Florida’s universities, and media, are in an uproar about the Koch Foundation’s “strings” on grants to FSU’s Economics Department. But I’m not sure why.
As chair of Duke’s Political Science Department for the past ten years, I have competed for dozens of grants, large and small. And I have dealt with the reporting requirements of funders including the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and George Soros’ “Open Society.”
These organizations, not surprisingly, want to make sure their money is spent legally and fruitfully. But the media has been shocked that “information on publications, presentations, courses taught, students supervised and outreach activities” was to be provided by recipients of Koch grants.
Look: that’s boiler plate. It’s essentially the same requirements that are imposed on any operating grant I have ever dealt with. There are two kinds of grants: endowment and operating. Endowment contributions go to a university’s investment principal, and all that can be spent is the income from that principal. In 1995, Yale returned $20 million to the Bass family, when the donors wanted control over hiring tenured professors. Princeton finally settled—in 2008—a lengthy lawsuit brought by the Robertson family over a $900 million endowment for support for the Woodrow Wilson School. Universities generally reject strings on endowment gifts.
But operating gifts are different. Most foundations give operating gifts exclusively. Endowment gifts produce investment returns, while operating gifts are spent directly. If I get $100,000 to spend on my Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at Duke, then I spend the whole $100,000 during the term of the grant.
And then I have to file an annual report. How was the money spent? Was it effective? What is the evidence that it had an impact? How can I justify a future renewal of this money? Operating contributions come with strings, because they are spent directly, and then evaluated immediately.
I grew up in Central Florida, and still feel a strong kinship with the state. Full disclosure, though: I accepted operating contributions from the Koch Foundation last year. We used it to bring in outside speakers, including a New York Times columnist and an expert on economic development in Africa, for my classes in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University.
There were strings. As one condition of the grant, we distributed questionnaires to find out if students thought the speakers added learning value to the class. I did not have to get permission from Charles Koch, mind you. What the Foundation wanted to know was whether the students, the customers if you will, thought that the money was well spent, in terms of their own individual educational goals.
And well spent it was. I had 60 students, and got the highest evaluations I have ever received. The chance to have in a variety of experts, with direct experience to challenge students from across the ideological spectrum, was an enormous help.
I have studied the grant process used by the FSU economics department. There was nothing unusual, or underhanded, about what went on in Tallahassee. The funds were operating donations funds, not endowment. But I am concerned, as a long time Florida resident, about the media maelstrom. Why is it that even a hint of real intellectual diversity–the kind that represents differences in ideas–is seen as being so problematic at our state universities?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael C. Munger, who grew up in Orlando, is director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program at Duke University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in The Tallahassee Democrat May 31, 2011 Copyright © 2011 Tallahassee.com To read the original article, click here.