At Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, every student who majors in economics and finance gets a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged…FGCU now has a core group of a half dozen economists whose research supports the ideas of free-market capitalism, still an unpopular subject in most faculty lounges. They teach this material to more than 250 economics and finance students (one class is titled “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism”), organize lectures by leading thinkers, publish their research in well-respected journals and hold influential positions in groups that promote free markets.
The ideological transformation of FGCU economics began in 2009, when Allison, a famous devotee of Ayn Rand’s who was then the president of banking giant BB&T, donated $600,000 to FGCU to create the endowed “BB&T Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise.” Allison now runs the libertarian Cato Institute, a position he gained with the support of Charles and David Koch after some controversy.
The Kochs also supported Allison’s efforts at FGCU, a largely local school with about 11,000 undergradutes. A ThinkProgress review of Charles G. Koch Foundation donations from 2008-2011 found $87,000 in donations to Florida Gulf Coast University. According to an internal BB&T professorship report, the Koch money “provide[s] operational seed funding for the yearly activities and the local BB&T Charitable Foundation sponsors our premier annual event — The BB&T Free Enterprise Lecture Series.” The internal report also included metrics on the program’s operations such as “Atlas Shrugged Distribution — Number of students reached: approximately 120.”
Strange as it may seem that private ideological organizations can support academic departments, it’s not uncommon. A massive Koch donation to Florida State University’s economics program generated significant controversy in 2011 when it came to light that the donation was accompanied by de facto Koch control over some hiring decisions and the ability to review the scholarship generated. As of February 2013, 129 colleges and universities around the country were receiving Koch Family Foundations support.
Whether or not you think these sorts of donations are threats to academic freedom, they do lay bare the somewhat surprising disadvantage progressives face when it comes to getting funding for work on their intellectual traditions. In addition to the Koch direct-donations, organizations like the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute and libertarian Institute for Humane Studies help promote their ideas on campus and connect their students with likeminded colleagues and employers. Progressives conspicuously lack any equivalent organizations that connect students with a broader intellectual network, providing a potentially interesting explanation for why conservative ideas seem to have a direct pipeline to Washington while progressive alternatives stay at the margins of the debate.