Opinions

If You’re Reading This, You’ve Been Koch-ed

Marie Therese Kane ’18

Alumna

On December 19, just as students were trickling home for Christmas break, Holy Cross published a news article celebrating the launch of the new Carlyse and Arthur A. Ciocca ’59 Center for Business, Ethics and Society. The article noted that The Center is funded by $2 million in new funding from Arthur and Carlyse Ciocca, “matched by an additional $1.5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation.”

While the name “Koch” might prompt an instinctive twitch from some on campus, to others, it bears no association. The Charles Koch Foundation is one of many private non-profits in the U.S. run by Charles and David Koch, owners of the Koch Industries oil and chemical corporation, the second-largest privately owned company in the U.S.. The Koch brothers are famous for making billions off of coal, oil, and chemicals, but perhaps more so for channeling their profits to libertarian and conservative causes, especially through their own foundations.

Why should Holy Cross students–regardless of their political beliefs–care that the Ciocca Center is funded by The Charles Koch Foundation? The Koch’s business and political activities, and the environmentally devastating form of capitalism that motivates them, blatantly contradicts Holy Cross’s professed Catholic values, as well as the Center’s mission to study business “with a liberal arts emphasis on how it can contribute to the common good.” The Kochs’ higher education giving is part of a broader strategy to disseminate their specific form of free-market capitalism, and importantly, their view of how ethics intersects with business, to young “hearts and minds” on college campuses. In recent years, Koch’s foundation has nearly doubled its contributions to higher education, funding academic programs, professorships, scholarships, conferences, and economics centers at over 300 colleges and universities. Koch’s donation to Holy Cross warrants honest consideration of the influence that he seeks to exert through his gift and a watchful eye towards how Holy Cross’ relationship with the Kochs evolves.

At every turn, the Kochs’ business practices and the form of capitalism that they promote undermine the most basic commitments of Catholic Social Teaching (CST); the tradition at the core of our Jesuit, Catholic identity. CST calls us to uplift the dignity of the human person, care for society’s poor and vulnerable, protect the rights of workers, and care for creation. Accordingly, CST has condemned the gross inequalities of most “developed” economies, starting with the 1890 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” written on the condition of the working classes, all the way to Pope Francis’ contemporary critique of the “throwaway culture” that has pushed our planet to the brink of ecological collapse. As fossil fuel billionaires, The Kochs not only made their fortune through environmentally-destructive extractive activities, but actively work to dismantle policies that promote the common good and address economic inequality. They do this by funding an expansive network of political organizations (i.e. Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, Cato Institute) aimed at dismantling government, cutting personal and corporate taxes, slashing social services, and de-regulating industry–especially environmental regulations. The Kochs’ environmental record is devastating, and includes spending more than ExxonMobil shedding doubt on the scientific consensus behind climate change, and funding a group to promote the “No Climate Tax” pledge in Congress, which reads: “I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.”

To be clear, the Kochs’ embrace of “free markets,” is not what makes their gift problematic. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with advocating for the free market (CST indeed defends private property and the free exchange of goods). However, the Kochs’ extreme brand of free market ideology asserts that the only ethical principle that matters is profit maximization, leaving the values that Holy Cross claims to hold dear–notably, environmental protection and options for the poor and vulnerable–entirely out of the calculus.

The mission of the Ciocca Center is “to foster a distinctively liberal arts approach to the study of business and its role in society and provide opportunities for students to develop the technical and applied skills, entrepreneurial spirit, and strong ethical framework that will enable them to become principled leaders.” This mission seems to imply a powerful critique of the status quo, an assumption that business-as-usual economics is inconsistent with the values of Catholicism. Indeed, a distinctively Catholic, liberal arts approach to business education would necessarily challenge students to do business differently, questioning the assumptions behind the economic system which the Kochs have both disproportionately benefited from and worked passionately to sustain. The Ciocca Center’s minor in “Business, Ethics, and Society” could be a way to address the grasp that the Kochs’ narrow economic vision has on our imaginations and society.

And yet, Koch funding has the potential to weaken The Center’s capacity to do this necessary work by influencing the very values and practices that the center is designed to assess and expand. While the grant agreement between the Charles Koch foundation and Holy Cross says that “the Parties agree that the academic freedom of the College…is critical to the success of the Center’s scholarship, teaching, and service,” this commitment is inconsistent with the Kochs’ expressed political goals and problematic track record in higher education. For example, at George Mason University, the largest beneficiary of Koch funding, agreements gave the foundation a voice in the hiring and firing of some professors by allowing the donor to appoint members to selection committees and advisory boards that recommend candidates for professorships and review their performance. Similar events unfolded at Florida State, where the foundation wanted influence over curriculum, hiring, and department chair decisions in exchange for its million-dollar donation. Utah State University, West Virginia University and Clemson University also reported similar provisions in their grant agreements.

While Holy Cross’ grant agreement does not appear to include such explicit stipulations, many elements give reason to monitor how Holy Cross’s relationship with The Charles Koch foundation unfolds. The agreement requires Holy Cross to submit an annual request for funds to be approved by the foundation, noting that “if the Donor does not approve the College Grant Request the Donor is not obligated to contribute any Contributed Amount to the College.” How might the fact that The Center’s continued funding is predicated upon the foundation’s yearly approval impact its decisions? While the agreement professes to allow Holy Cross to retain control over hiring of the Center Director, faculty, and academic programs according to “normal procedures,” The Center Director’s stipend, faculty salaries, and course development grants are all funded by Koch:

Grant Agreement (section 6B): The College Grant Request and Proposed Grant Award Schedule

How will this money influence the kinds of speakers The Center brings in and the ideas it promotes? The themes of conferences and workshops, the kinds of industry tours and internships it offers? The foundation also has a right to terminate the agreement if “the Center Programs are reasonably determined to fail to advance the Center’s Mission.” I cannot help but wonder whether The Charles Koch foundation might have a distinct interpretation of the Center’s Mission, especially with respect to the role of business in society and what sorts of “ethical frameworks” should guide the “principled leaders” that the Center seeks to form. Ultimately, Koch is unapologetic about the goal of his contributions, sharing in a rare 2015 interview his belief that “You’ve gotta change the hearts and minds of the people to understand what really makes society fairer and what’s going to change their lives. And it’s not more of this government control.”

Finally, questions of Koch influence extend beyond the Center’s activities to other spheres of campus life, notably, Holy Cross’s environmental efforts. In light of the Kochs’ vested interest in preventing environmental action, it is hard to believe that the College’s response to efforts like Eco-Action’s campaigns to divest the College and hire a sustainability director would remain unaffected by this funding. This points to why the stakes of our decision to accept Koch’s funding are so high. I am not naive to the demands of college finance: good programs require funding. However, during a time in which our elected leaders are publicly shamed for accepting fossil fuel money, and in which the UN tells us we have no more than 12 years to address climate change, we cannot afford to accept money from Charles Koch. In light of climate change, we need to reconsider how we measure economic progress and build an alternative to the “Koch-approved” capitalism that got us here, rather than cling to it with renewed desperation.

The contemporary movement to build an economy that prioritizes harmony with each other and our planet over profit and growth is strikingly Catholic, embracing the Gospel values of solidarity, cooperation, pluralism, and equality. A look at Holy Cross’s mission would make it seem as though our community would be a leader in this work, which is why the College’s eager embrace of Koch funding is so disturbing. The world that Koch is self-servingly trying to fortify through his hand in higher education conflicts with the “Kingdom of God” painted by Jesus–marked by mutuality, love, and service to others rather than the market, or oneself. This message of living a life for others is an old one, but one which I heard frequently during my time at Holy Cross. Do our campus leaders have ears to hear it?

Note:

My criticism of this donation ultimately stems from my own gratitude for the complexities unearthed by my Holy Cross education and the possibilities that I see beyond the rigid boundaries of our current economic order. This fall, I worked at a think tank dedicated to developing strategies for a more democratic economy, researching things like public ownership, cooperative business models, socially responsible investing, and community financial institutions. I want Holy Cross students to have the opportunity to encounter these ideas, and others that might not adhere to the free-market playbook authored by fossil fuel billionaires, in the classroom. Whether students choose to uplift or critique them is their freedom–their privilege. But the ideas must be there; to engage, to debate, to turn around, slowly, and examine from all sides.


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3 replies »

  1. Marie Therese Kane makes an excellent case as to why Holy Cross should not accept Koch funding. I hope the Holy Cross administration is listening, and that it will reconsider its decision.

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