Chancellor says Pitt entered Koch grant agreement with ‘eyes wide open’


The new Center for Governance and Markets in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs has some big goals, but first, it might have to get past some questions raised by its source of funding.

Pitt announced the center, funded by a $4.2 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, on Oct. 10, a couple of days after concerns were raised at a Faculty Assembly meeting about the Koch Foundation grant.

Jennifer Murtazashvili, an associate professor in GSPIA and director of the new center, is excited about the work the grant will allow her and co-associate directors Ilia Murtazashvili (GSPIA associate professor) and Martin B.H. Weiss (School of Computing and Information professor) to do. She believes the University fully vetted the grant, as it does with all external funding sources. In an unusual step, Pitt made a copy of the funding agreement available online.

The Koch Foundation has in the past come under fire for having undue influence in hiring and other academic decisions at universities where it has given money, particularly at George Mason University in Virginia.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the University went into negotiating with the Koch Foundation with “eyes wide open,” because of previous concerns about the foundation impacting academic freedom.

“The crux of the problem for the University was, our faculty have the right to go out and propose and seek funding to support their academic research,” he said. “We certainly, as an institution, do not want to accept funding that compromises the integrity or the autonomy of the University to carry out its mission.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for us to identify potential funders by virtue of who they are and cast aspersions on their intent and manage it that way. We thought a better approach was, what are the criteria we would want to see in any funding agreement or gift that, if it wasn’t there, would raise questions about the ability of the University to maintain its integrity and autonomy, and evaluate based on those merits and not on who the funder was. And that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Opposition group

Joshua Ash, a second-year Ph.D. student in GSPIA, is part of the UnKoch Pittsburgh group (@UnKochPGH on Twitter) that popped up in opposition to the Koch Foundation grant. He said the grant agreement itself is not very revealing, but instead would like to see the grant proposal and how it aligns with Charles Koch’s libertarian philosophies.

“The grant proposal is probably much more substantive and probably explains all kinds of ways of how what the center will be doing aligns with the Koch Foundation, because that’s how you convince a foundation to give you $4.2 million,” he said. “You tell them all the ways that you’re going to further their goals.”

The Koch Foundation, Ash said, “has this decades-long agenda of propagating this lack of trust in science and certain government and democratic processes, and taxation and regulation. … It’s a new level of libertarian almost anarchist-esque school of thought. And I think the focus of the foundation over the past decade has been: Let’s find anybody who is desperate enough to take our money if it can somehow sort of further that lack of doubt in government, that lack of doubt in regulation, that lack of doubt in centralized democracy.”

Center’s goals

Murtazashvili said the center will look at “how do rules that are created by governments and how do rules created by society affect outcomes (for people).” She has done a variety of fieldwork in places like Afghanistan on “how people govern themselves when there’s no government.”

She said when she got to villages she found “a lot of signs here that someone was doing things, but in terms of governance, the state’s not doing anything, and in fact, they’re really upset with it. That’s why we see the insurgency continue because people are really upset with the state.”

The center will be designed to get students out into the field to look at local governance.

 “I wanted to have something that was very field-based, that would provide resources for doctoral students, for masters students and postdocs and faculty to get out into the world and collect original data on challenging topics.

“I can’t tell you over the years how many students I’ve had coming in my office saying, ‘I want to do what you’ve done; how do I do this, we don’t have the resources.’ And I want to provide that.”

One of the partners on the grant is the Center for Governance and Local Development, based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Murtazashvili is hoping the Pitt center will help them expand their work on a “local governance performance index” to new countries. She’s also planning on doing some survey work on land demolitions and confiscations in different areas, including China and Central Asia, where governments take people’s lands. This is a “big source of contention throughout the world, where people’s property rights are violated, and they’re not compensated adequately.”

Murtazashvili said the center’s goal is to bridge the gap between policy, academia and community engagement, and to produce published, peer-reviewed research.

“We want to … really engage community partners, wherever we’re working, whether that’s in Pittsburgh or in Uzbekistan or Afghanistan. We want to make them key stakeholders in what we’re doing.”

Funding background

She said she first started talking with GSPIA Dean John Keeler several years ago about creating a center like this, and four or five years ago, Keeler put the center in GSPIA’s strategic plan.

The Koch Foundation came into the picture about two years ago, and since then, its proposed grant has come under “extreme” vetting from the University, Murtazashvili said. She also answered questions about the grant at a special faculty meeting.

“That was sort of unprecedented,” she said. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a faculty member present a grant proposal to the faculty that’s not (already) funded.”

Even now, she welcomes having discussions with people about the center and their concerns. She said she’s seen comments in various publications, but no one has approached her.

“I think the University’s been clear, throughout the course of its history, that it does not work with foundations or organizations or private individuals who do not share its fundamental values. And these values deal with academic freedom and academic integrity,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody in our center would be comfortable with that.”

Ash said he first heard about the Koch Foundation grant in April and talked to Provost Ann Cudd and Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies, about his concerns, because he knew he had no authority to intervene in the situation.

GSPIA is a tight-knit community, Ash said, “and I truthfully don’t think that (Murtazashvili’s) heart is in the same place as the Koch Foundation. My frustration is not necessarily

in alignment but in negligence (in having) in-depth knowledge of what that foundation stands for and the risks associated with it.”

What’s next?

Going forward, the UnKoch group is discussing ways of “mitigating the risks of the center rather than completely encouraging giving back the funding at this point,” he said.

They’d also like to see some kind of university-wide policy that allows for public comment in situations where funding has a large likelihood of influencing or contaminating research, specifically in the social sciences.

“Pitt and a whole world of other universities have to start thinking about political influence in academia,” he said. “Like it or not, it’s an influence that is starting to permeate universities. I think it’s very reasonable to start thinking about policies to try to mitigate that. … I think there’s probably some intelligent merit in restricting what type of research can happen when a funder is known to have a known interest in whatever type of research it is.”

For her part, Murtazashvili said, “I hope that our faculty are open-minded, and if students want to participate in the activities of the center that they are open-minded to those students, and that they’re open-minded if their faculty colleagues want to participate in our activities. I understand that individual faculty have problems with the donor, and that’s really for those faculty to take up with the University, but I just do hope that everyone’s treated fairly and with respect.”

The Tree of Life shootings left Murtazashvili, who grew up in the synagogue and lives nearby, even more committed to bringing people together to discuss difficult issues.

“We need a space where we can talk about difficult issues, and I don’t think we have such a space here right now,” she said, “where we bring really diverse viewpoints together to talk about different difficult policy concerns.”

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


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