PRAGMATISM vs. THE GAG REFLEX

The great but largely forgotten journalist Sydney Harris once said, "You may be certain that when a man begins to call himself a 'realist,' he is preparing to do something he is secretly ashamed of." That quote kept coming to mind as I read this:

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

My favorite Calvin and Hobbes panel features Calvin lamenting not that everyone has a price, but that the price is always so low. It took all of $1.5 million – a pittance by the standards of a large research university – for Florida State to surrender the power to make its own hiring decisions. Sorry to play the slippery slope card, but one must wonder how far off we are from non-profit "foundations" sponsoring their own departments and purchasing university naming rights. If the story itself wasn't depressing enough, the comments from the Dean finished the job:

A separate grant from BB&T funds a course on ethics and economics in which Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is required reading. The novel, which depicts society's collapse in the wake of government encroachment on free enterprise, was recently made into a movie marketed to tea party members.

"If somebody says, 'We're willing to help support your students and faculty by giving you money, but we'd like you to read this book,' that doesn't strike me as a big sin," said Rasmussen of the BB&T arrangement, which the bank has with about 60 schools. "What is a big sin is saying that certain ideas cannot be discussed."

Nor does he fear that the agreements with Koch and BB&T will prompt future donors to demand control over hiring or curriculum.

Said Rasmussen, "I have no objections to people who want to help us fund excellence at our university. I'm happy to do it."

Is there a sadder phrase in the English language than "It's really not so bad…"? A more tacit admission that one is engaged in some kind of morally repugnant activity? Even in print the extent to which the Dean is over-justifying what he knows implicitly is disgusting is loud and clear. People like him will likely find little success in convincing academia to try what he's doing because, you know, it's really not as bad as it seems once you suppress the gag reflex and get used to the taste.

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40 Responses to “PRAGMATISM vs. THE GAG REFLEX”

  1. xynzee Says:

    For some reason there was something about the "Charitable" in the "Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation" that felt like getting hit between the eyes with a flounder.

  2. The Mad Dreamer Says:

    I particularly enjoy this part:

    Bruce Benson, chairman of FSU's economics department, said that of his staff of 30, six, including himself, would fall into Koch's free-market camp.

    "The Kochs find, as I do, that a lot of regulation is actually detrimental and they're convinced markets work relatively well when left alone," he said.

    The contradiction between what the Kochs feel about regulation and interference witfhin markets and what they are now doing to the market of ideas at FSU doesn't get any starker.

  3. mtraven Says:

    The Kochs already own the GMU Economics Department (prominent in the blogosphere if nowhere else), but I guess they can afford more than one.

  4. Technogeek Says:

    I freely admit that this is pure nitpicking, but technically it was Hobbes who was lamenting the low price.

    http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1992/04/08

  5. Middle Seaman Says:

    They owe us and everything around us. The Kochs simply modernized their right to the first night. The good news is that it will get worse.

    The French revolution solved the problem with Guillotines; now we have hi-tech.

    Avanti Popolo!

  6. Noskilz Says:

    So what sort of place is FSU?

    Is it just that sort of a wreck, or has struggling to survive in the sort of state that opted to give Rick Scott a whirl so desperate that even a deal like this looks better than the alternatives?

    I suppose it really doesn't matter that much – but desperation seems more forgivable than idiocy.

  7. Nunya Says:

    Since they weren't able to defeat the church and state separation, might as well take advantage of the non-forbidden public/private divide.

    Why on earth don't these greedy old fucks just sit back with their billions and take up dwarf tossing?

  8. zebbidie Says:

    The French revolution solved the problem with Guillotines; now we have hi-tech.

    Yes, you are forgetting the Facebook Revolution ™! We shall unfriend the Kochs until they surrender.

  9. Ruthie Says:

    "Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom."

    Where is this "academic freedom" I keep hearing so much about? Usually university officialdom takes their "wish list" of potential faculty talent to their prospective donors for screening before begging for money. What the Kochs are doing isn't exactly a new concept. And, arguably, if money is going to come walking into the door of universities to fund faculty chairs in $1.5 million dollar chunks, it may obviate the need to maintain a PR staff to attempt shaking it out of the pockets of aged alumni in $25,000 chunks–which means they might be able to afford a tenured position for a history/poli-sci prof in the university's "liberal ghetto."

    But insisting that students read Ayn Rand in an ethics and economics course is a total waste of neurons. Of course no one will ever confuse FSU's economics department with the University of Chicago….

  10. Tim H. Says:

    Not so much change, institutions are usually more subtle about grabbing the cash off the nightstand.

  11. Professor Coldheart Says:

    Ditto Ruthie and Tim H. I think the fact that this made the news proves that the Kochs lack subtlety, not that they're doing anything new.

  12. Mrs. Chili Says:

    "Once you get past the gag reflex, a whole WORLD of possibilities opens up."
    -Emile the rat from Disney's Ratatouille. Seems there's some wisdom even a child can understand.

  13. Andy Brown Says:

    Scholarship has always required a rich patron – church, nobles, merchants. For a hundred years, scholarship has had the US public as a patron – and I think that will turn out to be a Golden Age for progressive scholarship. Now that the public has been economically humiliated there is going to be a change. Right now it is mostly nutty merchant princes like the Kochs, but the real money is on corporate patronage. And they will do it a hell of a lot more effectively.

  14. HoosierPoli Says:

    It's times like these I wish so desperately I were a libertarian shithead. There's a HUGE career in it.

  15. Seth Says:

    No, what the Kochs are doing at FSU (my alma mater, by the way) isn't new. I'm troubled by a couple of things, though.

    1. This wouldn't be news had the New Yorker not lifted the veil behind which the Kochs were operating. And as an academic, at a public university, that scares the daylights out of me. Notice that this deal got struck in 2008, but it's not until recently we got hold of it–and only then because the Kochs have become infamous. How many times have these deals been struck by other power-brokers whose names we don't know?

    2. For a couple of guys who spend so much money preaching the doctrine of libertarian free market ideology, they also spend a lot of money buying and selling power in public institutions: governments, elections, now public universities,… Actually, I suppose in their minds, it's fine to act like you own the government just the same as if you owned anything else.

    Jesus, I need a valium.

  16. John Says:

    @The Mad Dreamer: "The contradiction between what the Kochs feel about regulation and interference witfhin markets and what they are now doing to the market of ideas at FSU doesn't get any starker."

    Starker logically, yes, but not for them. To a corporatist, there's nothing wrong with regulation and interference within markets — so long as it's perpetrated by private corporate entities, and not a government that is beholden to the people. See also: Death Panels. Government beaurocrats denying you care is evil, corporate beaurocrats denying you care is Just Business.

    The idea that Rand's garbage is required reading in anything but a "How NOT to Write Fiction" course is disgusting, let alone an ethics and economics course. The book's vision of capitalist utopia absolutely does not work unless you make the absurd assumption that basic goods and services simply magic themselves out of thin air for lack of a working class. Not to mention the numerous strains of the concept of "ethics" with anything Dagny does.

  17. Personal Failure Says:

    Teaching a course in ethics by using the works of Ayn Rand is like teaching a course in driver safety while drunk- and on fire. And juggling chainsaws operated by monkeys on meth.

    Words cannot express my loathing for Ayn Rand. She was a despicable sociopath who worshipped a child killer and preached vicious selfishness and then died of lung cancer while on Social Security. Why so many people have decided she is Jesus' sister is beyond me. But I certainly won't turn my back to them.

  18. Kulkuri Says:

    Here's an example of how cheaply people can be bought. Back about 10yrs ago or so, the CEO of Metz Baking in Omaha gave a congressman $2,000 for his campaign and $10,000 to the party(Republican't of course) and in return the congressman sneaked an amendment into the IRS code that bakery truck drivers were independent contractors and saved the bread (Metz) company millions!! For less than he would have spent on a car for his kid, he bought a congressman!!

  19. Southern Beale Says:

    I wonder if that ethics & economics course is required for certain majors?

    And I wonder what other books of fiction we can require for courses like ethics & economics? BF Skinner's "Walden Two," perhaps? Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"?

    I'm sure there are better-read readers of this blog who can suggest a few.

  20. Southern Beale Says:

    @Seth:

    How many times have these deals been struck by other power-brokers whose names we don't know?

    And in the far more sensitive area of our high schools?

    Honestly I wouldn't mind this so much if the modern American corporation weren't such a nefarious beast so obviously working against the interests of the public. Once upon a time it may have been more true that what's good for General Motors is good for the country, but those days are long gone. These days American corporations, especially the Kochs, are interested in shredding workers rights, environmental protection, consumer protections, and everything else that makes their lives inconvenient but allows America to operate like a First World nation.

    They're a greedy bunch with no interest in the public welfare. And THAT is what bothers me about this stuff.

  21. LevelB Says:

    Not a tax lawyer, but I think they cannot write off the donation, if they get approval. Or I am wrong.

  22. jgalt Says:

    Students, listen to me! Drop out of schools! Protest corporations' encroachment on your academic freedom!

  23. acer Says:

    Even on the left, a lot of folks loathe Douglas Rushkoff, which I've never understood. This piece makes a pretty strong case against the entire "science" of economics as little more than creationism for scorched-earth capitalists.

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/rushkoff09/rushkoff09_index.html

    Also, $1.5 million? That's it? Can we start raising money for requiring all incoming UCLA freshmen to read "Seriously, Fuck Ayn Rand"?

  24. Keifus Says:

    @Andy Brown: Scholarship has always required a rich patron

  25. Keifus Says:

    Well, that whole thing disappeared on me. Motherfucker.

    Anyway, used to be that lots of wild-eyed innovation came through places like Bell Labs, GE, Westinghouse, etc. I've known old timers who'd wax rhapsodic about that sort of thing. Halcyon days, blah blah blah. I suspect it takes a monopoly-ish position of cash, interest, and a certain comfort level to support those sorts of research campuses.

    Presumably, the govt could supply that sort of situation, and it makes sense that it'd be the best to represent the public interest (especially now that industries have given it up), but when it comes to applied research the results have been mixed I think. A lot of those bucks are funneled through the DOD and NIH nowadays (and serve the respective chosen industries), and "applied" has become more applied than it useta, directed to things less fundamentally useful than transistors. I think the problem has come down to whatever has banjaxed both the government and corporate culture in the past fifty years relative to scholarship, and it's something that seems to strike deeper than where the funding comes from. I bet we could all drum up some theories.

    (How do we compare to a century back, when aviation and automotive tech were the emerging trends? Not sure, really.)

  26. Rosalux Says:

    Ugh. I feel like a need a shower after reading this post.

    FSU should be pilloried as an academic joke. Allowing billionaires to shape their curriculum based on their own idiosyncratic and rejected ideas? FSU can no longer claim to be a serious institution of higher learning.

  27. Southern Beale Says:

    @acer:

    This piece makes a pretty strong case against the entire "science" of economics as little more than creationism for scorched-earth capitalists.

    Your comment reminded me of something I've always wondered: how come so many right-wingers deny evolution in every area except economics? Because what else is free-hand-of-the-marketc economics except some kind of market Darwinism?

  28. Edward Says:

    This story reminds me of several episodes of House, where House contends with a wealthy business man who has bought control of the hospital and requires House to endorse his pharmaceuticals.

    Most of the wealth in this country has been transferred to a small wealthy minority and they get to make many of the important decisions about our lives.

    I think the situation with "public" schools is even worse. Remember Clear Channel?

  29. BillCinSD Says:

    @Kuluri

    It costs more now, but DME Railroad had John Thune as their lobbyist, paid him ~$5 million for a year or so of schmoozing and his first act as Senator was to rewrite transportation law to allow DME to apply for $2.5 billion in federal financing for a major project that was not eligible for federal funding.

  30. mother earth Says:

    Waltons have been buying the University of Arkansas for a while. They fund the education department and have some mouthpieces who are constantly publishing papers rah rahing charter schools and voucher programs. And it seems like their data in those papers is periodically exposed for being flawed. So I guess it's really nothing new. But having to read Atlas Shrugged, now that is truly cruel.

  31. Michael Says:

    > "For some reason there was something about the "Charitable" in the "Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation" that felt like getting hit between the eyes with a flounder."

    Just remember the Kochs are getting a tax break for their donations to this foundation, and yet the money is being put, not to charitable uses, but to furthering the Kochs' business interests.

  32. Xynzee Says:

    @Michael: like I said it certainly grabs your attention, leaves you cold wet and smells fishy.

    @acer and beale: re the "science" of economics. There's great book called "How to Argue w an Economist" by Edwards. In her opening salvo she states how while trying to hide behind charts, graphs and some vague looking mathematical formulae, economics is *not* a hard science (eg maths and chemistry). It is *social* science. While many of the illustratations used are Aussie it's still an excellent read.

    I also find the acceptance of libertarian theolo… er economics by Evangelicals as highly incongruous if not idolatry, bordering on heretical.

  33. Heywood J. Says:

    Ahahaha. As someone finishing up the coveted MBA twenty years later in life than I should have, I've seen firsthand how hard of a time professors have getting students to read a few 12-page Harvard Business Review articles. Can't wait to see how throwing Rand's 1200-page doorstop at them works out.

    As for the Koch brothers, they'll be right behind Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and Donald Trump in line for the guillotine if this nation ever sacks up and does what it should have done a couple years ago.

  34. April M. Petwat Says:

    Screw the universities. Take a trip on down to the pirate bay and help yourself to all the free pdf education your little heart desires!

    Long live free thinking and the right to teach yourself!

  35. Bill Says:

    It's probably a good idea to have applicants vetted in this way. After all, education is surely meant to prepare unblooded youth for the rigors of the real world outside tenured academe and who better than practising businessmen to judge whether the material being taught and the person teaching it are contributing to this aim? I mean, who would accept leadership from a baton-swirling CEO?

    If you don't agree, how's the current system working out for you?

  36. Dave Says:

    bb&t took billions in bailout money. some randians.

  37. g Says:

    the price is always so low. It took all of $1.5 million – a pittance by the standards of a large research university – for Florida State to surrender the power to make its own hiring decisions.

    yes, that's what's really depressing.

  38. Tim Says:

    Mtraven mentioned GMU's economics department and Mercatus being totally paid for.

    I'm attending GMU myself, and I found it interesting that Mercatus, the econ department, and other libertarian foundations run out of the university are like an island of thought. Almost like a balkanization of disciplines. The other disciplines have little to no interference or large biases, and consequently many professors mock their colleagues in the economics department with varying levels of openness. The history department is especially brutal.

    It was quite relieved to find this to be the case.