On January 14th, one day before a scheduled meeting with students to discuss concerns about academic freedom and the influence of the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) on FSU’s campus, John Thrasher cancelled the meeting and stated that he “saw no point in sitting down with his students” on the issue.
Thrasher’s refusal to meet raises a lot of red flags; especially since experts on academic freedom around the nation consider the issue of grave importance. In a recently signed “Letter of Support” the President of American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Dr. Rudy Fichtenbaum, urged university administrators to “take immediate action to stop all academic interactions with CKF” and “move to immediately disclose university relations… and create review processes that prevent such influence from being granted in the first place.”
But FSU’s transparency issues don’t stop here. In fact, the issue of transparency is further complicated by the President of Faculty Senate Gary Tyson’s statement that FSU’s Faculty Senate Steering Committee undertook a review of the 2013 “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) and came to the conclusion that the MOU neither “interferes with faculty governance, nor restricts academic freedom of faculty or students.”
In a meeting with an FSU Faculty Senate Steering Committee (FSSC) member on the day Thrasher cancelled the meeting we learned that 1) no official report was released by the FSSC on the review of the 2013 MOU and its findings 2) copies of the MOU were not present or analyzed in the meeting where the 2013 MOU was discussed 3) no MOU was distributed by email prior to the FSSC meeting 4) some members of the FSSC may not even have had copies of the 2013 MOU prior to this informal meeting and 5) no minutes were taken during this meeting.
This troubling “review” process leaves unresolved the areas of the 2013 MOU that have not addressed the 2011 Faculty Senate Ad-Hoc Committee Report. Furthermore, the review ignores the complete disregard of policy and process changes called for by the Senate report and President Eric Barron in order to guard academic freedom, facilitate transparency and protect the university system from undue outside influence.
Department of Economics Chair Dr. Mark Isaac’s claim to the Tallahassee Democrat that “it would be a violation of academic freedom to tell faculty members they could not seek funding from the Koch Foundation” seems odd to say the least. According to a recent statement released by United Faculty of Florida at FSU the Koch Foundation agreements pose a threat to academic freedom and shared governance. UFF argues that “funding must not come with strings attached, including hiring and curriculum decisions or other demands based solely on the ideological motivations of the funding organization. Undue outside influence on academic and hiring decisions violates the principles of higher education that we hold so dear.”
Last week Thrasher stated to the Tallahassee Democrat that the agreement is almost at an end “in any event” and that he doubts that the CKF would want to continue with the agreement “given everything that’s gone on.” This brings our point all the way home. Thrasher seems to be saying that we should just wait out the violations until the Charles Koch Foundation’s agreement expires, but this “plan” does not address the weaknesses in the university system that allowed for the violation in the first place.
In fact, we have waited four years for the recommendations of the FSU Faculty Senate Ad-Hoc Committee Report to be processed with little to show for it. Instead, secrecy and corruption spread. In 2014, during his tenure as Senator, John Thrasher voted “yes” on a piece of legislation that closed public access to meetings between private donors and public university foundations thereby further shutting down university transparency. This is in line with Thrasher’s argument that the review and approval of gift agreements by “Deans and Vice-Presidents” is somehow enough. Without democratic faculty-led committees to review the gift agreements there is no guard for academic freedom. Quite the opposite, the very people “bought out” by the CKF influence end up administering the undemocratic reviews.
For instance, the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy, Dr. David Rasmussen, signed the 2008 and 2013 agreements with the Koch Foundation. In a memo written by the Chair of the Department of Economics in 2008, Dr. Rasmussen is implicated in fundraising for the 2008 agreement. Dr. Rasmussen has been the past Director of the DeVoe Moore Center, which is Koch funded, and benefits from the Koch agreements in his position as Professor of Economics. A review by this Dean is clearly not a neutral or democratic review process.
In order to restore democracy at FSU we call on John Thrasher to take immediate action to guarantee transparency and protect the university’s standards for academic freedom and faculty governance. We urge John Thrasher to institute a faculty-led and governed review process of donor agreements, to make public the agreements between private donors and the FSU Foundation that exceed $100,000 as well as create clear, transparent policies regarding what donors can and cannot expect regarding hiring and curriculum decisions in order to prevent future agreements with “strings attached”. We continue to request an open meeting with John Thrasher to discuss the issues at hand. We urge him to view this as his first and most important Public Relations project.
As citizens of the US many of us worry over our right to free speech. But how often do we get stressed over academic freedom? What is academic freedom anyway? I know, it sounds like convoluted University mumbo jumbo. It isn’t though. Trust me.
Academic freedom wasn’t even on my radar until FSU’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee voted to fast track John Thrasher as President of FSU. After that, academic freedom became my obsession. Why? Because, it protects the professors’ and students’ right to seek, research and publish the truth. It guarantees us a role in the democratic governance of the university’s institutional life. Without academic freedom there is no truth. Without truth – tyranny and corruption are all but guaranteed. Why should you care?
In 2011, after discovering the highly controversial 2008 contract between the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and FSU’s Department of Economics, FSU’s Faculty Senate (FS) put together a committee to address concerns about the CKF agreement and its challenges to academic freedom. The concerns arose because the 2008 agreement gave undue outside influence to CKF in areas of faculty hire, faculty oversight and curriculum control; issues that are central to academic freedom. The Faculty Senate Review Report gave recommendations that appeared to be ignored and forgotten until a second agreement (signed in 2013) was uncovered. The 2013 agreement was signed in secret, and many of the FS Committee concerns were unaddressed.
Faculty Senate recommendations included a suspension of faculty hiring under the agreement until the advisory board included two faculty members and worked by majority. The 2013 agreement includes two faculty members and one CKF member, and demands a unanimous vote. The 2013 contract says that the selection of Professorship Positions must go through normal university processes of hire but before the hire takes place the information on the candidate must be put past CKF and CKF is under no obligation “to provide funding” to their selection. This means that CKF still has veto power over who gets hired in the department with their money. It doesn’t take much to realize that this means the department must put forward someone CKF approves in order to get the position funded.
The Faculty Senate Report also notes a host of concerns in regards to the agreement’s language about the “Undergraduate Program” in the Department of Economics. Of primary concern is the language which implied that CKF had intentions of creating an “alternative” undergraduate program at FSU that would set forth only the “Objectives and Purposes” of the Charles Koch Foundation. Nothing about this concern was addressed in the 2013 contract. In fact, the “creation of the Undergraduate Program” language has not changed at all. None of the Senate Report’s concerns about textbook selection, undergraduate teaching, the new certificate program, the Teaching Specialist position, and reading groups funded by CKF have been addressed; nor has the name of the CKF funded “Economics Club” changed to reflect what it really is: a CKF funded club promoting free market capitalism and free enterprise.
It is unclear that ANY of the final recommendations of the Senate Report have taken place at the University. These recommendations include College, Department and University Foundation collaboration in the review and development of language that creates more clear guidelines on private donor funding. Specifically, it recommends that the Provost’s Office and the University Foundation “create a mechanism to review multiple articulated donor agreements.” Did this happen? It does not appear so. Furthermore, Provost Garnett Stokes signed the 2013 contract – and she did so in secret.
On July 15th, 2011, shortly after the Faculty Senate Ad-Hoc Committee released its Report and list of “Recommendations,” the FSU President Eric Barron sent a series of letters to key players involved in the 2008 agreements, FSU university administration and Faculty Senate.
In a letter to Dean of the College of Social Sciences, Dr. David Rasmussen, Dr. Barron put forward the following:
(Note: Dr. Rasmussen signed the 2008 and 2013 agreements with Koch. According to documents released earlier this year, Rasmussen was a primary actor in securing the initial funding from CKF).
- A request that tasked Vice President Jennings to review Foundation policies and “to take actions to ensure that all gift agreements adhere to our academic principles.”
- That “no additional hiring occur using the MOU unless it is modified.” This is in line with the Faculty Senate Report.
- He notes that “In the process of gathering information about the implementation of the MOU, the Committee reflects on several areas related to faculty governance, departmental bylaws, and the faculty involvement in the development of the curriculum. These issues are not related to the language in the MOU. However they suggest weaknesses in faculty and departmental governance that should be addressed.”
As far as we can tell, no report was published by VP Jennings that reviewed the Foundation policies. If this procedure was done, it was done like many of the University practices, behind closed doors. As to not hiring any additional faculty under the 2008 MOU, as far as we can tell it took over two years after the Faculty Senate Report for a revision of the 2008 agreement to occur. Furthermore, the 2013 agreement (due to expiry dates on the 2008 contract) is actually a whole new agreement with extended contract dates for new hires. As noted earlier, this 2013 MOU leaves many of the basic concerns of the Faculty Senate Report and Dr. Barron unaddressed.
In a letter to Dr. Jennifer Buchanan, Interim Dean of the Faculties, Dr. Barron puts forward the following:
- That some of the Committee recommendations “reflect on improvements that can be implemented by the Dean of Faculties” and should be looked into.
- That the situation with Matt Brown, Graduate Student in the Department of Economics who drew up the agreement, and who had the Department Chair Bruce Benson as the Co-Chair of his Ph.D. committee at the time, drew egregious concerns. Dr. Barron states: “Please refer to the body of page 7 of the report, which cites a conflict of interest between the faculty member in negotiating the agreement and the role of an active student in facilitating the agreement. This is a clear conflict of interest and it should have been revealed and then avoided. I would appreciate a review and/or greater clarity with regard to university policy on transparency and potential conflicts of interest.” (Italics are my own)
- His final comments are: “Please refer to the section beginning at the bottom of page 7, which cites the issues related to faculty responsibilities (recommendations 6 and 10). Recommendation 6 requests a change in departmental by-laws related to supervision and staffing of courses and programs. Recommendation 10 requests a review, with the deans, of the principles of faculty responsibilities associated with the curriculum. Again, I would appreciate a review and/or greater clarity with regard to university policy on the issues raised by the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee” (Italics are my own)
As far as we can tell no review or report by the Dean of Faculties was done. Furthermore, we have uncovered evidence that during his tenure at FSU as a doctoral candidate Matt Brown received $492,125 for his services to CKF. This was money paid directly to the student and is an additional conflict of interest to the one cited by Faculty Senate and President Barron. The “conflict of interest” noted by President Barron and Faculty Senate appears to have been completely ignored and no review or clarity of university policy on transparency and potential conflicts of interest have been undertaken.
In a letter to Dr. Tom Jennings, VP for University Advancement, Dr. Barron puts forward:
- The MOU included language that suggested that the donor evaluation should be a part of the annual evaluation of the faculty member. This is not permitted as part of FSU’s annual review process.”
- “In any case where a donor to provide input on academic hiring, this should be for the sole purpose of providing the donor with a level of confidence that their gift is being used in a manner consistent with the intent of the donor, and therefore, in every case,
- Advisory Board membership should have a majority consisting of FSU faculty.
- Advisory Boards should be limited to providing review and advice.
- Advisory Boards should offer recommendations based on a majority vote.”
Although the 2013 MOU rectifies the outside input on the annual evaluation of the faculty member it retains the unanimous vote on the Advisory Board which still gives CKF veto power over faculty hire. Furthermore, the 2013 contract includes Section 7(a)(vi) which actually demands input in the evaluation of the entire SPEFE and EEE Programs.
Section 7(a)(vi): FSU agrees to take the input of the SPEFE-EEE Advisory Board into consideration when evaluating the performance of the SPEFE and EEE Programs.
Section 7 (b): The decision rule of the SPEFE-EEE Advisory Board in all matters will be unanimous vote of all three members.
Of final concern, not to the Faculty Senate Report, but to me – is this: The Charles Koch Foundation offers funding for five professor positions but only funds these tenure-track positions for 5 to 6 years. That is exactly the amount of time it takes to gain tenure. At the time of tenure, CKF funding disappears and the 2013 agreement mandates that FSU agree “to assume full responsibility for the continued maintenance and funding of the Professorship Positions”. In other words, Charles Koch Foundation puts their people in and then the taxpayers are required to keep them until their tenure expires. Five years of CKF funding to guarantee a lifetime taxpayer position. What? This sounds a lot like stacking influence at taxpayer expense to me.
When will this stop? On Jan. 15th at 3:30 in Turnbull Conference Center, I am going to ask John Thrasher this question at an open meeting. Join me in the meeting and sign the petition (http://bit.ly/1FzagGO). Academic freedom is just as important as free speech. In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the majority opinion for Sweezy v. New Hampshire: “To impose any straight jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation … Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”
FSU Progress Coalition
FB: FSU Progress Coalition