For the few who don’t know the Koch brothers, they are Charles and his brother, David. (The latter passed away in 2019.) The boys inherited multiple billions of dollars from their oil baron father and were raised to believe in their own superiority. For their entire lives, they justified their selfishness through their fanatical devotion to Ayn Randian libertarianism.
For the past several decades, the Koch industrial network has pushed their radical libertarian ideology on multiple fronts: They created and financed an entire network of think tanks, conservative media outlets, conservative societies, and AstroTurf movements (including the 2010 Tea Party). One of their most sinister ploys, however, is their plot to use their vast fortune to infect hundreds of our educational institutions with their personal extreme libertarian ideology. This has proven to be a bridge too far for many parents and students, and they are fighting back.
But first, a quick primer on how powerful a selfish billionaire can really be. From 1955 to the mid-1980s, the Republicans weren’t able to control either chamber of Congress. Republicans also were shut out of most governors’ mansions and were nowhere close to having majorities in the state legislatures.
Charles Koch decided to do something about it. He first tried to run for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 on a platform of killing Medicare, Social Security, the minimum wage, and public schools. When that failed, he decided to go to work behind the scenes using his obscene inheritance to promote his beliefs.
At the end of the Carter era, the Kochs started heavily investing their daddy’s money. They didn’t just throw money at political campaigns—they planned a very long-term strategy aimed at power with permanence. They would build, fund, and develop an entire conservative infrastructure. This included media outlets, conservative think tanks, fundraising apparatuses, and multiple political organizations. The Kochs even created academic programs that would target potential judicial and legislative candidates who could be molded in the Koch-libertarian image.
Their decades-long efforts have paid off in spades. Today, the fringe anti-government faction of the GOP has completely replaced the moderates as the ruling class of the party. Many lawmakers are beholden to the Kochs, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. Cruz was ranked as a “hero” for taking up the Kochs’ crusade to fight any attempt to combat climate change.
The Kochs’ vigorous efforts at capturing power have been very effective. Most states are now dominated by a political trifecta of GOP control (governor and both state legislative chambers), Congress has been in conservative hands multiple times, and worst of all, the judiciary has lost any semblance of nonpartisanship after being stacked with judges hand-picked by Koch-funded groups, including the conservative Federalist Society.
One of their most sinister and (until recently) successful ploys has been to infect schools with horrid propaganda.
Koch money starts by targeting poor elementary, middle, and high schools. Students are given lesson plans with seriously revised versions of history, such as how Obamacare violates religious freedom and the Constitution, how Roe v. Wade and gay marriage are destroying America, and how an infamous abolitionist “deceived himself with self-righteousness” because he thought he could end slavery by launching “a racial war in the South.”
Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a longtime Koch devotee who can always be counted on to do the Kochs’ bidding. In late 2018, she went to a secret meeting in Kansas with the Youth Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit founded by Charles and Liz Koch that provides high school curricula that shamelessly promote the concept of a radical, unfettered free market, and extols the evils of the minimum wage, the government, and public assistance.
Recently, the Koch network has been hyper-focused on conducting an all-out assault on public education. Koch-backed state legislators are reallocating state funds to cannibalize public schools in favor of private charter schools. Many of these schools are owned by people in the Koch circle, and they have proven lucrative. The new reality is businesses can now run chains of charter schools, and profit has replaced education as the primary mission. Charter schools have no accountability; here in Florida, they’ve been a complete disaster.
Yet the main battlefront of the Koch education wars has been playing out on hundreds of college campuses. Cash-strapped colleges are understandably tempted by large donations, and Koch donation amounts can be mind-boggling. Unfortunately, they come with large strings attached.
In exchange for a Koch check with six or more zeroes, college officials must be comfortable with the Koch network inserting themselves into the hiring and firing of faculty members, mandatory indoctrination, and censorship of opposing ideas. Charlie Koch’s intentions are anything but charitable. His goal is nothing less than fostering extremist, right-wing corporatist propaganda on impressionable students—lifting strategies directly from the Nazi playbook on creating the Hitler Youth.
That’s not hyperbole—this was literally laid out by Koch’s partner, Leonard Liggio, in a paper that he presented at a 1976 Koch libertarian conference. Liggio and Koch both founded the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, a conservative think tank that was designed to be the “primary youth recruitment training arm” of Koch’s “Liberty Movement.”
The paper, entitled “National Socialist Political Strategy: Social Change in a Modern Industrial Society with an Authoritarian Tradition,” examined how the Nazis used Germany’s youth to become tools in their movement, historian Clayton Coppin explains.
Based on the Nazi experience, Liggio makes the case for a libertarian youth movement concentrated in the universities. Building a youth movement required a concentrated organizational effort that would give a group identity to its members. It also required a series of publications directed at the issues of concern to students. (Coppin, Stealth, pg 57)
Unsurprisingly, the Koch family indeed had extensive ties to Nazi Germany, with Charles and David’s father, Fred, writing missives that admired Adolf Hitler and even building an oil refinery for him using Jewish slave labor. Charles Koch followed in his dad’s footsteps, promoting the works and funding the careers of truly despicable Holocaust deniers for many years. It’s not a surprise that the Kochs would be enamored with the Hitler Youth.
The Koch strategy to infect American colleges began with a handful of schools willing to play ball, but the Koch network has since infiltrated over 300 institutions of higher education that accepted around $300 million. Schools were happy to take the money, but as the old saying goes, “Be careful what you sell, and make sure it isn’t your soul.”
At South Carolina’s College of Charleston, the Kochs made a grant condition that they receive student’s personal email addresses participating in Koch-funded courses or student groups so they could be sent information on the Koch Foundation and their conservative think tank, the Institute for Humane Studies. The documents were clear that they didn’t want school email addresses, which typically expire after graduation; the Kochs wanted to be able to spam students’ permanent inboxes. Also a requirement: that the College of Charleston not speak to news reporters about any of this without prior consent from the Koch Foundation.
At Florida State University (FSU), students in 2011 discovered that their Economics Department made a deal in 2008 with the Koch Foundation for $1.5 million dollars, paid in installments, in exchange for the college surrendering certain controls over curriculum and hiring. After student and faculty outcry, FSU renegotiated. However, the new deal managed to be even worse, with dark money, threats from the department chair, and Koch control over fellowships and dissertation topics.
Yet the largest portion of Koch money—about 17% of that $300 million—goes to one school: George Mason University (GMU). GMU has been under the Koch grip for years. In recently released documents, the Koch brothers’ foundation was given seats on the committee to pick candidates for professorships they funded. The professors selected followed the Ayn Rand philosophy of anti-government and unconstrained free market principles.
GMU also accepted $20 million from an anonymous donor, but agents at the Federalist Society were in charge of overseeing the school’s usage of the gift. The money was given in installments, which allowed termination at any time. Emails revealed that the university discussed hiring decisions, students recommended for admission, and heavy lobbying for conservative students for federal judicial clerk positions.
Several years ago, Jane Mayer wrote an exposé on the Koch brothers, who along with their small group of wealthy allies were hijacking American democracy and attempting to turn us into a plutocracy. The book, Dark Money, delved into the takeover of the GMU Law School, now renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School, along with GMU’s economics department. Both entities quickly became staffed with ideologues. Concerned faculty and students demanded to see the gift agreements by the Kochs through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) in February 2017, but GMU leaders refused to hand them over. They had good reason for not wanting people to see them.
An activist and member of a student group called Transparent GMU, Gus Thomson, led a campaign to sue the school so the public could see what was in those agreements. That lawsuit, filed in 2017, made it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. Transparent GMU was George Mason’s collegiate affiliate of a broader nationwide movement, UnKoch My Campus (UKMC), which has chapters at every college infected with Koch propaganda and money. This activist group organizes campaigns to fight back. It isn’t easy.
After all, this is essentially a grassroots organization of concerned students, parents, alumni, and faculty pitted against some of the richest people on the planet. Sadly, in the GMU case, the conservative Supreme Court ruled against Transparent GMU in December 2019. The court majority, including Justice Bill Mims, who has ties to GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School, ruled that private foundations aren’t subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA), no matter how closely tied they are to the university.
Yet UnKoch My Campus still managed a victory. The news generated by the lawsuit shined a floodlight on the administration, and student protests greatly intensified. The call for more transparency became a roar that couldn’t be ignored. The pressure forced GMU to release some of the files, and GMU agreed that any future terms imposed on using donated funds would be public through VFOIA. For a sinister network that loves to operate in the shadows, this was devastating.
The files that were released did show that Koch money was used to gain influence over the school and affiliated institutes, such as the aforementioned Institute for Humane Studies. For years, administrators told everyone to just “trust” them, and that the donors wouldn’t put any undue influence on them. Of course the administrators would never violate their mission. However, the files showed the exact opposite to be true.
The GMU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) pushed the Faculty Senate to pass several resolutions for new policies, including an internal review of the gift agreements. The president of GMU, Angel Cabrera, was forced to admit that the agreements violated GMU’s stated policy of academic freedom and independence from donors. GMU’s Provost even invited representatives from AAUP to provide input in drafting the new policy, which thankfully requires transparency and more independence from donor influence.
Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch My Campus, tells Daily Kos that although her organization has created a lot of awareness, the Koch network has, in turn, gotten even more insidious. She points to them teaming up with Facebook and a Koch-funded “media” organization, the Daily Caller, to infiltrate fact-checking. She also noted that the Koch Foundation was actually working with questionable “progressive organizations” that they use as a talking point to claim benevolence and bipartisanship.
Although UnKoch My Campus and their partners have made a difference and can claim successes, the fight is far from over. Professors say the Koch Foundation still exerts unethical and undue pressure, yet no longer spell it out in their agreements. Now it’s a “wink and handshake,” according to Chapman University professor Daniel Kovenock. Arizona State professor Mathew Garcia said he was even told by a university dean that they will “never hire anyone that Koch doesn’t approve.”
UKMC’s Banks urges students, faculty, or even just concerned community members get involved. UnKoch My Campus can walk anyone through the process of first identifying just how deep the infiltration is at any given school, using several tactics, including the Freedom of Information Act, followed by further steps to launch a campus campaign using their distributed organizing model.
Grassroots groups like UnKoch My Campus will continue to fight the Koch machine and their efforts to take away academic freedom. At the very least, they have shown that the Koch brothers’ sick fantasy of a compliant Hitler Youth-like movement taking hold on college campuses has failed spectacularly. It turns out Americans students aren’t as easily led to right-wing, authoritarian ultranationalism as the Kochs were, no matter how much money is being thrown around.
Visit UnKochMyCampus to learn more about the war UKMC is waging on campuses across the nation, and join the fight.