Bowling Green Receives $1.6 Million to Expand Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law Program


Bowling Green State University (BGSU) has received a $1.6 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation to expand its Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law (PPEL) program.

collage by Mark Wagner

The PPEL program, which offers a major and a minor for undergraduates, is housed in the BGSU Department of Philosophy and directed by associate professor of philosophy Kevin Vallier. According to a press release, the grant will fund additional faculty for the program, fund conferences and other events, and support the PPEL club. You can view the terms of the grant here, and see which other schools have received similar grants here.

Related: “$3.4 Million Gift to UNC’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program

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Matt
1 year ago

It’s interesting to see the grant agreement, which looks pretty reasonable to me. One thing that is curious is the claim that one of the assistant professors to be hired will start in the fall of ’19. The agreement was signed in April of this year, which wouldn’t be much time to do a normal TT search. Was one underway that this subsumed, or was one done quickly, or was the “start in fall ’19” bit aspirational? It doesn’t really matter to me, but I’d be curious to know.Report

Kim
Kim
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

I think they went straight to flyouts and did more interviews that way than is usual. I have two friends who interviewed.Report

Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Ooh, tough decision to take the money, if one cares about the optics/ethics of the donor. Looking at the agreement, clause 8.b. (Termination) seems to be vague enough that it could undermine clause 1 (Promoting Academic Freedom). For instance, if the donor sees and disagrees with work by the BGSU program, it could simply and sincerely assert that “the Program Activities are not advancing the Program’s Mission”….Report

J. Bogat
J. Bogat
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Paragraph 8.b does not give the Donor an unconstrained right to terminate at will. Your termination scenario would require additional express terms. ‘Sincere belief that’ does not really matter and is not how the contract is or will be understood. Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  J. Bogat
1 year ago

That is an open question to be litigated and adjudicated. (I don’t see a provision for mandatory arbitration.) Just because something ought to be the case doesn’t mean the courts or juries will see it that way. Given the publicity, time, and expense of litigation, even a threat of going to the mat on an issue may have a chilling effect on BGSU’s behavior/work, even if BGSU thinks it will ultimately prevail…Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Not how the contract works. Given the language the scenario you describe would result in summary judgment for the university. A contract terminable at will requires more specific language, and one of this kind would have several additional provisions giving donor power to determine conditions unilaterally. Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  J. Bogart
1 year ago

Again, even if you’re confident this will be the result, there would still be court filings involved, which take time and money, and it generates unwanted publicity.

And haven’t you been surprised by a legal decision before? Just because something ought to be a certain way doesn’t mean it will turn out that way. In America, just about anyone can be sued for anything. That doesn’t mean those lawsuits have any merit, but the hassle and cost of responding to a legal complaint is real and not trivial.

This will be the last thing I say about this issue, which is ultimately an empirical question and can’t be decided a priori. Report

David
David
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Patrick, with all due respect, all contracts have termination clauses; check your own contract or any grant ever.Report

Christian Coons
Christian Coons
1 year ago

I’m a professor in BGSU’s department since the beginning of our relationship with Koch. We’ve never had a pro-Koch against-Koch schism. We welcomed the money cautiously, and we were desperately short on faculty . We thought “if the terms of the contract are not corrupt, and we’re not corrupt, then what’s the harm?” Well, I don’t feel that way any longer. There is a big, sad, and almost incredible story related to this grant in our department. While this is not the forum to tell that story, I feel a responsibility to share at least that much here and now. Report

Sam
Sam
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

“There is a big, sad, and almost incredible story related to this grant in our department. While this is not the forum to tell that story, I feel a responsibility to share at least that much here and now. ”

Way to leave us hanging on the big, sad story that can’t be shared in a public forum. I hope whatever it is, it does not undermine the integrity of the work of you and your colleagues. Needless to say though, I am always skeptical when billionaires start throwing money at academics. At least Socrates had the good sense to turn Crito’s offer down, but all too often like Socrates, turning down that wealth leads to death (albeit financial death in the case of current academia, not literal bodily death). It should worry us when it’s large private wealth doing this at *public* institutions even moreso.Report

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

Erm… Just tell the story. Telling us there is one without telling us what it is… I can’t see that this accomplishes anything at all.

Please just explain the problem. Don’t you owe it to the community at large, many of whom will be faced with a similar situation?Report

Lucas Borgesius
Lucas Borgesius
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

Sounds eerily familiar to the ongoing story of the Ramsay Centre funding at the University of Wollongong, Australia. For what it’s worth, Christian, you have my sympathies.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

“While this is not the forum to tell that story, I feel a responsibility to share at least that much here and now.” That’s not right. That sounds like innuendo. If you know of some skullduggery, what is it? Otherwise you’re just trading in innuendo and rumor-mongering.
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Heather
Heather
1 year ago

The taxpayers of the state of Ohio, and in particular the members of the philosophy department and administration at BGSU who allowed this to happen, should be deeply ashamed of this agreement .

The Program Directors, allegedly selected by the department in accordance with “normal procedures” have veto power over anyone hired to be a part of the program (via their required “recommendation”), and the Koch Foundation must agree on the selection of tenure-track faculty and graduate fellowships (Sec. 3(b) — outrageous!
Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Heather
1 year ago

Hmm, I don’t think 3.b. says that Koch must agree on the selection of TT faculty or grad students, esp. since that worry has exactly been the main source of controversy for past Koch-funded centers (e.g., at George Mason Univ.), and I assume they’re super-sensitive to that now. I read 3.b as only: the parties agree that to follow the normal university for the selection of those folks. I don’t know BGSU’s specific situation, but normally a donor is excluded from those decisions because of university ethics/conflict-of-interest rules.

Unclear from the agreement that Koch had any say in the appointment of the Program Directors…though I wouldn’t bet against it, even if it was only informal pressure; at the least, they had Koch’s blessing. But, yes, there’s always a danger of a serious COI with donors, esp. ideological-based ones. Even if no pressure had been applied, the program will probably always be mindful that the funding could go away (as allowed by 8.b). In any case, same chilling effect as what you were worried about.

It’s a Faustian bargain that more universities feel forced into, given dwindling support from the state/federal gov’t…can’t blame them too much…Report

David
David
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Patrick: Why are you so worried about this particular grant at this particular school? Do you know something about them we don’t?Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  David
1 year ago

Only thing I know about this situation is what I read here, and I have zero connection to anything Koch. I’m worried for BGSU’s philosophy department—which has a good reputation, esp. in applied ethics—out of solidarity and given the donor’s controversial history of influence in academia.

Why do you ask?Report

David
David
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Just wondered what your motivation was. This looks like a good thing, reasonably negotiated, for a department with a good reputation. Your own comments above even imply this if the suspicious subtext is ignored.Report

S
S
Reply to  David
1 year ago

I sincerely hope you wrote this comment before seeing the very troubling message from Prof Coons above. Whatever he is on about, it’s clear that there are grounds to be worried about this ‘gift’Report

P
P
Reply to  S
1 year ago

In David’s defense. It’s unfortunate that Prof Coons feels that way but clearly everyone there does not. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have the grant or the mentioned positions and programs associated with it.Report

David
David
Reply to  Heather
1 year ago

Why is it outrageous? And why the “allegedly”? As I asked Patrick: Do you have knowledge about the specifics we do not? If not, why the severe negative judgment?Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  David
1 year ago

David, to be charitable, I’m going to assume that you haven’t been following the shenanigans of the Koch bros. for the last few years (as opposed to defending them for reasons unknown). As I said, it’s a controversial history, e.g.: https://www.prwatch.org/news/2017/01/13210/charles-koch-ramps-higher-ed-funding-talent-pipeline

Sure, any external funding brings a risk of conflict of interest, and hopefully everyone will be a professional about it. But some COI risks are much greater and deliberate than others…Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Patrick: It’s rather amusing that you linked to the website from the Center for Media and Democracy. CMD is funded by George Soros, and Koch and Soros have been duking it out for quite a while.

Instead of linking to a left-wing activist website, have you talked directly with people who have received these grants to understand how things work? In the case of BGSU, do you have any reason to think that Kevin Vallier and the others working on this program are some sort of right-wing shills or otherwise not serious in terms of their scholarship? Or, do you have any reason to believe that there are somehow inappropriate strings attached to this agreement that is somehow hidden from the formal grant agreement (because there are none in there)? If not, why are you trying to cast doubt on or otherwise defame the folks at BGSU who pursued external funding for what seems like a great program?

Perhaps it would be nice for academics to focus on the scholarly and teaching aspects of what they’re doing and not have to worry about fund-raising, but the cows are long out of the barn on that one. The reality is that people who are trying to build programs need to raise their own money or they end up like Oliver Twist competing/begging for scraps in the zero-sum game that is most university budgeting. I understand the concern about being beholden to donors, but we should always assume that our colleagues are acting in good faith on these things unless we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Did you not see Christian’s note above? Or where I said, “It’s a Faustian bargain that more universities feel forced into, given dwindling support from the state/federal gov’t…can’t blame them too much…”?

I didn’t suggest our colleagues are acting in bad faith, but just wondering if they knew what they were getting themselves into. And, yeah, I know how grants work: I’ve secured about $1.5M in them to date, so I think I know a little about how that game is played…
Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

And, yes, I did see the news earlier that you have a nice grant as well. Congrats on that!

http://dailynous.com/2018/06/21/philosopher-wins-1-8-million-grant-study-minority-entrepreneurship/

Still unclear why you’re not extending me the same courtesy of assuming that I’m acting in good faith, which you had advocated for.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

I saw Christian’s comment. It’s unfortunate that he would say something vague like that, especially in the context of this discussion. Money always causes problems, especially when people have to decide how to split it up–feelings get hurt. There’s a difference between hurt feelings and improper activity. At this point he probably owes everyone clarifying remarks.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Chris, if it’s unfortunate to say vague things on what could be a serious matter, then why are you doing exactly that by suggesting the problem is about splitting up money? Do you know something about the situation? Are you connected to Koch or anyone at BGSU?

If you’re trying to be careful with your claims, why wouldn’t you go with the already-established worry that Koch funding may come with improper academic influencing? (See links below for a sampling.) I’ve never heard of an academic fight over how grant money is split: that’s usually settled before the agreement is even signed, with the submitted budget.

As for all these calls that Christian “owes” anyone here anything: the fact that he didn’t hint at a bigger story behind a veil of anonymity—he used his real name; and since he works at BGSU, he has risked real repercussions in even saying that much—you should take your own advice and assume that he’s doing this in good faith. It seems appropriate to take any /attributable/ claim of inside knowledge in this matter at face-value, until there’s independent reporting on it to weigh the different sides. (And if you know anything about it but didn’t disclose that fact or relationships with BGSU that might compromise your judgment, well, that doesn’t seem like engaging in good faith.)

And if there is a real story behind this, certainly breaking the news in the comments section of a blog for a relatively obscure discipline isn’t the way to do it, even if Daily Nous is the top news site for philosophy. I’d go straight to NYT, WaPo, Guardian, or other major media outlets.

We just don’t know until we know. I doubt goading anyone into divulging more details here will be productive, and it seems like an unreasonable request, esp, given the potential severity of the matter and the risk already taken.

This is the last thing I’ll say in this thread. I have no material or personal interest in this matter, except to resist the pernicious influence of donors in academia.

Best of luck to BGSU.

LINKS:
———-
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/us/koch-donors-george-mason.html

https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/06/11/5-million-to-california-university-from-billionaire-charles-koch-sparks-an-uproar/Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 year ago

Patrick: You clearly have certain biases here. I have them as well. I’m glad to see you believe nothing productive will come of us discussing this further. I agree.Report

Christian Coons
Christian Coons
1 year ago

I don’t wish to get in any fights here. But, Chris, you obviously make an important point. My post may cast suspicion on some who don’t deserve it. So while many the problems we endured will be outlined in an appropriate forum at some point, allow me to do the right thing here and clarify: There were some problems with our first Koch-endowed search, but that is not the scandal. The person we hired was not pushed on us by CKF. He seems like a nice, smart, decent guy, and we’re glad to have him.

Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

Thanks, Christian, for providing this clarification. Glad to hear that it wasn’t that kind of problem. As it turns out, I know that he’s a nice, smart, and decent guy… y’all stole him from me! 🙂 Report

Justin Donhauser
Justin Donhauser
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

What Christian and Chris say in this last exchange are both true. Our newest colleague is great and definitely wasn’t pushed on us by CKF. I was on the hiring committee, there from start to finish, and the decision was made by our entire department (all core faculty) and was consistent with the advisory decision made by our committee. Maybe that’s too much detail about our process, but I hope it defuses some of the worries people have expressed above.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Christian Coons
1 year ago

I appreciate this additional comment. Is it supposed to clarify things? I’m not sure that it does that sufficiently. This is because it raises further questions.

Was there an inappropriate influence? You say the new hire wasn’t pushed on you. But that is compatible with your being pushed into a decision between two candidates chosen by CKF. You get to decide between the two, so the one you choose isn’t pushed on you. However, this seems like an inappropriate influence.

An influence like this seems problematic. Is it one of the problems you say there were in the hiring process? Are there other problems? If none of those problems is the scandal, what other things like these might have occured that you don’t think worthy of mentioning? Your additional comment raises many questions.
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Justin Donhauser
Justin Donhauser
Reply to  Jen
1 year ago

Yes, it was meant to clarify. We were not pushed into a decision between two candidates chosen by CKF. If I must share further details to sufficiently clarify: OUR COMMITTEE selected six candidates for campus visits, OUR COMMITTEE then made an advisory decision, and OUR DEPARTMENT (every member of the faculty collectively) made the same decision. I never heard or saw anything or anyone from CKF during any part of the process.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Donhauser
1 year ago

Thanks for your response. This does help to clarify.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Jen
1 year ago

Jen, as someone who was also hiring this past year at the University of New Orleans with funding from both the John Templeton Foundation and Charles Koch Foundation, I can tell you that neither foundation had absolutely any influence over the people who were hired in any way. The people we hired haven’t been reported to them, they haven’t commented on the hires, and the only way either foundations knows who the hires are is because we announced them.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

This is useful information. Thanks.Report