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Koch Foundation Donations Spur Debate at HKS

Harvard Kennedy School
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017.

A foundation overseen by controversial libertarian billionaire Charles Koch has made several millions-dollar donations to the Harvard Kennedy School in recent years, prompting some debate within the school about the organization’s role and influence on campus.

In Dec. 2015, the Koch Foundation donated $2.9 million to the Kennedy School’s Taubman Center to support an initiative meant to boost education-related entrepreneurship. And in Nov. 2017, the Koch Foundation gave the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs a $1.8 million grant to launch “The Project on Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft,” a collaborative international studies program between the Kennedy School and MIT.

These grants follow about $10 million given to other institutions of higher education including Tufts University and the University of California at San Diego—both meant to foster research into foreign policy.

Given these recent donations, some Kennedy School students and outside observers have raised concerns about the clout they say the Koch foundation may wield at the school.

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“They have a very clear libertarian, ideological, free-market fundamentalism agenda that they are pushing not only in the United States but also across the world,” Kennedy School student Jeff Rousset said. “When the dean says he is interested in bringing more conservatives voices to the Kennedy School, we have to ask, what are the voices in his head influencing those decisions?”

Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf recently said he is interested in bringing more conservative voices to campus.

Kennedy School spokesperson Doug Gavel wrote in an emailed statement Monday that the school does not follow rules established by donors.

“We accept funding from external sources, but those sources do not dictate or unduly influence the results of our research, our policy recommendations, what we teach, or whom we accept into our community,” Gavel wrote in the statement.

The billionaire Koch Brothers come under the national spotlight in recent years, with some criticizing them for their conservative views as well as a perceived lack of transparency regarding which Republican candidates the brothers choose to fund. The Koch foundation even inspired an app in 2013 which allowed shoppers to check if products are backed by the Koch brothers—thus permitting consumers to boycott those items.

Rousset said the Kennedy School should avoid advancing the agenda of a foundation he considers to be “one of the most undemocratic forces in the country.”

“[The Koch Brothers] are pushing a pro-business agenda regardless of the impact on the poor, the shrinking middle class, communities of color, and other vulnerable communities who get crushed by such policies,” Rousset said.

The Koch Foundation did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Dave Levinthal, a journalist at the Center for Public Integrity—who has reported on the Koch Foundation in the past—said he thinks backlash is to be expected given what he called the Koch Brothers’ opaque financial support of conservative political candidates and organizations.

"When Koch foundations give money to public policy schools, particularly ones with a generally left-leaning student body and faculty, expect an angry reaction,” Levinthal wrote in an email Monday.

“Given this, schools must weigh the benefits of Koch money—grants sometimes reach into the millions of dollars—against the potential blowback of taking it,” Levinthal added. “Most universities take it.”

Professor Stephen Walt, the co-director of the “The Project on Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft,” said the grant given by the Koch Foundation will not impact their admissions decisions for the fellowship program.

“Once the money has been provided to us, then we control the program and they don’t have a role in selecting the fellows or deciding what the fellows write, selecting who we bring in as outside speakers or anything like that,” Walt said.

Nonetheless, some students at the Kennedy School say the donations are concerning.

“I think we need to be careful about what we freak out about,” said Matthew B. Mcdole, who is pursuing a masters in public policy. “I’m highly concerned if this is something where it’s a widespread effort to corporatize the center.”

“The Koch Brothers thing just touching one project at one of those research centers, it doesn’t feel to me like striking at the core of the education experience,” he added.

Either way, discussion over donors like the Koch foundation will likely linger at the Kennedy School for a while, according to Kennedy School Professor Khalil G. Muhammad. Muhammad said it is difficult to disentangle a donor’s gift from that organization’s politics.

“Donors do or foundations also do have a sense what’s important to them and a university is a good place because they can usually find a home for those interests and that influence,” Muhammad said.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez

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