Chirimuuta: Looking a gift horse in the mouth


On Oct. 10, it was announced that the Graduate School of Policy and International Affairs (GSPIA) at Pitt will be home to a new Center for Governance and Markets. The existence of a center within the University, funded by a controversial donor, provokes many thoughts about the difficult balance that all research intensive universities must face, between the drive for excellence in research — which necessitates that universities win grants from private foundations — and the need for universities to remain autonomous in thought and deed.

That the funding for the new center comes from the Charles Koch Foundation brings the question of donor influence to the fore. According to many critics of the Koch family’s activities, the foundation has established a track record of seeking to maximize its impact on educational institutions with which it gains affiliations through the funding of research grants. A number of allegations have been levelled that the Koch Foundation and other Koch-related groups make donations in order to generate university research outputs that can be put at the service of political activities. (For one such allegation, see here.) Having the Center for Governance and Markets grant agreement made public is one step toward transparency. But if the Kochs’ critics are to be believed, the foundation’s tactics may have changed, while its strategy will not have.

The University’s research policy stipulates that, “the University should not accept awards or enter into agreements for the support of research which confer upon another party the power to censor or exercise effective veto over the dissemination of results and conclusions arising from research.” At the Faculty Assembly meeting on Oct. 8, I inquired about the mechanisms in place to ensure that this policy is upheld. But it is also obvious there are innumerable ways that influence can come into effect, less tangible than the vetoing of research outputs or hiring decisions. This is a really gray area, since any alleged act of influence can be subject to multiple interpretations, and because people’s intuitions will differ about how much influence can be tolerated before a unit at a university might be said to have compromised its own mission and begun to act as a vehicle for the donor’s agenda. Where, for example, is the line between the curriculum and research activities of a center being focused and specialized or, rather, being biased and indoctrinating?

I am not here discussing whether it is unethical for universities to accept donations from certain sources, or if an institution and its members can become morally compromised just by association with certain donors. However, an inevitable consequence of accepting a controversial donation is that some members of our academic community will conclude that the mere association is morally compromising because of the nature of the harms in question — e.g., the potential consequences of the Kochs’ alleged funding of climate change denialism. As one member of the Faculty Assembly put it to me: “If you lie down with dogs, you’re going to get fleas.”  The concern I’d like to raise here is the likelihood that the very fact that some find the association to be morally compromising will become a source of inequality of opportunity for graduate students and junior faculty within GSPIA.

Let me explain my worry. My own department (History & Philosophy of Science) has a close and fruitful relationship with an institutionally separate unit (the Center for Philosophy of Science). Graduate students and junior faculty in History & Philosophy of Science benefit greatly from, among other things, networking with visiting fellows at the Center for Philosophy of Science, attending talks, and having the opportunity to organise conferences sponsored by the center. Speaking for myself, contact with the Center for Philosophy of Science has been a boon for my career.

Now, no History & Philosophy of Science student or faculty member has had reason to object to the funding source of the Center for Philosophy of Science, and for that reason made a voluntary decision to opt out of center activities. In contrast, it is already the case with the Center for Governance and Markets that some GSPIA graduate students have made the decision that they will have nothing to do with the new center. In making this decision, based on their own ethical principles, these “conscientious objectors” will be sacrificing potential benefits to their careers, and will have a graduate experience that is under-resourced in comparison to any students who choose to engage with the center — especially in comparison to the 10 Ph.D. students slated to be funded with the Koch Foundation grant. Will the University be prepared to offset the resource gap by offering, e.g., additional travel grants to students who opt out of Center for Governance and Markets activities? Or will the University allow an effectively two-tier system to come about within one of its graduate programs?

To conclude this piece, I would like to put in a good word for dialogue. Some have expressed concern that this is no time to raise tensions in an already polarized political atmosphere, by dwelling on one funding decision. However, the question of donor influence is a much bigger issue than the Center for Governance and Markets and will not go away with the expiry of one grant. Everyone in academia should be informed about it. I encourage each member of the Pitt community to do their own research and to have well-informed conversations with their colleagues and acquaintances.

M. Chirimuuta, associate professor and director of graduate studies, Department of History and Philosophy of Science