealty to abstract principles of free speech over the very real experiences of vulnerable students encountering hate.

Then, on Monday, Moneta went into a campus coffee shop for tea and a vegan muffin, was offended by the lyrics of a rap song that came up on the shop's Spotify playlist, and promptly had the two employees on duty fired.

In this case—as in other recent cases where professors were fired or threatened with firing for criticizing elite figures, or when legislatures attempt to criminalize protest—we see once more how the real threat to free expression on campus has always come from the abuse of power. Power belongs to administrators, donors, and, in the case of public universities, lawmakers. Anyone serious about defending free speech and promoting ideological diversity should focus their critiques on those who wield that power to crush dissent. This Duke dean's abuse of power, especially given his hypocrisy, is merely the latest example of a much bigger problem.

A few other notable examples have come to light over the last few weeks. The hard work of a student group at George Mason University has exposed how the right-wing Koch brothers have used their billions to sway faculty hiring. An ex-professor at Arizona State University has written about the Koch-funded creation of a shadow university—a mandatory ideological bubble—within that institution. At the University of Montana this June, a 39-year-old executive from General Electric was named president. His first move was to cut the humanities, especially targeting the independence of interdisciplinary programs like gender or environmental studies. Finally, a new survey of religious schools reveals that administrators routinely exercise approvals over what can and cannot be published in student newspapers, creating cultures and systems of campus censorship.

Here's what we've learned most recently about the Koch brothers. As reported in the New York Times, a new trove of documents (unearthed by an intrepid student group) from George Mason reveals that conservative donors including the Kochs have been using their wealth to assert control over faculty hiring. The documents indicate that, as early as 1990, the Kochs were insisting on their rights to place representatives on hiring committees, and that the practice continued for decades. These days, one professor alleged to the Times, the Kochs no longer have explicit seats on hiring committees, but rather assert a subtler control over hiring with "a wink and a handshake."

This is not how the system is supposed to work. Although academic hiring is fraught with bias of all sorts, the theoretical basis for our academic system is that the quality of one's scholarship should determine one's success. Hiring in particular requires transparency and a commitment to diversity from the first meeting. Adding an ideologically rigid right-wing donor to the committee or pushing a search committee to consider hiring only people who might please a donor runs counter to the core ideals of academic freedom and scholarly independence. And that's the point: The Kochs were buying themselves a chunk of a university.

George Mason isn't the only school to give the Kochs inappropriate access in exchange for long-term largesse. At Arizona State, another large public institution, the Kochs funded the creation of sub-divisions within the schools that existed outside typical departments and disciplines. This keeps Koch scholars from having to collaborate with non-Koch colleagues. It also potentially keeps independent faculty from exercising due diligence over hiring, tenure, and promotion within the university's Koch enclave. The programs and the source of the funding aren't new, but the departure last year of professor Matthew Garcia from ASU for Dartmouth College has made the corruption more visible by freeing up Garcia to write about his experiences.

In the Washington Post, Garcia writes that the gifts to ASU from the Charles Koch Foundation "circumvented history, philosophy, economics, and political science departments altogether by financing the creation of new schools and departments that contain only professors that share their conservative views." Garcia adds that this organizational structure, which intentionally isolates the Koch-funded centers, has received backing from conservative legislators in Arizona. These lawmakers are tying budgetary support for ASU to maintaining that structure. Garcia also notes that, far from promoting ideological diversity and debate, "Neither the small group of legislators or the architects of the new school showed any interest in debate. None of the external scholars charged with building the school ever talked to me or members of my faculty."

Meanwhile, in Montana, the new president arrives on campus without a Ph.D. or significant academic experience. What he does have, though, is a "strategy for distinction" that involves cutting 50 faculty lines. As Rutgers University's Nick Kapunoted on Twitter, "gender, African American, Native American, and environmental studies, geography, and philosophy all get smashed together—what essentially amounts to a 'Department of Anything Smacking of Political Correctness.'" The new president likely knows he cannot simply abolish these programs, but he can silo them and gradually reduce their funding.

Finally, there's actual censorship by administrators. In a survey of 49 Christian schools, the surveyors (themselves student journalists at Taylor University in Indiana) found that 75 percent of student news outlets had experienced administrative pressure to take down or change stories, 72 percent had advisers who could kill a story preemptively, and 34 percent reported that this power had been put to use. Private colleges have the right to censor their students, but here we have yet another case where a conservative institution is behaving in ways that would result in mass outrage if discovered on a campus like Oberlin, Middlebury, or Wesleyan.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the American right continues to leverage its wealth, influence, and administrative power over campuses to act in just the ways that they have accused the left of acting. The problem is power. As long as administrators, donors, and lawmakers misuse their power, the campus culture wars will rage on.