George Mason University & the Kochs

May 1, 2018

I’ll get to George Johnson in a minute.

First, my hat is off today for Samantha Parsons, a former George Mason University student whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have brought into the light of day a series of agreements between George Mason University and various Koch brothers foundations that gave those foundations a say in who was appointed to professorships at George Mason.  The money to endow the chairs came from the Koch brothers.  The positions were in ‘free market’ economics.  Inside Higher Education has a good overview of the scandal.

Angel Cabrera, the current GMU President told the faculty in an e-mail “I was made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.”  High marks for passive voice.  (Did he really not know before?) And even higher marks for trying to downplay the issue: “raise questions”?  “influence?”  Cabrera also said the agreements”fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”  “Fall short?”  Are we talking about a continuum here or a bright line?  Memo to Cabrera: this not only walks and talks like a duck; this has duck DNA.

George Mason University has been caught violating one of the key principles of academic freedom.  We construct university governance out of two different ways of doing things, trying to mesh the two harmoniously.  On the one hand, we have the standard model of organizational governance: a governing board, a president, various vice presidents and so forth: a hierarchical system designed to focus responsibility.  One the other hand we have a self-regulating guild of professionals, each new member named to the guild by their predecessors.  The first system is meant to insure financial health; the second is meant to insure fidelity to the truth-seeking norms of the academy.  Shared governance, we call it.

Says the relevant statement of the American Association of University Professors, “The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.”  Primary responsibility for faculty status means current professors make decisions about who else is named to the faculty, subject in extraordinary circumstances to denial by the president or (even more rarely) the governing board.  But appointments never start with the president or governing board, and never, never, never with donors.  Said Inside Higher Education:

All 10 of the now-public agreements relate to the university’s Mercatus Center for free market research, a locus of Koch-funded activity. Three of the agreements involve Koch. The two most recent, from 2007 and2009, stipulate the creation of a five-member selection committee to select a professor, with two of those committee members chosen by donors. The other Koch agreement, from 1990, also afforded Koch a role in naming a professor to fund.

The University has long denied any donor role in naming professors to the Koch-funded professorships.  With the release of these documents, it is clear they were lying.

I took note that the first agreement goes back to 1990.  That’s when George Johnson was GMU’s President.  (You can see the agreement here, with Johnson’s signature.)  Johnson was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University when I was appointed to a faculty position there in 1973.  (Earlier he had been a Professor of English and Chair of the English Department.)  He left Temple to go to GMU in 1978 and served as President there until 1996.  He died in 2017.

I had just one one-on-one conversation with Johnson while I was at Temple.  He struck me as very smart.  He went out of his way to show me how little I understood then about university governance (true) and how much he did.  I could see he was formidable, but I didn’t like him much.  I learned early in my years at Temple that he had referred to the political science department (of which I was a member) as a “parking lot department.”  By which he meant the following.  When buildings were renovated (and there was a good deal of new building at Temple in the early 1970s), some departments needed to be displaced — housed in temporary quarters, often in trailers in parking lots.  The less valuable departments were the ones to be sent to the trailers.  “Parking lot departments”: He could be dismissive like that.

Now we know he could also sign an agreement that violated academic freedom.  It goes back to him,

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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