In 1553, Michel de Villeneuve (better known as Michael Servetus) published Christianismi Restitutio. Hounded out of research at the University of Paris for anti-orthodox views and personal grievances, Villeneuve was entirely dependent on the support of Pierre Palmier, Archbishop of Vienne. Palmier’s support withdrawn, nearly every available copy of The Restoration of Christianity was burned. Buried in the book, and then in the ashes, was a revolution in pulmonary medicine, a field in which Europe still lagged behind the Islamic Renaissance by several centuries. It would take European pulmonary medicine decades to reintegrate Villeneuve’s discoveries.

The subsequent execution of Michael Servetus (burned alive atop a pyre of his own books) is a common cautionary tale about the power and dangers of orthodoxy, but it tells us still more about the particular institutional structures by which orthodoxy is generated, defended, and imposed. The defining issue in the case of Servetus was not his theology, but patronage politics. While Servetus had a powerful patron, he was safe; when he lost that, he was dead. It is really for the best that the University of Paris can no longer impose the death penalty. It is equally for the best that institutional support for research became sufficiently diffuse to protect it from pyrotechnic whims.

American higher education — let alone research funding — has never been entirely free of patronage politics. However, the establishment of strong norms of faculty and research independence was one of the most important achievements of its late evolution. While once (relatively) free of strong partisanship, however, university and research funding are becoming increasingly subject to the tribalization of American political life. The recent Koch network funding controversy at George Mason University provides another warning sign and case study in how the higher education landscape is changing.

Patronage and Donor Influence

GMU is a public university, billed as the largest public research university in Virginia. In the last decade, the administration has made an enormous effort to expand its research investment resources, catapulting GMU into the Carnegie Classification’s highest bracket for research institutions.

As it turns out, that rush of investment has come at a high cost, one that was not apparent until a Freedom of Information Act bid by UnKoch My Campus exposed the tremendous influence exerted by the Koch network over GMU’s economics department and law school. These revelations provoked a student-faculty campaign and a lawsuit aiming to unearth the full scope and details of agreements between the Koch-aligned donors and GMU. Rather than complying, the university launched an Internal Review Committee to assess their donor agreements, and issued a report concluding they could not detect “any egregious infractions.” Yet many were dissatisfied with the limited scope of the probe, the large amount of information which was not revealed, and overly-generous spin the committee seemed to put on its findings – prompting GMU’s student-run newspaper to declare the review a “transparency trainwreck.”

My father’s career is in planned giving, so I grew up seeing in action the intricate tightrope that universities walk with donors, and have a little more sympathy for GMU than some might. For me, however, that makes it all the more important to emphasize why the things that have been documented at GMU radically broke already fragile norms. GMU highlights the dangerous side of the borrowing and enrollment strains that are increasingly evident in giving patterns nationally.

Donors are always given a certain amount of steerage in how their money is used: if a family impacted by Alzheimer’s Disease wants to fund AD research, we hardly think that inappropriate. This is even true, to an extent, in my field of politics. While it was certainly met with considerable discomfort in some quarters, it was not in theory a violation of giving norms themselves when the Koch network first began funding independent university centers for conservative thought across the country. At GMU, however, theory was rapidly exceeded by practice, producing a donor relationship that was categorically different in both scope and process.

Eroding Checks and Balances

This first and most evident arena of the problem is the location and nature of influence itself. If one reads through the double-speak, even the Review Report details several areas in which donors were granted review of faculty hiring and departure (including specific named individuals), given active representation on search committees, and demanded “immediate notification” and “review” of the activities of recipients of grant money. As commitments to a donor, these agreements are truly extraordinary. Moreover, at moments the language evidences remarkably specific ideological commitments. Given the nature of bureaucratic language, which is designed to occlude criteria as much as possible, in reality these instances represent the tip of a much larger iceberg of influence. The agreements name a Dean and an Executive Director specifically, and represent formalized influence that extends all the way from the top to the bottom of the professional hierarchy.

Second is the issue of transparency. All administrations play transparency games, but the obvious inversion of the usual practice of planned giving in this case is striking and should set alarm bells ringing. Not every major donor wants accolades and their name on a building (though many do), but giving is supposed to be a beneficent act. GMU’s foot-dragging on transparency itself prompted concern, but that the administration would agree through legal contract not to disclose certain donor groups and associations unless the law itself intervened is outlandish. This amounts to legally formalizing a hierarchy of interests in which the donor’s interest in the community is placed above that of every other functioning member, including workers, students, and faculty.

Lastly, looking through the broader lens of trends in higher education, GMU’s agreements are a vivid example of the impact that changing power relationships within the university have on faculty independence, research, and student life. Patron and alumni-donor networks have always exercised extraordinary power in the university’s complex ecosystem. However, that influence for the last century has been played out in complicated equilibrium with other institutional players, whose relative powers have waxed and waned, but which have largely served as checks and balances on each other. As with governmental checks and balances, the functioning of that balance became dependent on maintaining tightly defines spheres of jurisdiction; it has been just as disastrous for universities when other actors have undermined those jurisdictions.

In GMU, we see the conjoined impact on that equilibrium of declining public finance for public universities and the explosive growth in size and financial burdens of administrations, creating a system in which the two most powerful actors have both a significant incentive and the formal ability to steer by breaking down those spheres of jurisdiction. Ultimately that norm-violation was challenged by the remaining power of the much-weakened institutions of the student body and the faculty.

However one feels about the politics of those bodies, the breakdown of norms of jurisdiction and transparency is deeply dangerous for everyone involved in the higher education enterprise. This is particularly true for those concerned with promoting heterodoxy. If the argument becomes purely about what political-intellectual interests were promoted, by whom, that would miss the deeper issue at stake: that directed patronage politics is historically the most powerful and violent form of orthodoxy defense, one that American higher ed worked hard to escape. What the Koch Network attempted at GMU could just as easily be attempted by any other financially powerful, ideologically motivated group in the current environment — and what they attempted was directly, explicitly, to generate an orthodoxy of interest and personnel within the network’s areas of concern. GMU is not a story about a political tribe, but the dangers of tribalization itself for research independence.