For the past three years, McGill has been the only Canadian university to receive an academic grant from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, an arm of the formidable political advocacy operation of Charles and David Koch, two American billionaires who have bankrolled the Tea Party movement and various climate-change deniers in recent years.
The $10,000 grant funds a political theory fellowship in which students meet to discuss seminal liberal texts under the guidance of libertarian theorist and McGill professor Jacob Levy. Undergraduates receive $500 for their participation in the Fellowship over the course of the year; graduate students get $750.
Over 200 American universities receive funding from the Foundation. The grant application page of their website reads, “the Foundation focuses its grantmaking on a select number of programs it believes are best positioned to support principles of liberty and long-term prosperity.”
Levy and several students interviewed by The Daily are adamant that the Fellowship – officially called the Research Group on Constitutional Studies Student Fellowship – meets the highest standards of academic freedom.
Byron Taylor-Conboy, a Master’s candidate who describes himself as a “progressive, left-leaning social democrat” said, “one of the reasons why I thought [the funding] was acceptable in this situation is that there was no sort of constraints on what we could talk about.”
Jake Bleiberg, U3 Political Science, echoed this. “In being exposed to those texts, you’re certainly getting a liberal perspective on the world. But I don’t feel as if there’s a political push behind it,” he said. “I think we’re looking at the books in the same critical way you would in a class.”
While all of the students contacted by The Daily thought the McGill Fellowship in question was free from overt interference on the part of the Foundation and were happy to be a part of it, some felt that Koch grants were symptomatic of larger problems in academia.
“I think the Koch brothers have been an example of using big money to privilege certain views, which I would say is anti-democratic,” said Isaac Stethem, who graduated last semester and has been a Fellow for two years.
Asked if he would be comfortable seeing a Koch grant at every Canadian university, Taylor-Conboy said, “Of course not.”
“I think it’s problematic, a massive private investment in universities, and we see it increasing now,” he went on. “I think it opens the door to a curtailing of intellectual thought and academic freedom.”
“Everything is dirty money. Anything we do now is dirty money – dirty money circulates in the system. So to say, ‘Oh, you know, this Koch Foundation money is dirty money,’ – maybe that’s correct, but the problem isn’t just the Koch Foundation, it’s the system.”
The Koch brothers have been explicit about the ideological control they try to wield over the organizations they fund. In 2007, David Koch told the libertarian journalist Brian Doherty, “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent. And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding. We do exert that kind of control.”
Presented with the quote, Levy countered that the McGill Fellowship was too small to merit such interference. “There’s one important part of that quote that you read, which is ‘a lot of money.’ […] $10,000 grants to universities aren’t like that,” he said.
In recent years, the Kochs have been in the spotlight for aggressively funding right-wing political causes. Greenpeace called Koch Industries, the brothers’ multinational corporation involved in various industrial and manufacturing activities, a “kingpin of climate science denial,” for spending more than ExxonMobil to fight against climate change legislation between 2005 and 2008.
In 2004, David Koch co-founded the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which recently has been involved in financing Tea Party groups and organizing anti-Obama rallies across the U.S.
Doherty has said that Charles Koch’s goal in entering political activism in the 1970s was to tear government “out at the root.”
“Do I worry about what other causes donors give to? Not as a rule,” Levy said. “I’m concerned about how they interact with their educational and university grants.”
• • •
The Foundation has no say over which students are admitted to the Fellowship, Levy says. Levy picks the Fellows himself, based largely on “the number and range of high-level courses in political theory, political philosophy, jurisprudence, and related fields, and the grades in those courses.”
Levy, who is listed as a guest lecturer on the website of the Koch-funded, libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, declined to show The Daily examples of his grant applications to the Koch Foundation, citing McGill’s donor privacy rules.
In an interview, he said the application consists largely of telling the Foundation what books he plans to assign. In the past three years, Fellows have read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and The Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. This year, students are concentrating on Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Each book is a touchstone of liberalism.
Levy receives no money from the grant. He has been on sabbatical for four of the six semesters that the Fellowship has been in place at McGill. “This is teaching I’ve been doing in my spare time,” he said.
At the end of each year, Levy writes a report to the Foundation: “I say we met this many times, we successfully covered this many books, and for the students who are graduating, I say, here are the things that students are going on to do.”
The Foundation does not appear to be concerned with the Fellows’ ideological orientation, even if they are dramatically at odds with that of the libertarian Kochs. Mylène Freeman, one of the McGill students elected to Parliament as an NDP candidate in 2011, was a Fellow in the group’s first year at McGill. “I was happy and proud to include her accomplishment prominently in the year-end report I send to the Foundation of the impressive things our students go on to do,” Levy wrote in an email.
• • •
Last year, an employee of the Foundation visited McGill and sat in on one of the Fellowship’s discussions.
“Professor Levy mentioned beforehand, ‘just act the way you would normally act,’” Bleiberg said.
Still, when the employee – Stephen Sweet, Program Coordinator for Marketing and Recruiting at the Foundation – stood before the group and mentioned grants and internships that the Koch Foundation offered, some of the more left-wing Fellows bristled.
“At least one or two members asked questions that had to do with the ideology behind the group, or the principles tied up with it,” remembered Stethem.
“There were a good number of people last year who identified as part of the radical left,” Bleiberg said. “Someone tried to ask whether or not [the Koch Foundation was] open to employing people who really disagreed with them. I think he got a sort of non-answer to that.”
“[The Koch Foundation employee] was very directly challenged and from a radically different position. I don’t think the people who felt they had something to say to him tried to say it gently.”
Bleiberg said he saw this as evidence of the Fellowship’s academic freedom. After all, despite the testy exchange, McGill’s grant was renewed at the end of the year.
Levy says he intends to apply for the grant again this year.