How the Kochs Stole College

We Asked Duncan Gilchrist About AU's Surprising Funding

NorthWest Wing | Charlotte Bleemer | April 7, 2016

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As I’m writing this, protesters from across the nation are in the process of completing a symbolic march from the Liberty Bell all the way to the US Capitol. Next week, they will be joined by thousands more at the Capital for a sit-in predicted to be the largest act of civil disobedience in a generation. The protest, entitled Democracy Spring, is attracting people angered and concerned by the use of dirty money in politics. Should you choose to join the protest, there’s a chance you might run into Duncan Gilchrist.

Duncan is a senior at AU studying International Studies with minors in Sustainability and Psychology. This year he took action against dirty money in an area closer to home than the Capitol: American University.

UnKoch AU, a club founded this Fall by Duncan and his friends (in association with the nationwide UnKoch My Campus), seeks to raise awareness of David and Charles Koch’s donations to universities and the implications such corporate donations might have on our education.

Charles & David Koch | Credit: DonkeyHotey, flickr
Charles & David Koch | Credit: DonkeyHotey, flickr

That’s right: to the shock of liberal wonks everywhere, American University has accepted money from the Koch brothers.  

This didn’t come as much of a surprise to Duncan Gilchrist, however, seeing as the Kochs (tied for the fifth richest individuals in America as of 2015) have donated to over 300 universities in the last ten years. From 2005 to 2014, the Kochs donated $109,778,257 to institutions of secondary education. However, it’s not the amount that matters as much as the strings attached.

“Through UnKoch AU, Duncan hopes to avoid seeing AU fall victim to the undue influence the Kochs are obtaining over other universities…”

“Oftentimes it is stipulated in the contracts that [the Kochs] won’t renew the funding unless certain professors are hired, or certain research is published,” says Duncan. “These contracts come with strings attached that a lot of time violate university principles, such as academic freedom.”

Like David Koch said himself, “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent. And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”

Through Unkoch AU, Duncan hopes to avoid seeing AU fall victim to the undue influence the Kochs are obtaining over other universities, such as George Mason (the Koch’s biggest benefactor, having received over $40 million in donations).

Critics of UnKoch My Campus say that universities like GMU have improved the lives of students through Koch donations, so why should they reject the money? In response, Duncan acknowledges that donations are necessary for universities to function, but suggests that the conditions in which the money is given may “soil the academic integrity” of the school through inhibiting the “free and fair search for the truth” that universities hold dear.

It is important to note that Duncan and the folks at UnKoch AU are not opposing the Koch’s donations on ideological grounds (Duncan says that intellectual diversity is very important on college campuses). This practice goes beyond the Kochs and can be seen on either side of the political spectrum, but the Koch brothers seem to have made an art of it.

“…dirty money in secondary education and financial corruption in politics are twin issues.”

“[The Koch brothers] have set up this brilliant model where they’re funding departments, programs, scholarships, and centers on campus which produce the ideas that are then cited by law making bodies, that they also fund, to create laws,” Duncan explains. “They also fund the lobbyists who [use] those ideas, and the politicians who rely on the ideas. So they have funded every part of the process of the idea becoming a policy, becoming law…the university, a lot of times, is the place where the raw material for the policy is created.”

Are you feeling a little freaked out? Well, it might comfort you to know that AU has only accepted roughly $46,000 from Koch industries. Still, it’s the widespread nature of these donations that implicates how broken the system is.

Just for reference, here’s a list of universities in DC who have received funding from the Kochs:

Catholic University ($833,000)

George Washington University ($353,682)

American University ($46,000)

Georgetown University ($14,000)

University of Maryland – College Park ($6,500)

None for Howard or UDC!

And because I’m getting really into this (and love making lists), here’s a list of The Rival partner schools who have received funding from the Kochs:

George Mason University ($45,558,153)

George Washington University ($353,682)

College of Charleston ($250,555)

New York University ($249,000)  

University of Missouri ($181,000)

University of Wisconsin ($133,400)

Duke University ($104,781)

University of Notre Dame ($99,650)

Indiana University ($92,500)

American University ($46,000)

University of Rochester ($9,000)

University of Maryland – College Park ($6,500)

Syracuse University ($5,000)

None for Fordham, Miami or Howard!

Like Duncan says, dirty money in secondary education and financial corruption in politics are twin issues. National reform on the nature of donations must be made. You can get involved with the issue by liking UnKoch AU and UnKoch My Campus on Facebook and following their events. Duncan also encourages AU students to look into attending the Democracy Springs protest next week (a Facebook group, “AU Goes to Democracy Springs,” can be found here and here.)

“Having seen what’s happened to our democracy, we’re wary of what could potentially happen to the university system,” says Duncan. Join him and thousands others at the Capitol next week.

After writing this article, you might find me there too.