Possible Koch Foundation grant raises concerns at Faculty Assembly


The University announced on Oct. 10, the creation of the Center for Governance and Markets. With the support of a $4.2 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, the center will support postdoctoral and graduate student fellowships, hands-on field research, conferences, workshops and publications. 

The center will “examine how political institutions, markets, and technology impact human well-being in the United States and around the world,” according to a news release from Pitt, and be housed in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. 

Jennifer Murtazashvili, an associate professor in GSPIA, will serve as director, with Ilia Murtazashvili, GSPIA associate professor, and Martin B.H. Weiss, professor in the School of Computing and Information, as associate directors. Center affiliates also will include faculty from GSPIA, the School of Law and the departments of economics, political science and sociology in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

“The center’s mission is to create space for scholars to explore diverse ideas and produce rigorous research on the impact of governance institutions, markets and technology on peaceful coexistence, freedom and well-being,” Jennifer Murtazashvili said in the news release.

“We’re thrilled to support scholars who focus their attention on helping people realize their full potential,” said Ryan Stowers, executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation. “Pitt’s new center provides a critical forum for analysis, reflection, and debate on issues related to rapid social and technological innovation that can be applied to improve access to opportunity for all people.”

You can read the grant agreement here.



A possible grant from an external foundation led to serious debate at this week’s Faculty Assembly meeting.

Mazviita Chirimuuta, associate professor in the Department of History & Philosophy of Science, said grad students have raised concerns about a pending $5 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to two Graduate School of Public and International Affairs professors to set up a center.

“They feel that the issues around accepting this grant from such a foundation haven’t been properly aired,” she said, pointing to the Koch Foundation’s history of questionable grant terms. “They have a history of basically using their relationships with academic institutions in order to further their own agenda.”

In 2018, the Charles Koch Foundation said it planned to make public its future multiyear agreements with college and universities in an effort to be more transparent, according to Inside Higher Education.

Chirimuuta said this is not an issue of whether she or others agree or disagree with the Koch Foundation’s libertarian ideology, but one of protecting academic freedom.

“Setting up a center with an institution which has a known history of violating academic freedom, this seems like a different thing,” she said. “And I think as faculty, we should be concerned about this and want to know what safeguards are being put in place, that the terms and conditions are being held to, and what impact this has on the reputation of the institution at large.”

Senate President Chris Bonneau said the grant has been in the review process for 18 months and still isn’t officially signed. “This grant went through the same protocols the University has for any other grant of external funding. Any kind of money that’s from the government or from private foundations, they need to meet the University’s terms and conditions. … That’s not to say that there doesn’t have to be monitoring of this, but from the University’s perspective, this meets the University’s criteria for money,” he said.

The concern, Bonneau said, is “what are the University protections to ensure that the reputation of the University is not tarnished by funding that’s received by some members.

“We don’t want to be George Mason, where there is a very definite ideology,” Bonneau said, referring to the millions the Koch Foundation and other conservative-leaning donors gave to the Virginia school which until recently gave them say in hiring some professors. “When you hear about economics and George Mason University, it has a very negative connotation to all academics; the research is being tainted by the source of the funds.”

Abbe De Vallejo, a professor of Immunology, said he thinks the Pitt compliance office and Office of General Counsel are more than capable of writing language that is very specific so an external funding group can’t interfere with academic freedom.

Several high-profile universities have taken money from the Koch Foundation, including Harvard, MIT and Notre Dame.

Bonneau said there are many issues related to external funding that deserve discussion, such as would the University take money from just about anybody? And what are Pitt’s values and how do we weigh that against professors’ ability to get funding?

In the end, he proposed that the Research Committee and Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee take up issues such as the terms and conditions in grant language; what happens if there’s a concern about a grant; and is there a mechanism by which input can be solicited?

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


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