Koch Money on Campus: Who's Getting Grants and For What?

The political activism of Charles and David Koch draws so much heat these days that it can be easy to forget that these billionaires don't just spend their money blasting Democratic senatorial candidates. Their philanthropy is also substantial, including plenty of giving for arts and healthcare that has nothing to do with politics, as well as giving for liberterian causes that goes back over three decades. 

Koch family philanthropy moves through several funding entities, vehicles, and we're betting that this flow of money will increase. The Koch brothers are worth $82 billion collectively—up from just $8 billion a decade ago—and are both in their seventies. They're still very much involved with their Wichita-headquartered Koch Industries but they're getting up in age and the giving that we're seeing now from them will likely increase.

For Charles Koch, much of his philanthropy has gone through the Charles Koch Foundation, which had nearly $280 million in assets and gave away just under $15 million in 2012. Its list of annual grantees is long, with at least 250 grantees in recent years. This is in large part due to its prolific grantmaking to colleges and universities across the country.

Related - Charles Koch Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

Koch's giving to campuses has gone on for many years, but it's drawn more scrutiny as the brothers have turned into well-known national figures. Last year, faculty and administrators at Catholic University signed a letter to protest a Koch gift to that school, and a recent Koch gift of $1 million to the University of Maryland at College Park has also sparked concerns. Meanwhile, controversy around a proposed Koch gift to Florida State University in 2007 has resurfaced lately.

Related: How Much Control Should Higher Ed Donors Have Over HowSchools Spend Their Money?

What can get lost in the drama around specific gifts, though, is the sheer breadth of higher ed giving by the Charles Koch Foundation—and the opportunities that presents for campus gifts. 

Start at Albany State University Foundation and work on down to Yeshiva University. Or, start at Wesleyan, pit stop at Ball State, and arrive at Claremont McKenna College in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It's an operation that stretches from sea to shining sea. Even throw in McGill north of the border.  

(See a full list of colleges and universities that the foundation has supported.)

Central to understanding Koch's philanthropy in this area is the idea of economic freedom. The foundation's website says, "[We] support the study of free societies... and hope to promote a better understanding of the link between free societies and prosperity."

To that end, the foundation's largest recipient over the years in this area has been George Mason University, which received $5.4 million alone in 2012. Koch has been fundamental in supporting two think tanks at George Mason over the years. Koch and Richard Fink, an economist and former George Mason University professor, started kicking around think tank ideas in the late 1970s. According to The New Yorker, a longtime confidant of the Kochs said that the Koch brothers wanted to “supply the themes and words for the scripts.” In order for Kochs' brand of economic freedom to catch on, they had to“influence the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.”  

Charles Koch has hardly been alone among funders on the right in trying to recapture academia from "tenured radicals" and nurture new generations of conservative scholars. But both his staying power in this sphere and the depth of his pockets has been notable.

In the 1980s, Koch put millions behind a Fink-founded think tank which eventually became known as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The center touts itself as "the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas—bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems.

Koch has also put up at least $6.5 million to support the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University. The institute "assists undergraduate and graduate students worldwide who have "an interest in individual liberty by offering scholarships, seminars and career assistance." 

Recent large gifts also include $1 million to University of Kansas in 2013 and the recent gift to the University of Maryland, which was made in partnership with a wealthy Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider to create a new Center for Enterprise and Markets on campus. 

As well, Koch has given $170,000 to Utah State University, and $250,000 to the University of Arizona Foundation. Koch has a scholarship program at Utah State. ASU, meanwhile, recently launched the Center for Political Thought and Leadership on campus. Noticing a pattern here? 

Grants have also supported nonprofit organizations such as Youth Entrepreneurs and the Bill of Rights Institute, which educates young people about the words and ideas of America’s founders and our founding documents.

It's worth noting that the new president of the Koch foundation, Brian Hooks, who took over from Richard Fink, was executive director and chief operating officer of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University from 2005 until 2014.

John Hardin, a program officer at the foundation, also has spent time in academia, including teaching and working at the University of Maryland. 

Read our full profile of the Charles Koch Foundation's higher education philanthropy