FSU president offers op-ed: FSU advisory board, appointed by Koch foundation, isn't hurting academic freedom

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Eric Barron, president of Florida State University, offers this op-ed in defense of the controversial arrangement between FSU and the Tea Partying Koch Brothers: Tuesday’s article in theSt. Petersburg Times, “Billionaire’s role in hiring decisions at Florida State University raises questions,” and an editorial that appeared in Wednesday’s paper made a number of claims about Florida State University’s relationship with a prominent philanthropic organization that are far off the mark. I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight because I fervently believe Florida State University did not – and would not – sacrifice its academic freedom in order to receive a donation of any kind.

In 2008, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation pledged $1.5 million to establish a program for the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise and a Program for Excellence in Economic Education in FSU’s Department of Economics. Part of the gift allows for the hiring of two assistant professors to staff the program.

TheTimes article by reporter Kris Hundley repeatedly suggests that a memorandum of understanding signed by representatives of the Koch Foundation, Florida State University and the FSU Foundation allows the Koch Foundation to exert undue influence over the hiring of these professors.

She wrote that the agreement has given the Koch Foundation “the right to interfere in faculty hiring” and goes so far as to say faculty only retain an “illusion of control” with regard to hiring decisions. She further states that “Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions” when the economics department was hiring two new faculty members. Hundley has misconstrued the facts.

These are the facts:

. FSU’s economics department received nearly 500 applications for the two positions established by the Koch Foundation donation.

. The Economics Department Executive Committee, consisting of department faculty, reviewed the applications. Approximately 50 were considered worthy of consideration.

. These 50 applications were sent for input to an advisory board approved by the Koch Foundation. The advisory board, formed in 2008, consisted of two FSU faculty members, both Eminent Scholars in Economics, and a Ph.D. economist appointed by the Koch Foundation. (It is not unusual for a donor to have representation in an advisory capacity.)

. The advisory board recommended interviewing about 16 of the 50 candidates proposed by the faculty search committee.

. Ultimately, the two people hired did not come from the advisory board’s short list, but instead were put forth by the faculty. One came from the original pool of 50 and was added to the list of interviewees, and the other was hired from a separate pool of applicants for a different position, and the advisory board accepted those choices.

To be crystal clear: The Economics Department Executive Committee initially screened the candidates, and the Economics Department Executive Committee had the final vote. The Koch Foundation does not hire faculty. Nor does it exercise control over course curricula. Academic freedom has not been compromised in any way.

Regardless of the funding source for these two positions, the faculty of the Department of Economics are unanimous in their agreement that the two new hires, both with doctorates from prominent research institutions – one with a background in industrial organization and the other in experimental economics – are excellent additions to the faculty.

And no matter how much innuendo Hundley and the editors at theSt. Petersburg Times wish to employ, Florida State University makes decisions to establish programs and hire the appropriate faculty based on academic needs, not political motivations of donors or anyone else.

Florida State is diligent and resolute in maintaining its academic integrity. Donor gifts, regardless of their size, have always been accepted with the clear understanding that the gift will not compromise that integrity or infringe on the academic freedom of our highly regarded faculty.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.