Saving Higher Ed from Ultra-Right Koch Network Influence

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people know Charles Koch and his late brother David as libertarian billionaires. Less well known is that both of these men have invested millions of dollars in a strategy spanning several decades that’s completely transformed the political landscape in the United States to serve their interests. In order to amass profits, unchecked by any kind of regulation, Charles Koch has bankrolled some of the most regressive movements, policies, and judicial appointments.

The Koch brothers will go down in history as two of the most harmful antagonists to American democracy.

The Koch family’s wealth and legacy were built upon extractive corporate power and white supremacy, and not much has changed despite carefully crafted sound bites, press tours, and recent books promising change. It has all been lip service, as the actions surrounding the Koch network show time and time again that they place profit over people, and their own private benefit over that of the common good.

The Koch network has long used dark money campaigns to capture institutions created for the common good, from higher education to the courts, as well as state and federal politicians. Public education–which serves as an engine of critical inquiry and a foundation of our democracy–has been methodically captured and privatized by these dark money agents. From backing politicians that slash public school budgets and coordinating charter school and voucher lobbyists, to the control of content and curriculum, an overlapping network of religious right organizations (like the Koch-affiliated national think tank the Heritage Foundation) and neoliberal oligarchs continues to successfully destabilize and abolish public education.

This has eroded trust in government and advanced privatization and corporatization, contributing to our current capitalist crisis. These campaigns are an implementation of raw power by some of the wealthiest people and largest corporations in the world.

In April 2015, Charles Koch projected that roughly two-thirds of his political network’s 2016 spending—then estimated at $900 million—would go to “research and education” rather than direct political expenditures. Investigative research has unveiled what Koch has accumulated via his millions of dollars in higher education donations. From influencing curriculum (including textbooks chosen and courses offered), to faculty hires & fires, fellows selected, and more, the Koch network has been able to mold academic departments and centers to his benefit at campuses across the country for years.

Koch’s donor influence spans 200 higher education institutions, funding regressive social and economic ideals and curricula, promoting a privatization agenda, and even normalizing neo-confederate and neo-Nazi ideology. No one has invested in a vast political landscape to capture our institutions the way that Charles Koch and his wealthy donor network have. The material outcomes of all their investment have led to further climate disaster through deregulation, and have halted progressive social and economic possibilities.

From funding university-affiliated research centers and state-based think-tanks to making sure climate-denying politicians are seated in legislatures across the country, Koch and his network have been among the largest driving forces behind climate disinformation in the United States. This has stalled government action on climate change, disrupted efforts by the states to transition to renewable energies, and paved the way for the Trump administration’s privatization of public lands.

Koch is not alone in his attempts to reshape public policy to his benefit. Right-wing and religious-right institutions, like the Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundations, are funding and backing the same think tanks and organizations with the same regressive agendas. The overlapping interests of Koch, Bradley, and Scaife–combined with their significant wealth–are resulting in the re-segregation of schools (due considerably to the proliferation of vouchers/charter schools) and the advancement of anti-history, racist outcomes. The anti-Critical Race Theory rhetoric has been developed and promoted via these institutions, to disastrous outcomes.

We must come together to fix the imbalance of power and allow for transparency to show who is controlling the system. Until we do, the political, academic, and financial influence of the combined religious right and these oligarchs will continue to place profit over people, and their own private benefit over that of the common good.