The Privately Financed Public University

The Freedom Center, a new interdisciplinary center at the University of Arizona, is attracting some critical attention due to the notoriety of two of its donors, the Koch brothers (as well as the fact that another major donor is undisclosed).  For some faculty members within UA itself, there is a concern that the saccharine vagueness of the Center’s professed mission “to promote the understanding and appreciation of the ideals of freedom and responsibility” provides cover for anti-regulatory research directly beneficial to corporate enterprises owned by the donors.

The Kochs have already been accused of as much in a New Yorker piece describing the activities of the Mercatus Center (Latin for “market,” of course), a research center essentially founded by them in the early ’80′s and embedded within George Mason University, a state school in Virginia.  Its critical research of the EPA impacted federal court cases affecting regulation of emissions from oil refineries, a key component of Koch Industries.

The traditional notion of academic autonomy can easily provide the imprimatur of objectivity to research produced by such centers, making them potentially valuable investments for use in public forums such as courts.  And the level of control that private donors exert over such centers is often far from clear.

“I think it’s problematic for academics, and creates potential conflicts of interest,” says David Gibbs, a professor of history and government in UA’s Political Science Department.

Those are hardly idle concerns. At Florida State University, Charles Koch recently sparked an uproar when he demanded—and received—the ability to screen faculty hires for a new economics program he funded…

Regardless of who donates what, some find the cash-strapped university’s increasing reliance on outside funding troublesome. Among them is Rachana Kamtekar, an associate UA philosophy professor with no ties to the Freedom Center. “It’s not always going to be possible to ensure that the sources of money are clean,” Kamtekar says. “And that’s the problem with big money. A lot of it is not clean.”

“…the big elephant in the room,” Kamtekar says, “is that state funding (is an ever-decreasing percentage) of the university’s budget. I don’t even know what it means to be a state university any more.”

Freedom’s Ring: The mysterious funding behind a new UA philosophy think tank continues to raise concerns

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