Much of what you’ve probably heard about Charles and David Koch, heirs to a Kansas-based chemical conglomerate, is about their political donations: Starting in the 1970s, they spent millions of dollars pushing the Republican party more and more rightward, past conservatism and into science denial, voter suppression, lax environmental and gun-control regulations, and the idea that corporations are people. When David Koch died in August 2019, he was one of the world’s richest people—and one of the most influential. In various obituaries, Koch was called a “man-about-town philanthropist” or an “industrialist” or even a “libertarian former vice-presidential candidate.” The more more dangerous truth was summed up in the Rolling Stone piece “David Koch Built a Toxic Empire—With Human Consequences,” which detailed the long list of environmental crimes committed by the Koch corporation in the name of private enterprise and freedom from government regulation.
Another human consequence of the Koch empire is the insidious influence flourishing on college and university campuses where the Koch Foundation has in recent years given more than $200 million to fund business programs, professorships, and think tanks whose express purpose is to create and disseminate conservative ideology, data, and policy. The Koch brothers’ belief that private profit is more important than the common good has never been a secret, but because colleges and universities are able to keep donor information private, the breadth of their influence on educational institutions and intent to curtail social progress has remained quieter than their more explicitly political puppeteering.
Which is why it’s important that organizations like UnKoch My Campus exist. Founded in 2013 by a group of students at George Mason University concerned about how Koch donations were deployed on their campus and others, UnKoch empowers students, faculty, and larger campus communities to organize and push back on undue influence from donors. UnKoch is currently flourishing under Executive Director Jasmine Banks, a self-described “queer Black mom of four and nonmonogamous person living in Arkansas” who stresses that donations like the Kochs’s don’t only have repercussions on higher education, but extend to state legislation and judicial appointments, to social and racial justice, and to democracy. With the 2020 Democratic primaries centering access to education in nuanced conversations about race and equity, it’s the perfect time to listen to Banks talk about financial transparency, student activism, and why what’s legal isn’t the same as what’s right.
It makes a lot of sense that your experience would translate into a kind of organizing where the focus is largely younger people. To that point: The Koch empire and the shadowy provenance of their wealth is a really complex issue. How do you break it down for people when you’re discussing their influence and impact in politics and education?
Imagine if you were an ultra-rich person and you understood that the rules of the game were fixed and you wanted to continue to amass wealth and didn’t care that amassing more wealth meant that you were ushering in a climate disaster and the demise of people on the planet. [Imagine] if you cared only about your well-being [and] your physical “liberties.” When I say that to someone, they go, “Well, who would do that? Why would someone do that? That seems wild.” And I go, “Well, interesting that you would respond that way, because Koch industries, with revenues over $100 billion, has been [enacting] their corporate interests through a private pipeline in our universities.”
And then the second question folks typically ask is, “How does that hurt universities?” And I say, “Well, think about it. If you wanted to ensure that our legislation, no matter if it’s on the state or federal level, works in your favor, you might donate money to a university and then tell that university that they’re only allowed to hire certain people who serve your interests. [And that they’re] only allowed to turn out certain data or research certain things that serve your interests. [You] would incentivize that university, through your fiscal control of it, to work your interests in a way that’s really, really not well-publicized—most people aren’t going through [university funding] and looking at donor agreements.
The Koch industries and their larger network are implanting centers, like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, that are [on or] adjacent to a university campus, and then engaging in culture wars through these centers—and doing so under the guise of [them] being autonomous when actually it’s deeply embedded in the university culture. Through these centers, they’re doing things like shifting culture dynamics around women and nonbinary people in the workplace, shifting regulation around public lands, shifting social protections for LGBTQ folks. A lot of considerable harm is being done under the guise of donations and empathy.
Are there specific examples that really stand out, in terms of how pernicious this is?
So, for example, Duke University received a $5 million pledge in 2018 from the Charles Koch Foundation to fund the Center for the History of Political Economy. The Center for the History of Political Economy turns out data and research that says, essentially, that free-market capitalism is the best system for all of us to work in. And yet all the unskewed, unbiased data shows that our economy is not supporting folks because of the deep structural inequities that have always existed for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
Another example is the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University that, through Koch funding, supports continuing-education opportunities that they call judicial junkets. [One thing they do is] invite state judges to attend these weekend seminars. And after they have experienced just one weekend of education [attending] these seminars, these judges increase the sentencing lengths for Black and brown folks that sit before them when they’re presiding, and they’re more in favor of deregulating environmental protection.
So it’s about more than just academic freedom and the ways in which the Kochs are corrupting an institution that was designed to be for the common good. It really is about ideological content, whether it’s racially motivated voter suppression or encouraging climate-denial research; across the board, they’re perpetuating this culture war they call “human flourishing.” But the question really is: what humans? And so far, all our data has uncovered that they believe that human flourishing, for democratic institutions, benefits a heterosexual culture of rich men. And [that’s] completely against everything that we point to when we’re talking about forming our democracy.
What do you say to people who point out that colleges and universities have always benefited from private donors and foundations in specific areas, or that establish specific departments? How does what the Kochs do differ from that?
What’s different is that—and we proved this through our experience at George Mason University, where one of our student organizations, Transparent GMU, went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court to get access to donor agreements—the Charles Koch Foundation had written into their donor agreement the ability to hire and fire, as well as the ability to state who sits on the board for hiring committees, even down to curriculum and pedagogy.
I’ll say plainly that philanthropy is not justice. It’s an act of harm reduction in a system that needs to be completely transformed and dismantled. But if we’re going to deal with the world and the conditions that we find it in, philanthropy has to be responsible [for not being] infiltrated and captured as a way of serving private interests. All philanthropy should be able to point to the common good and the transformation of a progressive society, right? So, on those grounds, what [the Kochs are] doing is essentially lobbying; but [they’re] calling it philanthropy and using universities as a pipeline for lobbying tactics that all go, again, to their private interests.
Whenever folks say, “Well, what about George Soros?” I say, “I would love to have George Soros as a target. I would love to hold all the billionaires in the world accountable for how they’re impacting social issues through higher education. I have yet, though—through all the FOIAs, through all the insider information, through all the whistleblowing—to see any other billionaires [who] operate and feed this kind of control into higher education the way the Kochs and their broader network have been doing.
And it’s not strictly illegal either, right? I mean, this happens at the discretion of universities and colleges; it’s not something that an outside person could come in and cite for violation of specific laws.
Right. Well, there isn’t an issue of criminality here. It’s about social good, and it’s about ethics. And if you say you’re a philanthropist, then it calls into question a conversation [about] morality. Whenever we talk about universities and colleges, we have to hold lots of things in tension. One of them is academic freedom. One of them is accessibility and integration for people of color on campuses. One of them is Title IX and the safety and well-being of our students. One is about freedom of speech versus hate speech, and violent rhetoric [toward] students and professors who are part of traditionally marginalized groups.
And what we’re seeing with the culture [that’s] perpetuated whenever the Koch-funded professors, think tanks, and centers are at the hands of the will is that it increases violent experiences for people of color. [This culture] is not in support of [survivors of] assault and gender-based violence. It’s not in support of histories that are appropriate for telling the stories of settler colonization in service of our Indigenous siblings. So, sure, there’s no crime here, but is this the world we’re working toward? Are we working toward a world where we are going to exhaust all our climate and natural resources and be like, “Well, it wasn’t illegal that they turned out this biased data and informed corporations and deregulated our public lands and privatized our prisons. Those weren’t crimes.” I mean, has the law always been the measure of justice? I would say no.
Right. And some of the issues that are central to the upcoming election are around access to and equity in education—but at the same time, we’re at a place politically and socially where too many people aren’t as concerned with ethics and the common good as they are with figuring out how to toe the line between what’s legal and illegal. How do you connect the work of UnKoch My Campus with these kinds of discussions?
I think people are definitely trying to come down from the head rush that is this current presidential administration. I don’t even really enjoy having conversations around the law because, as I just stated, the law has never been a measure of justice for the queer community, the Black community—my folks. For most of us, the way our society has been structured is that you go to a trade school or a college or a university, you get an education, and then you go out as a citizen prepared to provide something to the world. I have four children; my oldest one is now 12, and I can’t imagine her going to university. But if she were, I would be distraught as a parent to [find] that I had sunk myself into debt—because that’s what working-class people have to do in order to afford education—and it turned out that she was really interested in science but ended up [at] a university where a Koch-funded professor said to her, “You may not talk about climate change, because it’s a myth, in my classroom.” Which is a thing that has happened to students who have organized with UnKoch My Campus.
[I think about] the depth of the implications of what that could mean for her. Like if she didn’t [learn] at home why taking care of our environment and the planet is incredibly crucial for the survival of humanity, if she didn’t have that education, then what happens next? She is inundated with these myths, and then she goes out into the world and lives in such a way that harms folks. We’ve seen that [this] self-interested, corporatist motivation does not get us the America that we want. Corporate banking, private prisons, student loans, health care—all these conversations the candidates are having demonstrate that young people, progressive people, are trending away from trust of the corporate mindset and private interests, and are wanting a world that is rooted in more of a social-based justice. And yes, “socialist.” Some people are afraid to say that. But really, that’s where young people are headed.
UnKoch is a part of that conversation because we are the connecting piece between the need for reform in higher education vs. the need for harm reduction. We are saying we know that all colleges and universities should be free, that no one should have to go into debt for an education, and that universities are a part of the foundation of democracy. But in the meantime, until we transform [higher education], we’re not going to let it be infiltrated and [further] corrupted by people who are interested in using it for nefarious ends.
Philanthropy is not justice. It’s an act of harm reduction in a system that needs to be completely transformed and dismantled.
Are there examples of how different campuses have successfully mitigated efforts by the Kochs?
Yeah! We’ve had really incredible student organizers across the board. Right now, we’ve got students at M.I.T—and it’s not just students, but also faculty and community stakeholders. We’ve got students at Middle Tennessee State University, Florida State University, Utah State University, who have called out and are calling out what’s happening on their campuses. What’s so interesting is no two campuses are alike [in terms of the focus of] undue donor influence.
For example, in Utah, it was around public access to public land and trying to, under the radar, capture public land after it’s been deregulated and then use it for private interest and not have to comply with environmental protection. In Arizona, it was around curriculum and teaching a really whitewashed, Eurocentric perspective. At Florida State University, students protested a professor who was very blatantly anti-Black and pro-slavery, and [who] offered slavery as an example [of a] viable option for stimulating the economy. At Ball State University, it was Charles Koch and [the founder of] Papa John’s pizza. So, yeah, we’ve got lots of really great organizers who come to us and use the tools that our director of campaigns, Samantha Parsons, provides them and make these into national issues and build power from the grassroots.
The amount of accountability that comes from these faculty and student organizers is incredible. Our organizers call what’s happening “academic crime”—to bring you back to the criminality conversation—because they believe that when you agree to be a professor you have an obligation to your students, [and] that you are violating students’ trust whenever you’re putting your donors or the people who are funding your research above the well-being of students. It’s been really interesting to see the ways everyone, across all our organizing groups no matter where they’re at, conceptualizes and frames what’s happening on their campuses.
For people who are not students or faculty on campuses, what are the best ways to follow the money and put all this stuff together?
Our bread and butter is higher education, [but] we have different campaigns that folks can get involved in. Our UnKoch our Courts campaign is [about] protecting our judicial system from the efforts of Koch-funded and Koch-backed judges. And Unkoch K–12 is about public schools—I can’t think of a single person who’s not impacted in some way by either K–12 or higher education. But generally, the Freedom of Information Act is a really powerful organizing tool that all of our folks use to look up what’s happening [with] elected officials or educators. The people who are elected and the places that are designed to serve “we the people” are actually not serving us; they’re serving corporations and the ultra-rich elite. Their agenda is a problem, and the only way to solve that problem is to be transparent about it, to investigate it, and to hold people accountable.
At the end of the day, what I want to [make] clear is that there are people who have amassed unchecked wealth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wealth outside of the fact that this wealth was built on the backs of Black and brown folks; this wealth was able to be obtained because of slavery and systemic oppression. [The Koch Brothers] believe that “liberty” means they can do with their money whatever they want—and we don’t disagree until [they] start using that money to harm and undercut democracy. When you believe that your money should be used to control people, to limit their civil and social liberties, that’s a problem. That’s what’s happening through our colleges and universities, and it’s happening in nuanced ways. But that’s the crux of the issue: No one should be able to have so much control because of the money and they donate.