Controversy over a new Koch-funded academic center at the University of Pittsburgh

Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs will open a new Center for Governance and Markets with $4.2 million in promised Koch funding.

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Some University of Pittsburgh's students, faculty and alumni are upset that it accepted $4.2 million in funding from the Charles Koch Foundation for a new center to study politics, markets and technology.

The University of Pittsburgh's campus in Oakland. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The University of Pittsburgh is the latest university to become embroiled in controversy over a multimillion-dollar donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Some students, faculty and alumni think the university should protect its reputation from an organization with a long history of pursuing overtly political goals and denying science. While others, including some university officials, say Pitt must retain its professors' rights to academic freedom and to pursue funding for research. 

Pitt announced the creation of the Center for Governance and Markets at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs [GSPIA] on Thursday. The Koch Foundation has earmarked $4.2 million to support the new center. Though the center just became public this week, debate has been swirling over the prospect for 18 months.

The Koch Foundation has been criticized for placing stipulations on its funding to other universities that could limit academic freedom, such as requiring seats on hiring committees. The foundation supports the spread of free-market, limited government ideas of its founder, Charles Koch. A representative of the Koch Foundation referred all questions to the university.

The new funding promises an infusion of academic talent and resources in GSPIA to study politics, economics and technology across the world. But critics say the funding will lead to an infusion of a limited set of views promoted by the foundation’s donors. They say the co-directors of the new center, a husband and wife team, already have a history of research and public statements aligned with Koch Foundation’s ideology.

Mazviita Chirimuuta, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, raised concerns at a Faculty Assembly meeting on Tuesday. “They have a history of basically using their relationships with academic institutions in order to further their own agenda,” she said of the Koch Foundation, according to an article in the University Times. Faculty at the meeting expressed varying views on whether they supported the funding, according to Chris Bonneau, president of the Faculty Senate. 

Although some students and faculty have criticized the university for being naive about the Koch Foundation’s intentions, Bonneau said, “Those concerns are naive.” 

"The university is well aware, as all universities are, about the history of the Charles Koch Foundation and some of the missteps they’ve had along the way,” he said. But Bonneau said many of those mistakes were “long ago" and the new center should be given a chance.

In an emailed statement, the university said there is a “strong research policy, which stipulates that 'the University should not accept awards or enter into agreements for the support of research which confer upon another party the power to censor or exercise effective veto over the dissemination of results and conclusions arising from research.’” The university says the grant from the Koch Foundation was thoroughly vetted and aligns with all of the university’s policies.

Two weeks ago, a group of students at Pitt started a petition to try to stop the funding of the new center. One of the leaders of the group, Joshua Ash, a Ph.D. student at GSPIA, spent the summer trying to influence the administration behind the scenes, writing letters and emails and meeting with Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd. 

But in an email response shared with PublicSource by Ash, Cudd told Ash that the ability to seek funding was a matter of academic freedom that no professor should be denied. She wrote that the contract from the Koch Foundation had been thoroughly vetted and there was no reason to believe the university’s autonomy would be jeopardized.

“It seems to me that criticism and objections have been fully aired on this matter,” Cudd wrote on June 14. “I regard the decision to accept the grant from the Koch Foundation to have been fully considered.”

The center

The university released details of the grant behind the center on Thursday for the first time, although it had been signed in September. About $1.3 million of the grant will fund 10 Ph.D. students and 12 post-doctoral fellows. Another $1.3 million will fund the administration, faculty and director positions at the new center. And the rest of the $1.6 million will go toward research, grants, travel and conferences. The University has to provide office space and conference rooms for at least 15 people at the new center.

Only $1 million of the total is awarded for the first year. The university has to request additional disbursements of the $4.2 million each year, according to the contract, and the foundation can withhold its support in future years. The contract states the foundation can terminate funding for the center if it decides that it’s not advancing the center’s mission to further scholarship on "the impact of political institutions, markets and technology on human prosperity and well-being.” 

The contract does not state how the Koch Foundation will evaluate whether or not the center is advancing its mission and will receive additional funding.

Jennifer and Ilia Murtazashvili, associate professors at GSPIA, are listed as co-directors on the new grant, although Jennifer is listed as the primary center director. (A third faculty member, Martin B. Weiss, is listed as an associate director of the center in a university press release but his name is not mentioned in the grant itself.) 

The Murtazashvilis will be responsible for hiring and administering the funding. A record of their public statements and research shows they already have been doing research that aligns with some of the Koch Foundation's academic interests and the economic interests of Koch Industries. 

Jennifer Murtazashvili referred questions about the new center to the university. Ilia didn’t return a voicemail and the email address listed on Ilia’s faculty page didn’t work.

Ilia Murtazashvili’s first tweet in 2018, around the time he started pursuing funding from the foundation, was an article about the Koch Foundation. His tweets since then have often supported free market, small government ideas. He has also written positively about fossil fuels, an industry that Charles Koch made billions of dollars from. The professor came to the conclusion that “criticism of the shale revolution has been misplaced,” according to one tweet, and that “the US shale boom is a case study in how markets work great.”

His views are also aligned with Koch’s general vision of limited government. In one tweet, he wrote: “They should teach this in Econ 101: ‘The results from public goods are reduced individual freedom of choice, persistent inefficiency and waste, and the arrogance and corruption of politicians.’” 

Jennifer Murtazashvili’s academic research focuses more on empirical research in places like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and is more widely cited. But she has collaborated with her husband on paper topics like anarchy and property rights, exploring the limitations and failures of government.

Faculty response

An initial discussion of the new center by faculty at GSPIA on Nov. 7 last year led to complaints from both sides. Critics of the center argued that Jennifer Murtazashvili didn’t answer basic questions about the center and those critics were in turn criticized for becoming increasingly hostile at her lack of responses, according to internal department emails seen by PublicSource. 

William Dunn, a professor at GSPIA, said the impact of the grant on the school will be “huge, it’s absolutely huge.” Last year, he said, GSPIA took two new Ph.D. students; this grant will fund 10 additional ones. GSPIA doesn’t typically have internally funded post-doctoral students, he said; this grant will provide funding for 12 of them. 

In his view, the university’s policies may prevent outright censorship at the new center, but won’t prevent the school from being flooded with academics who have to adhere to a limited set of views. He said he believes the grant will be a tool for the Koch Foundation to recruit like-minded academics.

"Anyone in the social sciences or humanities knows how money shapes other people’s opinions and you don’t get your grant renewed,” Dunn said. 

The grant approval happened without an open discussion, he said. In the past, when he and other colleagues applied for and received million-dollar grants, he said, there was more discussion and transparency. 

"When it comes to Koch or the grant from the Ford Foundation or the Department of State or from other sources in the school, they need to be discussed openly,” he said. "They affect the reputation of the school, the university and everyone who works in the school."

Dunn said he visited the provost five or six times over the past year to complain about the funding and secrecy behind the process, he said. But he said he was told that the grant need not be discussed before it’s finalized. He described that as unique to the Koch Funding. 

Bonneau, the president of the Faculty Senate, disagreed with this criticism. He said that it was practically unheard of that that there was any discussion of a grant proposal before it had been formally announced.

But while Dunn said the university’s policy defends the academic freedom of faculty who apply for the funding, it stripped faculty like him of the right to object. "Unless you have information, you can’t exercise your academic freedom,” he said. "You know nothing about it.”

Student concerns

Prior to starting at Pitt, Ash earned a law degree from the University of West Virginia, and he described taking classes there from professors who didn’t present all sides of an argument. "I know very much what it’s like to be taught things I don’t agree with and watch an entire classroom eating up every word and knowing there is this whole vast academic world of literature and what you are being taught is completely wrong,” he said.

He worries that the Koch Foundation funding is going to have a similar chilling effect on the academic discourse at GSPIA. But he also recognizes that some people will see his efforts as an attempt to stifle open discourse, an effort by liberal “snowflake” culture to cut off discussion of ideas he doesn’t agree with.

Ash joined forces with six other students, including Sara Rosenblum, a second-year master’s student at GSPIA. Rosenblum reached out to UnKoch My Campus, a national organization that opposes Koch Foundation influence at universities.

The hope, she said, was to get them to retract the funding and put policies in place “to prevent this from happening again without input.”

Ronsenblum said she thinks the new center could have broad impact. "If this was an individual professor using funding for their own research that would be a different issue,” she said. "This is an institute within GSPIA. These programs can propose to start a major, they have a different relationship than a single faculty member’s research.”

Rebranding the free market

The Koch Foundation has been trying to find a more palatable way to promote its views. Ryan Stowers, the executive director of the Koch Foundation, signed off on the contract for the new center at Pitt on Sept. 17. Five years ago, Stowers was part of an effort to help rebrand the foundation’s efforts from one that supports research on free markets and small government, to support research of “well being,” which the foundation believed would be considered less political and controversial by academics.

In 2014, Stowers was the vice president of the foundation in charge of its universities program. At a donor conference that year, he said the foundation was investing in ideas that promoted free markets and small government and opposed “collectivism,” a term used by conservatives to describe big government or socialist policies. It was a battle, he said, touting that they had grown their network of affiliated intellectuals to about 5,000 people.

"We've made significant progress, there's no question, but this capability pales in comparison to the opposition,” he said at the conference. "Our network is still greatly outnumbered by professors and faculty who hold a collectivist worldview.”

On the panel with Stowers that day was James Otteson, a professor of economics at the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University. Otteson told a story about a “prominent left-wing political scientist” who railed against Republicans. But Otteson said he told this liberal professor about an idea for a new research center focused on the idea of “happiness” and the professor was so interested, he said, “I’d even be willing to take Koch money for that.” 

The audience laughed.

Otteson said the moral of this story is that, if he’d brought up capitalism or economic freedom, the professor would have opposed the new center. “But when you say, ’No, what we’re interested in is human well-being, what are the elements,’ this is not a partisan question.” 

The mission of the new center at Pitt specifically cites the study of "human well-being."

Moving forward

Bonneau, the president of the Faculty Senate, has “faith” that the university did its due diligence and trusts the integrity of the faculty members who have been put in charge of the center, until he hears otherwise. Because of faculty concerns, he has referred the matter to the Faculty Senate Research Committee to look into whether anything needed to change about the university’s policies for reviewing grant proposals. 

Bonneau said he was open to changes but that any new process has to be fair and applied across all future research. 

"I’m uncomfortable doing this on an ad-hoc basis that can impinge on academic freedom, “ he said. “I’m certainly open to seeing how the process should go, if we can come up with a system to ensure our colleagues are not going to be subjected to being shouted down over disagreements of the funding source."

Students are more politically active than a decade ago, he said, and the heightened political environment is leading people to overstate their fears about what’s happening, both among liberals and conservatives.

“We’re in very contentious times,” Bonneau said. “The common refrain on the right is that all colleges are bastions of liberalism. The reality is most of us can’t keep our kids awake in class, let alone convince them to become liberal.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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