Reply to John Thrasher on Koch agreements and Transparency at FSU

sarah oh sarah

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.

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