Billionaire Philanthropy: Immoral, Epistemically Corrupt, and Undemocratic (Guest post)

By

Mich Ciurria

Recently, news broke that the philosophy department at Bowling Green University has become a toxic environment due to infighting amongst faculty, following the controversial hiring of a new professor and the receipt of a $1.6 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. This infusion, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education, “could have meant a new era of stability for the department,” but instead led to acrimony, investigations, and the loss of at least one professor.

This situation raises awareness of the pitfalls of accepting dirty money from plutocratic donors. Charles Koch is the Chairperson and CEO of Koch Industries, which profits off of unethical, undemocratic, and epistemically corrupt practices. Anyone who accepts money from this organization is undermining the moral standing, epistemic integrity, and democratic legitimacy of the university, even if the person’s research isn’t influenced by Charles Koch’s neoliberal agenda. This is because Koch money is dirty money, gained through illicit and undemocratic means, which is then used to fund disinformation campaigns to burnish the Kochs’ reputation, and promote a neoliberal agenda that undermines the role of the university as a public service.

Let me say a bit more about the moral, epistemic, and political pitfalls of accepting Koch money.

  1. Moral integrity

Universities are supposed to be public services that advance the public good and the common interest. This is why they are partly funded by taxpayer dollars. Philosophy departments in particular are supposed to be sources of moral, epistemic, and civil virtues, which is why they offer courses in ethics, epistemology, and political philosophy. These values are completely undermined when universities (or their members) take dirty money from corrupt billionaires like Koch, who makes money off of his governing role in the privately-owned Koch Industries.

Koch Industries’ legal and moral infractions are far too long to list here, but we can begin by noting that they are one of the top-three polluters of America’s air, water, and climate. Koch-owned facilities have been cited for multiple violations of environmental law, including two successive chlorine dioxide leaks, a pipeline leak of 17,000 gallons of crude oil, soil and groundwater contamination, the ongoing release of hazardous chemicals including benzene (after having been charged with illegally releasing 91 tons of the known carcinogen in 2000), the theft of oil from federally-recognized Indigenous territories, and on and on. Koch Industries tried to cover up many of these violations by falsifying documents, spreading disinformation, fighting lawsuits, and, most significantly for present purposes, laundering their reputation by donating billions of dollars to artistic organizations, scientists, and, apparently, philosophers.

In fact, Koch industries had nefarious – indeed, Nazi – origins, with the family patriarch, Fred Chase Koch, making his fortune off of business deals with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. These deals were instrumental in advancing Hitler’s military ambitions, according to Jane Mayer, the author of “Dark Money.” The Koch brothers went on to use this money to expand their fossil-fuel empire, lay pipelines, and invest in fracking, poisoning groundwater, producing billions of pounds of petrochemicals, releasing greenhouse gases, and doing immeasurable damage.

To accept money from the Koch Foundation is to make a deal with the devil. Koch money comes from illegal, undemocratic, and toxic business practices. When academics accept this money, they are implicating the university in these despicable practices and undermining its moral integrity, credibility, and role as a public service. The community cannot trust an institution that runs on dirty money and provides a smokescreen for depraved businessmen.

2. Epistemic integrity

Universities are supposed to produce objective knowledge, not propaganda and disinformation. We consider it unethical to deceive or delude students and the public. But disinformation and propaganda are Koch Industry’s specialty; they use disinformation to evade responsibility and create false consciousness about their depraved business practices. From 1997 to 2019, Koch Industries “spent $145,555,197 directly financing 90 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions,” according to Greenpeace. Because Koch Industries owns billions of dollars’ worth of crude oil infrastructure, the Kochs began investing in corrupt think tanks, lobbyists, and political candidates in the 1970s, ultimately building “a political influence machine that is arguably unrivaled by any in corporate America,” as journalist Christopher Leonard puts it. This sparked the climate-change denialism that we are still wrestling with today, which has made it virtually impossible to reach the Paris Climate Accord goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees (preferably 1.5 degrees Celcius) compared to pre-industrial levels.   

The Koch brothers (one of whom is now deceased) have also invested millions of dollars in Republican candidates, right-wing university programs, and neoliberal, classist, sexist, racist agendas. Since the 1970s, they have invested over $100 million in promoting the Tea Party and Republican  candidates, along with their neoliberal ideologies. They have invested in several libertarian university programs, including the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, “a source of ideological attacks on Social Security and anti-poverty programs, including Medicaid, school lunches and breakfasts, and food stamps, which are almost invariably depicted as founts of fraud and waste,” as journalist Michael Hiltzig puts it. The Koch brothers have also been linked with anti-choice organizations that fight to restrict women’s reproductive autonomy, and groups that invest heavily in suppressing minority voter turnout, host racist events, and fund disinformation campaigns (for example, on climate change) that harm Communities of Color.

Because the Koch family has erected a disinformation machine, accepting their money undermines the epistemic integrity and credibility of the university. Even if the donation doesn’t affect the recipient’s research, the person is representing an epistemically corrupt organization that uses dirty money to fund right-wing ideologies that disproportionally harm the poor, women, and BIPOC. How are underrepresented faculty supposed to feel knowing that their colleague has aligned himself with forces that seek to undermine their civil liberties? Dissent and acrimony are practically guaranteed! Taking money from an organization that attacks the values of equity, diversity, and inclusivity goes against the mission of the university as a public service, and undermines public trust in the university’s research, teaching, and values. There will always be a seed of doubt about whose interests the university is really serving. 

3. Democratic legitimacy

Accepting dirty money from Charles Koch undermines the democratic legitimacy of the university. Sally Haslanger articulates this problem quite nicely in her article in the Statesman:

“Large-scale [billionaire] philanthropy is an exercise of power that is fundamentally undemocratic. Since charitable giving brings tax benefits, large-scale philanthropy can undermine the people’s will in favour of the donor’s own values. In effect, taxpayers subsidise the freedom of the rich to realise their own vision of what is good while simultaneously depriving democratically chosen programmes of valuable public funds.”

She cites the Koch brothers, along with Harvey Epstein and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as billionaire philanthropist who threaten the democratic legitimacy of the university. They do so by making the university beholden to donors instead of the public, by allowing donors to influence research aims (often in subtle and insidious ways), and by allowing donors to launder their reputations and disguise their misdeeds through affiliation with a trusted institution. Allowing donors to use the university to burnish their reputation can prevent those donors from being held responsible for their crimes, which allows those crimes to continue. And forming alliances with rich donors allows those donors to influence the university’ mission.   

Indeed, billionaire philanthropy has contributed significantly to the corporatization of the university, which includes a trend toward devaluing and underfunding anti-capitalist fields like (my own specializations of) Marxist feminism, critical disability theory, and critical race theory. The corporatization of the university, says Haslanger, “means that senior administrative posts are often filled by those who are effective in attracting ‘big money’ and organising the institution to be maximally efficient – not in producing knowledge, but in sustaining itself financially.” That is, wealthy donors have helped to transform the university from a public service, accountable to the public, into corporate entities, controlled by private interests and committed to maximizing profits. This has led to the present conditions of alienation and exploitation that you find on most campuses, including ever-increasing tuition rates, the conversion of more than half of professorships to “adjunct” positions that often pay less than a living wage, reliance on foreign tuition to cover operating expenses, and so on and so forth. Indeed, universities have already become, more or less, “a corporate capitalist regime,” in which corporations control appointments and policies, as Asheesh Kappur Siddique observes. The public cannot trust a capitalist university system that bows down to elite corporate owners.

When the university’s mission, appointments, promotions, and curricula are controlled by private interests, they are no longer democratic organizations committed to the public good, but subsidiaries of corporations that exist to extract as much money from students and the government as possible, while underpaying workers and pushing a corporate political agenda.

Conclusion:

Taking money from Charles Koch, or any evil billionaire philanthropist, is ethically, epistemically, and politically corrupt and ultimately undermines the value of higher education. Academics should never accept these donations and universities should actively discourage them.  

____________________________________________________

Mich Ciurria is a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She specializes in ethics, feminist philosophy, and critical theory, and she is the author of An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility.

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