I just read John Hardin’s October 14 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education written in response to Peter Schmidt’s October 4 article about the ways that Western Carolina University, where I work, “quelled” controversy over the Koch Foundation funded Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. In his letter, Hardin expresses concern about the Chronicle’s representation that the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) fueled tensions at WCU by utilizing the state’s open records law to obtain specific correspondence – including my correspondence – and he notes that nothing could be further from the truth. Hardin, the Director of University Relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, says, “We do not advocate for or participate in the use of open-record requests to harass scholars.” Hardin notes that the records requests made of faculty came from media outlets and a nonprofit, not the CKF.
As someone who found herself, at least for a while, very much in the public eye as a result of the public records requests John Hardin claims had nothing to do with his employer, I would like to respond. Since WCU became an unassuming target for the Koch Foundation’s mission of free market indoctrination, I’ve tracked pretty much every bit of the PR that Hardin has put out there. The common rhetorical thread that appears is a strident disdain for the use of public records requests – and that disdain is couched in terms of a desire to protect faculty from intimidation.
Here are two examples, very much in line with his most recent letter in the Chronicle. In the Asheville Citizen-Times in December of 2015, Hardin claims that Freedom of Information Act “requests are a favorite tool of special interests who already have a pre-determined idea of a story to tell. They then go on a fishing expedition to validate their original narrative. It doesn’t matter what’s actually transpired. Those with a partisan agenda force it to fit within their preconceived framework. Grant agreements, e-mails, memorandums of understanding, initial proposals — such documents are often full of legalese and personal communications that can easily be cherry picked by anyone with an agenda and taken out of context.” And here he is again in the Wall Street Journal in May of 2015: “before the first book could even be opened, the political-action committee American Bridge filed an open-records request seeking emails between professors and between the school’s faculty and our foundation. This overtly political fishing expedition is designed to intimidate the faculty at MSU, discouraging them from participating in the new institute.”
A couple of observations: first, what looks on the surface like Hardin’s and the CKF’s defense of academic freedom and a desire not to subject faculty to intimidation is in effect an admonition of and an attempt to discredit those who seek open records from the CKF. Such records have revealed all manner of things about the Foundation’s intentions with regard to its funding of higher education. Folks like Dave Levinthal at the Center for Public Integrity and the activists at UnKoch my Campus – a specific group with whom Hardin takes issue – have done a truly excellent job of detailing their findings, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money pretty much tells us all we need to know about what’s really at work with all of this philanthropy.
Second, in a February 26, 2016 story, Jane Stancil at the News and Observer verified that the CKF did in fact request public records from WCU. So there’s that. But regardless, as much as I felt violated by having to turn over my email, I did it – even going so far as to publish all of it on my blog for anyone to read, so that I might guard against the “cherry picking” of which Hardin warns. What looks at first glance like the CKF’s opposition to an invasion of privacy is actually its consistent attempt to undermine the process of full disclosure.
There has been quite a bit of media coverage about faculty opposition to the $1.8 million gift from the CKF for the formation of WCU’s center, and WCU has implemented a system of checks and balances unlike any in the country. These include the creation of an interdisciplinary oversight board made up of faculty and members of the community, the public disclosure of the agreement between the Koch Foundation and WCU, and the inclusion of the UNC system’s definition of academic freedom in place of the definition provided by the Koch Foundation. I am proud of my colleagues for their work in brokering this compromise, and I am trying to remain as optimistic as possible.
That said, I need to note that the Koch Brothers along with Art Pope, who once chaired the Koch founded Americans for Prosperity, ALEC, and the Koch-created tea party have spent unknown millions to elect far right-wing politicians at all levels of government. And nowhere can this be seen as clearly as in North Carolina, the state to which my ancestors came in the 1700s.
Zoe Carpenter’s June 2015 article in the Nation details the links between the Kochs and Art Pope, North Carolina’s political turn from progressive to ultra-conservative, the election of Governor Pat McCrory, and the subsequent unmaking of the UNC system, which has been intentionally deprived of funding since the republicans took over in 2010. The Kochs have worked to starve the beast, effectively ensuring that their money is hard, if not impossible, to resist, regardless of whatever strings might be attached to it.
Oh, and the nonprofit that requested all those emails? That would be the John William Pope Center for Higher Education research. Jay Schalin made the request. Here’s Carpenter on him: “Schalin is the director of policy analysis at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, a right-wing think tank funded by discount-store magnate Art Pope, the conservative kingmaker who helped flip the state legislature to the Republicans in 2010 and bankrolled the 2012 election of Republican Governor Pat McCrory.” Art Pope, sometimes referred to as a third Koch brother, according to the Washington Post’s Matea Gold, has been “building a state version of what his friends Charles and David Koch have helped create on a national level.” Pope, Koch.
Professor of English
Western Carolina University