Koch Foundation gift sparks heated Faculty Assembly meeting


The questions and concerns surrounding a $4.2 million gift from the Koch Foundation to start a new center at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs haven’t gone away since the University officially approved the funding in October.

On Dec. 4, Provost Ann Cudd, along with three other top Pitt administrators, gave a presentation to and took questions from Faculty Assembly about the vetting process for external funding, and at times the discussion got a bit heated. While their presentations were general, the questions from the crowded meeting were clearly aimed at the Koch Foundation gift to create the new Center for Governance and Markets, led by Jennifer Murtazashvili, an associate professor in GSPIA.

At issue is the desire of some at the University — faculty and students — to have more input in the vetting process for external donors versus the academic freedom of faculty to pursue their own research and funding sources, or as Cudd said, “We want to be careful not to have any group of faculty being able to look over the shoulder of any other faculty member to decide whether their research questions are legitimate or not.”

She was accompanied at the meeting by Kris Davitt, senior vice chancellor for philanthropic and alumni engagement; Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer; and Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research operations, who each play a role in funding decisions.

Cudd said her role is “to safeguard the academic integrity and reputation of the University, as well as academic freedom of individual faculty.”

“As a matter of policy, the University does not accept any grants or gifts or sponsored research agreements or contracts that negatively impact or unduly restrict faculty members in their research, scholarship, creative activities or their teaching,” she said.

Often the decision whether to accept grants or gifts is made by the school or dean, but all are reviewed by the University’s legal staff to make sure nothing in the contract infringes on academic freedom or limits where the research can be published.

External funding decisions rise to the provost level when the money requires “the investment of some exceptional University resources,” Cudd said. In all cases, she said, the funder cannot be involved in the process of hiring faculty or admitting students, and they can’t determine the outcomes of research or where the research can be published.

“In those rare cases where there is a potential political or ethical controversy, I take very seriously my role in balancing academic freedom and the reputation of the University,” Cudd said.

The proposed Koch gift was a red flag, she said, because of the foundation’s previous controversies surrounding undue influence in hiring decisions and other academic decisions at universities where it has given money, particularly at George Mason University in Virginia and Florida State University. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, have espoused a libertarian philosophy and funded several conservative think tanks.

The gift went through many months of discussions, Cudd said, starting just a couple months after she came to Pitt in September 2018.

Because the Koch funding was in the form of a gift, the contract fell under Davitt’s office. “Tax laws make it clear what a donor can or cannot do as far as control over the gift,” she said. Her group negotiates with the foundation over payment schedules and how budgets are presented and lets the donors know what the University won’t accept in a funding agreement.

Faculty and student concerns

Mazviita Chirimuuta, an associate professor in the Department of History & Philosophy of Science, first raised concerns about the Koch gift at a Faculty Assembly meeting in October. At this week’s meeting, she read a letter from a group of GSPIA students and alumni concerned about the new center and its funding source.

The letter pointed to three areas of concern: “First, stakeholders concerned with the impact of certain donations can be easily shut out if higher administration does not choose to proactively intervene. Second, the University seems to have little understanding or acknowledgment of corporate academic lobbying. And third, higher administration’s reliance on current policies to quiet concerns over funder influence on academic integrity are ill-founded at best.”

It went on to say that, “On corporate academic lobbying, the University appears to be completely asleep at the wheel. While philanthropic donations from questionable donors has historically been a norm, the use of that financial power to influence ideology at universities is a recent phenomenon.”

The letter said Pitt must do better in defining what constraints the University has over undue influence from Koch or other donors. “Academic freedom and academic integrity can and must work together,” the letter said. “But allowing corporate influence to stomp over our contract vetting process under the guise of protecting individual career ambitions protects neither.”

Cudd said she “respectfully disagrees that I was disinterested or inattentive.” She said she met on several occasions with grad students and faculty concerned about the donation, and she grilled program director Murtazashvili over issues that have plagued the Koch Foundation grants in the past. “She admitted to mistakes having been made and expressed that the Koch Foundation has completely turned around from what they’ve done, and they now publish all their grant agreements on the website, which I then read.”

Joshua Ash, a second-year Ph.D. student in GSPIA and a part of the UnKoch Pittsburgh group, said at Faculty Assembly that his concerns and those expressed in the letter were about the proposal submitted by Murtazashvili to Koch, which he said probably checks off all the criteria and ideologies that Koch wants to see. He urged Cudd to publish the proposal.

Washington pointed out that any proposal is not a binding agreement. The grant agreement is the only legal document that outlines Pitt’s relationship with the Koch Foundation. “The proposals may say lots of things that don’t make it into fruition. … In (the contract) agreement, we try really hard to make sure we are protecting the academic freedom of the institution and to make sure it can be published.”

She said we may not all agree on what individual faculty members are trying to do all that time, “but as an institution, we’re trying to make sure that whatever binding document the institution enters maintains the academic freedom of the faculty member and the students.”

Bonneau also jumped in to assert that research proposals have always been considered confidential. “Anytime faculty applies for a grant it’s confidential; because it’s our work product,” he said. “If I apply for a grant tomorrow, I don’t have to ask anyone for permission. … It simply goes to the research office and they check to make sure that the research proposal meets all of the University’s requirements.”

Ash also questioned whether there were more checks on the creation of centers, as opposed to individual research done by a professor. “We’re talking about a center here that’s going to have a lasting impact on GSPIA,” he said.

Cudd said that there are hundreds of centers on campus, and many are single-investigator entities. Currently, there are only five University-wide centers, such as the Learning Research and Development Center. The Center for Governance and Markets only has GSPIA resources being invested in it, so it did not rise to the University level of scrutiny over whether it could exist, she said.

Davitt pointed out that although the Koch Foundation is currently the only donor, there are no restrictions on seeking other funds, and “we will be seeking other donors.”

Ash then went on, saying Pitt needed to look beyond the contractual obligations in the grant agreement. “There is a reason the Koch Foundation gave away $4.2 million because everything they believed in matched perfectly in that proposal … that exact same cookie-cutter situation is how political power and influence happens over academia. … If universities are going to be above that influence and outsmart that influence, we can’t be lazy about it. It’s so tempting to point to a grant agreement and say we’re done, but there’s influence happening here, and you can ignore it or we can be smart about it.”

Cudd took particular offense at these comments. “It sounds like you’re saying, either we can agree with you or we’re stupid and lazy, and I don’t like that insinuation. … Because you disagree with me, you believe that I should do better. I do find that somewhat offensive.”

“I do think that it’s important to distinguish between the agreement, which was negotiated, and the research that’s going to be done at the center, which is under the control of a PI who has her own research agenda,” Bonneau said. “When we starting talking about we can look beyond the legal requirements, I think from my perspective, it’s awfully close to looking over and telling faculty what they can and cannot conduct research on in a center that they have secured funding for that has met the University’s criteria.”

Davitt said one shortfall she sees is the need for an updated policy on gift acceptance that includes continued due diligence on donors. “Part of that is setting up a process, not a litmus test, by which the return of a gift and the suspension of a relationship can occur. … I don’t do any good if I accept a gift today that handcuffs the University.” She said they are currently trying to unravel “what I consider the world’s worst gift agreement” to the Department of Medicine, which has not served the University in any way.

Several other faculty members had questions for the four administrators, ranging from if donors can help define curriculum — no, Cudd said — to whether a peer review by a committee of faculty of contracts that reach the provost’s level would be beneficial. 

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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