Two years ago, liberal billionaire George Soros gave $675,000 from his Open Society Foundation to support the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media.
“The MIT Center for Civic Media works hand in hand with diverse communities to collaboratively create, design, deploy, and assess civic media tools and practices,” the Center’s website explains.
The Center has worked to promote the Black Lives Matter movement through so-called digital activism, did a case study mapping out how the Trayvon Martin incident in Florida became a national news event, and has developed online tools for citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable for promises made on the campaign trail.
It has also developed undergraduate and graduate courses in civic media for MIT students teaching them about social movements and the media, among others and hosts a number of conferences, panels and writes publications espousing digital activism.
Mr. Soros’s foundation gave $26.4 million in grants and projects to U.S. universities in 2013 alone, just one of several ideological billionaires who are using part of their wealth to shape the agenda, research and curricula at the college level where the next generation of American adults are being informed.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist, gave $40 million to Stanford University to create the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy in 2009 with the mission of helping educate and train the next generation of leaders in sustainable energy.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a fierce gun control advocate, foundation has given to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which resides under the aptly-named John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Mr. Bloomberg has given more than $1 billion to Johns Hopkins’ various departments in his lifetime.
Liberals aren’t the only ones. On the right, the Koch brothers, Charles and David, have given more than $68 million to fund libertarian, free-market university programs from 2005 to 2013, with about half of those donations going to George Mason University.
Monies given to the MIT Center for Civic Media are used to teach, track and monitor how social media can influence the broader media dialog.
“There’s actually a bunch of different ways to make change. One way to make change is to pass laws and get them enforced. Another is to try to change people’s opinions directly, and that’s what I see a lot of people trying to do with digital activism they’re trying to change social norms, they’re trying to say ‘Look, in a country with a black president we believe we are post-racial, but we’re not. We have terrible bias and we have to learn how to see it,’” Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, said in an August interview with NPR.
“The social shift that we’ve seen around equal marriage is a way of having the law catch up with the social change that had already occurred,” Mr. Zuckerman continued. “Getting a social change in which we do acknowledge that Black Lives Matter and that black lives are disproportionally under threat in the United States, I think that would be a major step towards having a set of polices that don’t just give us legal equality, but give us lived equality.”
Last year, the Center approached DeRay McKesson, an outspoken activist for the Black Lives Matter campaign to help him map police violence. The Center, along with Mr. McKesson were able to document 101 cases of unarmed African Americans killed by police in 2014.
“That’s a stunning number and getting, growing awareness of numbers like that is the first step in trying to figure out how we make social change or advance issues like Black Lives Matter,” Mr. Zuckerman said in his interview.
Mr. Soros has been a behind the scenes funder for the Black Lives Matter movement, giving dozens of civil justice organizations which perpetuate its message, millions of dollars on a annual basis, according to Open Society Foundation’s tax filings.
“Our DNA includes a belief that having people participate in government is indispensable to living in a more just, inclusive, democratic society,” Kenneth Zimmerman, director of Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations’ U.S. programs, told The Washington Times in January. “Helping groups combine policy, research [and] data collection with community organizing feels very much the way our society becomes more accountable.”
Open Society Foundation declined to comment for this article.
The MIT Center for Civic Media’s director, Mr. Zuckerman, is a board member on Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OSF) and is the chair on foundations sub-board for it’s so-called Information Project, which “works to increase access to knowledge, empower civil society groups, and protect civil liberties in the digital environment,” according to Open Society’s webpage.
“OSF has supported our work in the past, but is not actively supporting work at the Center - I don’t approach OSF for funding since joining the global board of the foundation,” Mr. Zuckerman said in an email to the Times. “In 2012, we received support from OSF’s US Programs… at that point, I was chairing the Information Program sub-board, a program that works only internationally. In other words, the grant was from an arm of the foundation that I had no oversight or influence over. Now that I help govern the foundation as a whole, I do not solicit funding from OSF.”
Mr. Soros’ foundation, along with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Bulova-Stetson Foundation were among the main contributors to the MIT Center for Civic Media in 2013, according to the Center’s website.
“The Center really got moving in 2008 with funding from the Knight Foundation, and then some re-upping from the Ford Foundation and others,” said Andrew Whitacre, a spokesman for the MIT Center. “The funding was no-strings attached, but the people in the foundation knew exactly who they were going to be working with, may times they had worked with them before, and what requirements would be placed on the Center for reporting out to them [the donors].”
Mr. Whitacre said the Center’s projects are primary dictated by the graduate students and their thesis topics, not by individual donors.
“None of my foundation funders - OSF, Ford, Knight and others - have control over what topics I choose to work on, what classes I teach, etc,” said Mr. Zuckerman. “Instead, I determine my research agenda and then approach funders to see if they are interested in supporting my work.”
To be sure, not all the money Mr. Soros’ foundation spent on higher-education went to influence policy some were used for traditional campus building projects and debate team formations. However, others were blatantly political to advance liberal policy through data collection.
Mr. Soros gave $200,000 to New York University to “develop new thinking and interdisciplinary research on issues of racial, ethnic and economic residential segregation,” and $215,000 for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to evaluate the impact of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy on crime rates in 2013.
Philanthropic scholars say university giving has a rich history, though it is changing in recent years.
“Donors have always given to causes the believe in when John D. Rockefeller gave to the University of Chicago back in the 1890s, people were terrified at the time, whether or not that was ideologically motivated, if it could be dangerous, but it’s turned out to be one of the best schools of social sciences in the country and hasn’t done harm,” said Angela Seaworth, the director of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Rice University, when questioned if billionaires giving to higher-education was a new phenomenon.
Today’s donors, however, want to see more of a direct impact on the money they’re giving, she said.
Therefore, giving tends to be more restricted, like giving to a certain center with a specific set of goals rather than to a general endowment. Some donors request schools give them very detailed reports on how many students attended or were well-served because of their spend. Some philanthropists design specific metrics to rate the impact of their donation.
It’s this laser focus on results and wanting to know and be a part of the intimate details of a university’s workings that have some within academia concerned their independence is being eroded.
“There’s always going to be donors who want to overstep their bounds,” said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. “But donors seem to be getting more and more pushy maybe that comes from fatigue on my part, I’ve seen too much of it.”
Mr. Kurland says much of the money these billionaires give is needed to fund research that otherwise the universities couldn’t afford, but academics need to be wary of maintaining their independence from the control and influence of their donors, including what is taught in the classroom and which professors are hired.
Sometimes donors seek out schools to pitch their own projects, schools they perceive to be already ideologically aligned, and other times universities, knowing the pet issues of potential donors, approach them to get funding on whatever the researcher already has in the pipeline, said Richard Marker of New York University’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education.
“Alfred Sloan purposely gave money to MIT for a business school rather than Harvard. He had an ideological assumption of what a business education should be about. He wanted scientific engineering to underpin a business school approach,” said Mr. Marker. “Sloan school unlike Yale, Harvard or Wharton built itself for a long time on certain structural, conceptional, underpinnings. But as time has gone on, you’d be hard pressed to say it was Alfred Sloan who shaped the direction of the school it’s been the Sloan school faculty and directors.”
Most universities are quite strict in accepting big money from a donor who wants to influence how a faculty member is appointed, Mr. Marker said.
“What they’ll do is they’ll create a chair or an adjunct chair, where its clear whoever possesses that chair has the underlining ideological bent of the donor,” Mr. Maker said. The rest of the seats are independent, however, and can easily guide faculty nominations and what’s taught in the classroom without interference from the honorary position.
Mr. Steyer serves on Stanford’s board of trustees and sits on the advisory council for the school’s Precourt Institute for Energy, where his TomKat center is housed. As a board member, Mr. Steyer, along with 37 others, helps set Stanford’s annual budget, appoint a president and manages the school’s endowment.
“Tom Steyer is a generous donor to the university as well as a member of the Board of Trustees,” said Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford. “Donors are kept apprised of the use of their gifts on a periodic basis. Beyond designating their gifts to benefit a particular area of the university at the time the gift is made, donors to Stanford do not direct the specifics of how their gifts are used.”
Mr. Steyer, along with his wife Kathryn, are graduates of Stanford and donate to the school like many other alumni supporting their alma matter, his spokeswoman said.
“Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor are proud Stanford graduates, and support their alma matter,” said a spokeswoman for Mr. Steyer. “Tom and Kat are committed to supporting initiatives that will prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for all Americans through the transition to a clean energy economy—supporting the next generation of science, technology and policy experts.”
Mr. Bloomberg gave $350 million to John Hopkins in 2013, of which the majority of the funds were dedicated to creating 50 new professorships to facilitate cross-disciplinary work.
“Appointments of Bloomberg Distinguished Professors are made through the university’s regular academic processes (though in a somewhat more complicated way than usual, because BDPs hold appointments in at least two Johns Hopkins schools or departments). Mr. Bloomberg, therefore, does not influence the selection of the faculty members,” said Dennis O’Shea, a spokesman at John Hopkins.
Mr. Bloomberg is a former trustee of the school and was chair of the university’s board of trustees from 1996 to 2002 but hasn’t been a trustee since then and is not now, said Mr. O’Shea.
“As is standard practice for universities and other recipients of philanthropic gifts, we report to Mr. Bloomberg and other donors regularly on the impact that their gifts have on the university, its faculty and students, and those who benefit from our research,” said Mr. O’Shea. “Similarly, we also provide updates to staff at Bloomberg Philanthropies, the organization Mr. Bloomberg created to manage his efforts to support, primarily, the arts, education, the environment, government innovation, and public health.”
On the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research website, it explicitly states: “All faculty members of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health are required to follow the highest standards of responsible conduct of research, per School and University policy. Among these is the principle of academic freedom, which stipulates that the design, conduct, and reporting of research must be independent of potential influence or biases from the funding source. All research by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research is conducted entirely independent of influence from funding source.”
The Koch brothers have been repeatedly criticized from the left for buying their influence in the academic realm. Huffington Post blogger Robert Greenwald created a documentary entitled “How to Invest a Billion Dollars into Controlling Democracy,” that focuses exclusively on the Kochs’ investment in education.
Charles Koch helped establish the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which dubs itself as “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.”
Mr. Koch is a director of the Center and serves as chairman on GMU’s Institute for Humane Studies.
“It is of course our responsibility—mine and the rest of the faculty—to make sure that we never accept a gift from anybody that somehow compromises our intellectual independence,” Dr. Angel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, told NPR in April, after being questioned about the school’s independence. “No donor, no matter how generous, can influence who gets who gets tenure, who gets promoted, what is taught in the classroom, what any faculty teaches and so forth. Those are absolutely off limits to any donor.”
Where donor influence may extend is in priorities meaning if a donor’s No.1 funding priority is No. 32 on the school’s list, the school may make it their No.1 issue to secure the funding, said Mr. Marker. Big established universities are not easily swayed by, or change their basic academic principles, to attract cash, he said.
Still, in an era where lobbying has extended beyond Washington DC’s infamous K street, and names like Soros, Koch, Steyer and Bloomberg become associated with political agendas, the perception of influence is much more in the public eye and leads to a deep seeded cynicism about civil society as a whole, Mr. Maker said.
“So it’s not surprising people start asking the question does this influence manifest itself in higher education which, one would hope, maintain separate ethos,” he said.