Koch Brothers Deeply Infect the U of A and Tucson Schools

University of Arizona History Professor David N. Gibbs

University of Arizona history professor David N. Gibbs described how deeply the billionaire Koch brothers have infected the University and Tucson high schools with millions of dollars for right-wing propaganda.

The Charles Koch Foundation made a $1.8 million grant to the University of Arizona’s “Freedom Center,” which is a conservative think tank designed to turn students into lobbyists. It produced a bogus economics textbook that was recently abandoned by Tucson high schools.

The Freedom Center also got a $2.9 million grant from the Templeton Foundation, a part of the Koch network that seeks to corrupt the discussion of science in the interests of religion.

“This is a center that should not be on a university campus,” Gibbs said at a meeting of Democrats of Greater Tucson. “I am surprised that the Philosophy Department is affiliated with something so dodgy and naive about how this will affect their reputation.”

Hiring right-wing faculty

The Freedom Center just spread its tentacles to a spin-off in the University’s “Department of Political Economy and Moral Science,” staffed with key personnel from the center. The purpose is to “hire faculty in economics without the approval of the University’s Economics Department,” Gibbs said.

The Freedom center has used the Koch money “to hire four right-wing faulty, making the Philosophy Department a hotbed of right-wing thinking,” Gibbs said.

“The Koch family not only wants to be able to use money without regulation and taxes, it wants it to be viewed as moral. What better way to do that than by affiliating with a university. That’s the objective, to establish a moral basis,” Gibbs said.

“One viewpoint is that the Kochs are trying to buy influence outside of the political process in a predatory fashion, and put an imprimatur of morality on it,” he said.

He is a member of Kochs Off Campus! — a nonpartisan group of Tucson residents, UA faculty and students concerned about the undue influence of right-wing money on public education, and public subsidies for right-wing institutions. “In no way do we attack libertarianism or academic freedom,” he said. “We are attempting to eject the politically-connected money from the campus.”

Bogus textbook

A prime example of the Freedom Center’s output is a bogus economics textbook that was mysteriously planted in Tucson high schools. “It was inserted into the local curriculum without the permission of the Tucson school board. There is no explanation as to how they were able to do this,” he said.

The self-published book is a product of Sagent Labs in Tucson. Gibbs said state records show that Sagent is managed by author Cathleen Johnson of the Freedom Center. Gibbs said she is married to co-author and Freedom Center director David Schmidtz.

In the normal process, a textbook would be peer-reviewed. Most academics would consider this irregular,” Gibbs said. “This is an ideologically-oriented textbook.”

“The textbook is a fairy tale view of entrepreneurship. This is simply not a mainstream, consensus view of economics,” he said, identifying numerous flaws in the text:

  • No discussion of wealth concentration.
  • No mention of inherited wealth.
  • No mention of effective state management of the economy.
  • No mention that most entrepreneurs fail.

“The most efficient way to distribute propaganda is to the very young,” Gibbs said of the textbook. “The textbook is a warped view of economics.”

Koch-Funded Prof Back Again with Lecture Against Public Schools

Freedom Center faculty member Jonny Anomaly will present an anti-public school lecture at a Koch-funded University of Arizona class in Tucson. “Public Goods and Education” is scheduled for Thursday, January 25 at 12:30 pm in the Maloney Room, Social Science Building 224, on the UofA Campus in Tucson.


David Gibbs replies to Tom Christiano

Professor Christiano alleges that my speech contained a factual error – though on reflection it is clear that there is no error at all. He notes that “contrary to the statement you quote [from Gibbs], the four new hires at the Freedom Center are not all right wingers, indeed not even most of them are.” In making this statement, Professor Christiano must be referring to tenured and tenure-track hires, and does not consider the three right-wing libertarians who were hired as non-tenure track personnel. Note too that my original quote referenced “faculty,” not tenured or tenure-track faculty. When one takes this into account, my claim that the Center hired four right-wingers is completely accurate (and on reflection, I believe that actual figure is more likely five).

Beyond this, Professor Christiano’s comment presents a defense of the Freedom Center that is half-hearted and filled with caveats. If read carefully, it is clear that he confirms some of the key points alleged in my speech.

Let me add that I have long known Professor Christiano to be mensch, as well as an accomplished scholar. However, he is also a longtime member of the Freedom Center, and this affiliation should be taken into account when reading his comment.

2 responses to “Koch Brothers Deeply Infect the U of A and Tucson Schools

  1. Thomas Christiano

    Dear Larry Bodine,
    I am writing in response to your recent post about the Freedom Center at the University of Arizona. Your post raises important questions about the Freedom Center and, I think, more generally about the future of the University of Arizona and other public universities in the United States. These questions are going to require some very careful thinking if we want the public universities to survive and to continue to provide much of the backbone of intellectual life in the US as they have since the Second World War. I am also writing as a committed Democrat, indeed generally to the left of the mainstream of the party, as well as a member of the Philosophy Department and of the Freedom Center. I agree with my friend David Gibbs that there is some danger to the university as it takes more funding from private sources. But the description given in your post of the Freedom Center is in many places untrue, in other places unfairly exaggerated. I fear that this could be very counterproductive. I think it is important that we proceed with a clear appreciation of the reality of the Freedom Center so that we can understand the genuine threats posed and try to figure out how to deflect them. So, I want to set the record straight at least to the extent that I can.

    The first problem is that, contrary to the statement you quote, the four new hires at the Freedom Center are not all right wingers, indeed not even most of them are. You can look at the publication records of these new hires for yourself if you want to verify that, they are a matter of public record. If we look at the faculty who have been hired by the Freedom Center and the faculty affiliated with it, I think you will find a remarkably diverse group of people and most of them are centrist or left of center. There are more libertarian inclined thinkers at the Center than at other universities but no particular group is in the majority. The idea, as you put it, that the Center is a “conservative think tank designed to turn students into lobbyists” is not right. I understand the model you have, I think, which is drawn from recent discussions of George Mason University. But we are not like that. The Center is devoted to open and impartial discussion of issues related to human freedom and many different positions are represented in its discussions. It does not have the kind of agenda you are attributing to it. To the extent that there are students at the Center, they are graduate students the Center supports and they are as diverse as the faculty. Not one of these students wants to become a lobbyist and none of us would know how to teach them to do that. They all want to become academics. There are some undergraduate courses taught by people in the Center. These courses are also as diverse as the faculty who teach them. There is no ideological agenda of the Freedom Center. You might think that the center has an agenda because of what some of its supposed supporters in the legislature, or even some private individuals, say. The trouble is, these people are confused and do not understand what the modern university is all about. It is not about advocacy but about vigorous debate among different carefully thought through positions. I do not say that universities always and everywhere do this but that is the ideal that we prize and that has made the American universities the envy of the world.

    The idea that the textbook authored by David Schmidtz, Cathleen Johnson and Robert Lusch entitled Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship is bogus is deeply unfair. The textbook is written for high school students and is primarily an economics book with a chapter on ethics and some chapters on personal accounting and the practice of entrepreneurship. For the most part, it is a very reader friendly introduction to basic economic concepts, principles and modes of reasoning. Its presentation is quite standard for economics textbooks. The chapter on ethics exhorts potential entrepreneurs not to lie, cheat or steal and to make a genuine contribution to the world they live in. As long as we think that markets in some form are an important component of economic life, these are important lessons for students to learn. These introductory textbooks generally do not discuss government, the causes of inequality, or the injustice of inheritance. I think that is a bit of a flaw in contemporary economics courses but it is partly because there is a lot of disagreement among economists about these matters and because it is hard enough just to get students to think in the distinctive terms of economic theory. These other issues are usually the subjects of more advanced study. There are some biases I do not approve of in the text that are generally connected with the failures of government. But these passages occupy a very small part of the whole book. I have tried to get my friend David Schmidtz to refer to the fact that economists generally approve of stimulus spending and minimum wage increases under certain circumstances, but he thinks his text is fine. I don’t agree, but one basic principle we follow in the university is that people are allowed to teach the courses they want in the way that they want to. That is part of the principle of academic freedom. But to describe this book as propaganda is simply untrue and needlessly combative. With regard to the course, to describe it as propaganda is also quite unfair. The teachers do get a two-week training in how to teach the course. Presumably this is because economics is not an easy thing to teach. In any case, the high school teachers teach their own courses. I have seen high school syllabi for this course and it is clear that most of the teachers think that it is quite important to talk about inequality and injustice in their courses. They use a lot of other materials. They did not stick slavishly to the text and its ideas. In the end, I would like to see some changes in the text but it is basically a good book and good central part of a high school course.

    With regard to the new department, the charge that the purpose of the new unit is to hire economists that economics departments do not approve of is baseless conjecture. The basic idea behind the new department is to set up an interdisciplinary department. This is a very difficult thing to do in a public university. And economists are often the most resistant to it. The department does want to hire economists but only economists who want to engage in interdisciplinary work with philosophers, lawyers and other social scientists. We can only hope to get the endorsement of the economics department. This new department is going to be an adventure and it could fail miserably if it is not able to attract top talent from other disciplines who want to work together. But if it succeeds, it could make a major contribution to the university.

    Now for the true parts of what you say. It is true that the main sources of money for the Center are libertarian sources. My friend David Gibbs operates by the simple and elegant theory that he who pays the piper calls the tune. This is the challenge we face: how to accept money from private sources without giving them a say in what is taught or studied. Some universities have given up some of their integrity to get a lot of money. But we should note two things here. One, I don’t think the Freedom Center has given up any of its integrity as an academic center. The donors have not tried to pull strings so far. Indeed, those who did threaten to do so were sent packing with their millions. Much of this is due to David Schmidtz’s devotion to setting up a serious academic center. Two, all universities are funded by outside agents. And in past centuries, these outside agents pulled a lot of strings to get what they wanted. But over the course of the twentieth century, universities have developed practices and policies that protect their independence from political and private sources of money. It’s never perfect, but there has been a fair degree of independence. David Gibbs and I are paid by the state of Arizona but neither of us is ever asked to do the bidding of the legislature. The question is, now that legislatures are getting out of the business of funding public universities and they come to rely on private funding, how can we preserve the integrity of our university while retaining the kind of funding necessary to preserve a great university at relatively low cost for students? I can tell you that the Freedom Center so far has not been directed by its donors but we need to develop practices that ensure that that will continue to be the case. That is the basic problem your posts rightly point to. But it is important not to give in to the idea that whoever pays runs the show because that spells the death of the university as a place of free, respectful and impartial discussion. It suggests a place where donors set up platforms to advance their agendas by getting people to shout at each other. And it doesn’t have to be true. The community does need to be vigilant here but it shouldn’t be cynical. It can help us with this project but not if it assumes that we are simply writing what the money tells us to write. We must take care to avoid the potential corruption of money but we should also resist the crude theory that the money always calls all the shots.

    Thomas Christiano

  2. David N. Gibbs

    Several qualifications:

    First, the Kochs were the most prominent of several major contributors to the Freedom Center, enabling hiring, but they were not the only ones. Freedom Center personnel state that they have had “approximately” two dozen different contributors, generating considerable sums. And it was the Templeton Foundation, not the Kochs directly, that funded the Freedom Center’s high school “education” program.

    Second, Cathleen A. Johnson is listed by the Arizona Corporations Commission as the “Manager” of Sagent publishers, not the owner.

    Third, the hiring of new faculty made possible by the Freedom Center, noted above has been both in the Philosophy Department and also in the new Department of Political Economy and Moral Sciences.

    Fourth, there are faculty in the Philosophy Department who do not share the right-wing ideas of the Koch family and who object to their department’s association with the Kochs, embodied in the Freedom Center.

    David N. Gibbs
    Professor of History