April 9, 2015

George Mason University President Angel Cabrera: Thank You, Charles Koch!

If you tuned into yesterday's Kojo Nnamdi show on NPR affiliate station WAMU in Washington DC, you may have caught about eight awkward minutes as the president of George Mason University was questioned about the influence of Charles Koch in certain departments of his university. A transcript is below, lightly edited for readability, with time stamps so you can listen along.

Some context: Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch is funneling millions of dollars to universities, funding just seven schools in 2005 to over 300 today. Latest tax form data shows that Charles Koch's nonprofit foundation has sent over $68 million to universities from 2005-2013. 

Over half of that $68 million went to George Mason University alone. GMU easily clocks in as the top university recipient of Koch cash, taking $34.6 million since 2005. That is separate from another $10 million to GMU's Mercatus Center--which Mr. Koch founded and remains a director of--and another $18 million to GMU's Institute for Humane Studies--of which Charles Koch is the chairman--since 2005.

With that in mind, and noting the Koch-funded attacks on academic freedom at schools like Florida State University, Utah State University and Clemson Unviersity, here is a transcript of Kojo Nnamdi's conversation with GMU president Ángel Cabrera about Koch influence.

TRANSCRIPT: Charles Koch Influence at George Mason University Discussed on WAMU Kojo Nnamdi Show with GMU President Angel Cabrera

[22:36]

KOJO NNAMDI: "I'm curious about one of the more-visible research centers on your campus: the Mercatus Center. It's known for its scholars' libertarian economic views, and for the large sums of money it receives from the Koch family. We have several questions from callers and Tweets about that. I'll get the first. In what way does the [Mercatus] Center either reflect or influence the reputation of the university?"

[23:00]

ÁNGEL CABRERA: Mercatus affects the reputation of the university in very positive ways. In fact, the work that it does in exploring how markets can contribute to solving some of the problems of our day I think is great. They produce great quality work and work that is, in fact, that receives a great deal of attention in the media. There are a lot of people who know about George Mason precisely because of the work that some of our colleagues in Mercatus conduct. So I think overall the economics field in general has been central to making George Mason what it is today. I will, in fact, underline the fact that we have produced two Nobel prize winners in economics. For a university this young, this is unheard of. In fact the first two Nobel prize winners in Virginia--in the history--were awarded to faculty members at George Mason, both of them in economics. 

[24:00]

So I think the work of our economics group, both inside of--if you will--the academic structure of our department of economics but also in our affiliated centers like Mercatus have had a tremendous influence in what George Mason is today, and I hope it will continue to be that."

[24:23]

KOJO: But the Koch brothers, of course, are lightning rods for controversy because of their large contributions to conservative causes. So here it goes. There's a Tweet from Connor who says, 'billionaire Charles Koch has given over 35 million dollars to GMU. Can the Koch foundation influence what Koch-funded professors teach?'

[24:40]

CABRERA: They can not. First of all, I am nothing but incredibly grateful to their generosity, especially of Charles Koch. David as well, but Charles has been nothing but generous to our university. And I think--what I first do when anybody decides to part with their hard-earned dollars to support what we do, my first reaction is to say 'thank you.' Hopefully, we will have many more people follow their example and also contribute with their own investments to the work that our faculty do. Not just in economics, but in the sciences, in the social sciences, in the humanities, in the arts and so forth. 

Now, at the same time, it is of course our responsibility--mine and the rest of the faculty--to make sure that we never accept a gift from anybody that somehow compromises our intellectual independence. No donor, no matter how generous, can influence who gets who gets tenure, who gets promoted, what is taught in the classroom, what any faculty teaches and so forth. Those are absolutely off limits to any donor. 

[25:55]

KOJO: On therefore to Alex in Silver Spring, Maryland. Alex: your turn.

ALEX: Hi! I'm a former employee of George Mason University and I honestly really respect what Mr. Cabrera did in terms of facilitating the culture of openness and accessibility during my time there. And I would really like to see that openness and accessibility extended to the Mercatus Center, in particular their funding from the Koch brothers. You know that there's a lot of controversy over their funding of the Center, and I think the way to eliminate that controversy, if everything you say is true, is to make the agreement public. By keeping it secret, you are encouraging all of this controversy.

[26:42]

KOJO: Well Alex, thank you very much for your call. Allow me to include in your question a Tweet we got from a group called UnKoch Campus: 'Koch brothers are investing millions across the country to alter the course of higher education. Help preserve academic integrity and transparency.' And another, who says 'Why won't president Cabrera meet with students asking for transparency on the Koch donations? 35 million dollars since 2005.'

[27:14]

CABRERA: Actually, I meet with students all the time. In fact, students who somehow would like us not to accept money from the Koch foundation are so active that it's impossible not to meet with them. I'm always very impressed how well-organized they are and how they come to all the town hall meetings to express their views, which I respect. I absolutely respect. 

Listen, when a donor provides a gift to us or to any foundation, many of them, they in fact don't like to have publicity of the details of their gift and we recognize that, and we respect that. And that applies to them and it applies to any other donor. Some donors give us money, they don't even want their name to be known, let alone some of the details of their gift, how the gift is going to be given, and what terms, and so forth. And we absolutely have to respect that. That is not just a practice of our university foundation but pretty much of any 501c3 in the country. 

So there's nothing, absolutely nothing, to hide. In fact what I hope, if anything, is if you have a different point of view, we would welcome addition investments from other people that would help strengthen other areas of the university. And as I always say, my hope is never to reduce the amount of funding that we're receiving from our generous donors but actually to find many more of them. I hope that's one of the things I can help deliver.

[28:48]

KOJO: Has any research from the Mercatus Center been discredited officially, or debunked officially, because of its relationship to contributions from the Koch brothers?

CABRERA: They periodically receive criticism from people who may not like, whether it's the sources of their funding or whether it is the angle or the perspective of the researchers. Any time anybody expresses a view that matters, that takes a position, an important view, you're open to criticism from others. I would honestly be more concerned if the opinions and the views and the scientific positions that our faculty take didn't create any controversy. That would tell me they're not saying anything that matters. So we do create controversy, and in fact we create controversy in many different directions. Sometimes I get letters accusing us of being too conservative. Sometimes I get letters accusing us to be too liberal. Or that we don't like a particular religion. Or that we don't like Jews or Muslims or Christians, or that we're too open or we're too closed...listen: That is par for the course, if you will. And in some ways, in some ways it indicates this is a university that is open to multiple points of view, that does what it's supposed to be doing. 

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