According to the new book Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War. 50 years ago, attorney Lewis Powell — later a Nixon appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court — developed a strategy to increase the number of pro-business speakers on college campuses. Powell analyzed the college environment after 1960s and determined that conservatives would insist on the right to promote free-market ideas to students. He feared that if they refused, they would be labeled as intolerant of different points of view.
It was a great realization and one that conservative libertarians continue to build upon. Free Speech and Koch MoneyThis little-known trend tracks the impact of right-wing influence on academia.
At its core, authors Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola write, is a fabricated “crisis” in which conservative voices are posited as being silenced by the left. To counter this, deep-pocketed conservatives, with Charles Koch at the helm, have poured money — $256 million between 2005 and 2017 — into cash-strapped public and private colleges and universities. They claim that the effort was an egregious effort to control curricula, hiring, and funnel students into internships and jobs with conservative groups.
The upshot was the development of an “academic ecosystem in which donor-preferred ideas can thrive. This ecosystem includes its own journals, conferences, professional organizations, and academic centers,” the authors write, complete with an echo chamber of media outlets — including Fox News, The Washington Examiner and The College Fix, RealClearPolitics and The Daily CallerThe Daily Wire — that are eager to promote an array of questionable ideas. Among them, “money is speech, corporations are people, and all regulations are oppressive.”
Wilson and Kamola spoke to TruthoutAbout the book, the threat to democracy and the fabricated freedom speech violations that have rocked U.S. college campuses
Eleanor J. Bader – Why and when did your investigation into the Koch network begin?
Ralph WilsonIn 2011, I was a graduate student in Florida State. [University]It was discovered that the Koch network had donated a few millions of dollars to the school. It became apparent that they were trying exert influence and control over what was being done to their money. They wanted to have a say in the selection and funding of the Economics Department’s chair.
Isaac KamolaI am currently a teacher of political science at Trinity College. Campus ReformA Koch-funded group that paid students to write articles decrying allegedly left-leaning professors targeted a Trinity faculty member. It was awful. This inspired me to join the American Association of University Professors. In 2017, I attended the AAUP Institute. I met Ralph and Samantha Parsons who were then staff members at. UnKoch My Campus. This meeting was a great opportunity to learn about dark money that is being funneled to campuses across the country by the Koch network with the aim of undermining the academy.
Campus Reform is not the only group that exists. There are many other groups that can be used to attract students and bring right-wing speakers to campus, such as Candice Owens and Charles Murray. These speakers and groups are appealing because of their appeal.
Kamola:I can reach 20 to 30 students when I enter a classroom. My goal is for students to think critically about power and accept ideas. The course ends and students can go out into the world to live their lives. The Kochs and the groups that they control, however, are not like this. DonorsTrustDonors Capital Fund and the Donors Capital Fund channel what is learned in class into a project that links students with internships and a post-college career. This allows them to translate their college experience into a tangible outcome.
Wilson I’ve heard Koch-funded professors talk about their recruiting strategies and confess that they look for students who don’t fit in, the loners, the students who are looking for a group activity. The Koch network views their work as creating an alternative student environment, an academy within an academy. Charles Koch, a conservative libertarian, stated in the 1970s that while there was an intellectual motivation that conservative libertarians could tap into, they also had hundreds of millions of dollars to spend. This can appeal to both students, and faculty. They provide a pre-made career path that is hard to turn down.
Kamola:Yes! Yes! You can apply for $50,000 at the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies by writing three essays. This can be very attractive.
Koch Network claims that conservative ideas are suppressed at many campuses. They insist that everyone should be free to express their opinions, regardless of whether they offend or endanger people of color or the LGBTQIA community, women or Muslims, Jews, or progressives. ACLU and other groups agree that all speech should encouraged. It is the best way to combat intolerance to offer more speech. Why disagree with us?
Kamola:This can be a tricky issue. The fundamental problem I have with free speech absolutism — the idea that everyone should have the right to say whatever they want whenever they want — is that it offers one solution for every situation. Your security is at stake if you’re a student of color and a Jewish student. This is not something you can take lightly. Security must be maintained. In addition, the idea that the best way to counter offensive speech, so-called “bad” speech, is with “good” speech, ignores the power dynamic, the fact that some people are marginalized within the academy. It is essentially buying into the libertarian idea of free speech absolutism that all ideas can be equal when groups come in and shout about free speech absolutism. This is a fantasy.
The idea of absolute freedom of speech runs in direct contradiction to the idea collective responsibility for one another. Why does the Koch network place the individual above everything else?
WilsonConservative libertarians are trying to inoculate students from what they consider dangerous collectivism, or the idea that everyone is responsible for each other.
Kamola:Libertarian ideology is founded on the elevation of the individual. Collectivism is the enemy. Over 50 years, radical individualism has been promoted as the mainstay of the mainstream. Individual consumer choices are the best way for climate change to be stopped. More recently, COVID-19 mandates and vaccine masks have been shown to violate individual freedom. Conservative libertarians deny the idea of people looking out for each other as it undermines individual freedom.
Why are university administrators, faculty, and students so open to this view?
WilsonOne of the driving forces behind the creation of Free Speech and Koch MoneyIt was to expose how conservative student groups such as Campus Reform, Young Americans for Liberty and Young Americans for Freedom, Turning Point USA, and the legal organizations that threaten to sue universities for their behalf are linked. If they believe that the alleged violation of free speech is true, university officials will be afraid by the threat of legal action. The book shows that these campaigns are usually orchestrated from the outside by the same small group of people who work from the campus to whip up a frenzy over alleged violations the First Amendment.
Kamola:Administrators who hear about the denials of free speech panic and think they must act immediately. They don’t have to panic. Most colleges and universities have policies for accepting donations, creating faculty committees about academic freedom, and inviting speakers to campus. They don’t have to accept bullying by outside forces. This requires that the administration trusts the students and faculty to defend existing policies.
Wilson A lot of the resistance we’ve seen on campuses comes from faculty who are organizing to oppose the Koch network’s influence at their school. Unfortunately, faculty are not as powerful as administrators who decide whether to accept money. This allows libertarian economic and political science centers to open or welcome provocateurs to speak.
They’re also the ones who are most easily cowed by the threat of negative publicity.
Kamola:The Koch network has established offices and think tanks on campus in places where centers are being challenged. They’ve also started off-campus groups for conservative students when opposition on campus gets too vocal or they feel a need to sidestep constraints.
Which campuses have been able completely to eliminate Koch money and influence?
WilsonYes, but it is important to continue these efforts. Professors from Troy University, Alabama, discussed how donors had influenced their work. This was in 2016, and led to massive public outrage. After protests broke out, the Kochs suspended funding for Troy’s economic center. The center was eventually reopened after a few more years. This was a temporary victory. It showed us that there is need for sustained resistance, and vigilance at the ground.
Kamola: That’s the idea behind the Kochs’ funding of hundreds of different campus-based economic and political science centers around the country. They can move on to another place if there is controversy. It’s like Whack-a-Mole. Thankfully, there is now a growing awareness of the Kochs and their network — known as the Kochtopus — and we’re hopeful that growing anger over the buying of influence will result in a large, concerted pushback in many more places.
I was horrified to see that many so-called “campus free speech bills” have been passed by statehouses to give conservative student groups the right to discriminate against queer and non-Christian students.
WilsonThere have been bills passed in 14 states and they have had an effect. One case saw an anti-abortion group threaten to sue a college if it was not allowed to parade around campus carrying pictures of dead fetuses. The Koch network acts as a pump mechanism that produces legislation and then grants that can be pulled at anytime if the right strings have not been pulled.
Kamola:This has had a cascading affect, with 28 states passing legislation to restrict critical race theory teaching. These funders aim to control what happens in the classroom. Model legislation is promoted by a variety of groups, including American Legislative Exchange Council. There’s also the LIBRE Initiative, The American Energy Alliance, the State Policy Network and many, many more. Charles Koch saw universities as places to recruit libertarian professors and to train policy wonks. This is what we wrote about in the book.
The right also knows that it is easier for a hierarchy to be organized than for a democracy to be organized. This is why they operate with a revolutionary furor, which the left tends not to understand or underestimate. This passion must be taken seriously. Conservative libertarians are determined to transform society through their autocratic worldview. They don’t believe education is a public good, but instead, see it as a private good that individuals should pay for themselves.
So how can we fight back?
Wilson There’s no single solution to protecting free speech or removing the Koch network from campus. The best policy is to let the academy regulate itself — to let faculty governance work and let committees investigate and formulate recommendations that the administration takes seriously — to protect the safety and speech of faculty and students.
Kamola:It is important to recognize that free speech is not the only issue that has been manufactured outrage. Rather, we need to pay attention to the organizations that are generating the outrage and ask why they’re doing this.
WilsonOur research was guided by the money. We used the following to track these groups: Corporate Genome ProjectDatabase. The project documents the Koch networks’ use of corporate donors to create political narratives, and advocate public policies that are in their best interests. This can help folks better understand what we’re up against and help explain what’s happening on campuses across the country. This is the best way to resist the influence of money on society.
This interview was lightly edited to improve clarity.