Duke is getting Koch money: That should worry you

We are only a couple of weeks removed from Silent Sam coming down in Chapel Hill; it has been just over a year since Duke University removed the likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Duke Chapel’s entrance; and the University’s history department is currently working to rename the building where it’s housed, currently named after industrialist and white supremacist Julian Carr.

Yet, even as students, faculty, and community members in the Triangle work to rid our campuses and communities of the painful scourge of white supremacy, other industrialist donors are quietly advancing a radical anti-civil rights ideology that may cause future generations to feel the kind of shame that Silent Sam and Julian Carr induce in ours. 

Duke has recently announced that it is accepting $5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation for the “Center for the History of Political Economy,” a center initially established with funding from Koch network donor and anti-public crusader Art Pope.

Earlier this year, UnKoch My Campus exposed a network of neo-confederate academics across the nation receiving over $14 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, including professors with ties to the white supremacist group League of the South. These academics are advancing a market-fundamentalist, anti-civil rights ideology that is also fueling the violent Alt-Right: the Austrian school of economics. 

Despite its neutral-sounding name, Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy is a stronghold for Austrian economics, a philosophy advocated perhaps most famously by Friedrich Hayek, who, among other things, argued for limiting democracy, who collaborated with the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and who called people from Egypt and India “detestable” because they were “fundamentally dishonest.” 

Accepting Koch money and influence at Duke is a dangerous step—and a slap in the face to anti-racist efforts and to the work of community activists, dedicated faculty and courageous students who have been working to build inclusive, democratic learning environment at Duke and in the Triangle.

The Duke community should not just be concerned about Koch’s growing support for corrosive ideology, but the fact that his vast “dark money” network seeks to influence politics by “leveraging” higher education—specifically by influencing what is taught, and by whom. Duke’s contract with Koch gives the donor an implicit veto power over programming by allowing the Koch Foundation the discretion to pull their money at any time with as little as thirty days’ notice. 

Even at public universities, where there is ostensibly more transparency and public oversight, the results of the Koch’s moneyed influence have been deeply troubling. George Mason University and Florida State University, where similar multi-million dollar “donations” were distributed, apparently gave donors power to influence faculty hiring, to design ideologically-driven classes, and to cut off funding from graduate students whose topics challenged their radical, reactionary worldview. At private institutions like Duke, not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, the potential for undue, unethical, and untraceable influence in our curriculum is even more worrisome. 

For anyone who cares about academic freedom, integrity and independence, this development should be deeply troubling. What is happening on our campus today and across the nation—the Koch network now funds similar centers or initiatives at over 200 public and private institutions—is a microcosm of what’s happening in our country at large: economic and social inequality has worsened, white supremacy is emboldened by powerful backers, and history and truth are reduced to whatever the powerful say they are. 

Centers like Duke's, founded with the vast wealth of some of the nation's most powerful corporations, seek to reshape the public's understanding of economics and history in their favor. Such programs should not be determined by agenda-driven donors. All campuses in North Carolina should begin seeking maximal transparency and faculty oversight over the creation of privately funded programs and centers.

Eladio Bobadilla is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke. This guest column was co-written with Ralph Wilson, a co-founder of UnKoch My Campus.


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