Academic Freedom at Florida State University

Last week I wrote about the publicity — mostly negative — that Florida State University was receiving as a result of accepting a grant from the C.G. Koch Foundation to fund positions in the economics department.  I know a lot about the issue, because I am a professor of economics at Florida State.

The publicity has kept up.  Every day I’ve been getting e-mails from people near and far, some from people I know, some from people I’ve never met, passing along a link or offering an opinion.  The story has been covered in the New York Times and Businessweek, among other outlets. I admit to being somewhat entertained by all the publicity, which is easy for me because unlike my Dean or university president, I have not been in the direct line of fire in these attacks on my department and university.

In what I wrote last week I was just trying to state the facts as I saw them, as someone with more knowledge about the deal than most people who offered their opinions.  I didn’t pass judgment.  I tried to present objective facts, and let readers decide.

As someone close to the grant in question, I do have an opinion, however, and my opinion is that the Koch grant does not compromise the academic integrity of Florida State University, has not limited our academic freedom, and has provided unambiguously beneficial results to the university — unless you count the negative publicity.  So, (1) we were right to accept the grant, and (2) we should defend ourselves by explaining why we were right.

FSU President Eric Barron mostly followed through on that in this letter posted on the university’s web site that explains the facts better than I did.  I say “mostly followed through” because after defending the procedures we followed, explaining how all decisions made with regard to this grant were made by our department, and saying, “…much of what has been written has been distortion of reality. We did not deserve the attack on our integrity. Certainly, our Economics faculty deserve much more credit for actively debating their concerns and then for committing themselves never to compromise their high scholarly standards,” he finishes the letter by saying, “I promise that we will be diligent in working to prevent outcomes like this in the future.”

If the outcome was beneficial to the university, and if “We did not deserve this attack on our integrity,” then why would we want to prevent outcomes like this in the future?  Reading his letter, I am sure the outcome President Barron was referring to was the negative publicity, not the grant’s impact on the economics department, or the academic integrity and academic freedom in the university.  Still, I am a bit uneasy about the caveat at the end.

One result of this is that today President Barron has asked our faculty senate to create a committee to investigate the possibility that the grant led to undue outside influence of university activities.  I welcome the investigation, and am also not unhappy that the press is giving our state-supported university some scrutiny.  We should be held accountable.  I just think that in this case the facts are at odds with what most commentators have been reporting.  So, investigate, and find out the facts.  This is, after all, a state university that is heavily supported by taxpayer dollars.

One thing that aggravates me about all this is a nagging suspicion that the main catalyst for the negative publicity has less to do with issues of academic freedom than with the fact that the money came from the Koch Foundation.  We have a group of faculty in the FSU economics department who have undertaken decades of academic research, published in reputable academic journals, that demonstrates the benefits of market institutions and limited government to prosperity.  The work we have been doing for decades is consistent with the type of academic program the Koch Foundation wants to support.  Having common interests, the deal was struck that was beneficial to both the Foundation and us.

Who else should we appeal to if we want outside support for this type of program?  The Ford Foundation?  The Carnegie Foundation?  As I described in this book, published well before our department had any contact with the Koch Foundation, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie would turn over in their graves if they knew how the money from their fortunes was being spent today. Those foundations would not support a program like ours.

If a department wants funding to support programs that are friendly to markets and suspicious of big government, they have to get it from donors who have similar views.  And, those donors would be wise to try to structure any grants so that the money is spent in ways consistent with their ideas.  That’s what happened in our case.

Florida State University has been under attack for accepting a grant from the Koch Foundation, but my view, as someone very close to the situation, is that we were right to take the money, and that we should stand up to critics and explain why.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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