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Charles Koch Foundation is spending big on an ASU criminal justice center. Why?

The most recent donation is one of a series of controversial grants made to University programs


Pedestrians walk near the Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law in Phoenix, Arizona, on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2018. 

In July, ASU announced the Charles Koch Foundation had awarded a $6.5 million grant to fund the newly minted Academy for Justice, a research coalition based out of the University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

The Academy says the grant will help bridge the gap between academics and policymakers in order to promote positive change in the criminal justice system. But critics say it represents another attempt by one of the country's most prominent political donor networks to exert its influence. 

How did the Academy for Justice come to be? 

The idea behind the Academy for Justice first came to Erik Luna, the center’s director and founder, at a summit on criminal justice reform hosted by the Charles Koch Institute in 2015. There, Luna said he came to realize the disconnect between academia and the policy community in the field of criminal justice. Scholarly research is often inaccessible or unavailable to the people who could, in theory, use it most, he said. 

Luna said he was inspired to try to address the problem he had identified — to “make what is known in the academic world available to policymakers and the public.” 

He did so with the help of a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, which he used to commission, edit and publish a four-volume report titled "Reforming Criminal Justice." The report includes writing from scholars around the U.S. and addresses topics including criminalization, policing, trials and incarceration processes. 

“Academics move glacially; the criminal justice system moves at the speed of light. People’s lives are at stake,” Luna said. “There are areas in criminal justice reform where smart people in good conscience can agree on certain types of changes.” 

What is the Koch network?

While the Academy for Justice grant is the most recent donation by the Charles Koch Foundation at ASU, it fits into a patchwork of other donations at the University that have gone to support centers including the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty and the Center for Political Thought and Leadership. Both of those centers are housed within the controversial School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. 

According to tax documents from 2016 (the most recent year available), the Koch Foundation gave more than $805,000 to ASU's nonprofit fundraising arm. In 2015, the Koch Foundation gave ASU more than $942,000, and in 2014, it gave more than $230,000, tax documents published by ProPublica detail.

The Charles Koch Foundation awards research and education grants to universities throughout the country, and it gave a total of $77 million in 2016, according to its website. The foundation was started in 1980 by Charles Koch, who, along with his brother David, owns and runs Koch Industries. Last year, Forbes named Koch Industries, which is primarily involved in petroleum and chemical refining, the second largest privately held company in the U.S. 

While the Charles Koch Foundation is focused on education and research grants, the Koch brothers are best known for their political donations, which overwhelmingly go to Republican candidates. According to the New York Times, “The Koch network has said it plans to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy in the 2018 election cycle.” 

The Koch brothers are also the financial muscle behind a number of conservative organizations and PACs, most prominently the libertarian political advocacy nonprofit Americans for Prosperity and its recently announced super PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action. 

What does the Academy for Justice grant look like? 

The grant to ASU, which went into effect in July 2018, is set to last through 2023. Each summer, as outlined in the grant agreement, the ASU Foundation will submit a written request for funding to the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Thus far, the Koch Foundation has given the center $1,081,160, and for each of the next four years it can give around $1.3 million, adding up to a total maximum contribution amount of $6.5 million, according to the grant agreement

However, after the first year, the foundation is under no obligation to continue giving — each year it will decide whether to approve the center’s request for funding. 

Samantha Parsons, who has spent the past several years reviewing documents related to Koch Foundation grants, said these sorts of renewal clauses are a way for donors to “(hold) the university hostage.” 

Parsons is the co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, a campaign that aims to “expose and expel undue donor influence in academia.” She said she founded the campaign in 2014 after becoming frustrated by the lack of transparency surrounding donations from the Charles Koch Foundation on her own campus, George Mason University. 

According to Parsons, most Koch Foundation grant agreements have three different stipulations. 

“One, we’re going to give you this big bulk of money, but it’s going to be given in yearly installments. Two, you need to provide us a report of how things went the previous year in order to request the next year’s installment. And three, we can pull the money if we don’t like what’s happening,” she said. “So it really holds the university accountable to the donor’s wishes, even if the university decides they want to go in a different direction.” 

For his part, Luna said the center is only held accountable to producing something meaningful on the subject of criminal justice, and the core decision making is totally independent from the foundation. Similarly, the grant agreement stipulates that the center operates under the principle of academic freedom. 

“I sense nothing but complete academic freedom,” he said. “The freedom that is given is quite breathtaking.”

Specifically, the ASU grant provides funding for the salaries of two tenure or tenure-track professors and to pay the center’s director, executive director, administrative assistant and editors (both student and professional), as well as general support for the center, which will cover expenses related to things like travel and publicity, according to the grant agreement

The grant agreement also notes that the "grant is intended to help promote a republic of science at the University where ideas can be exchanged freely and useful knowledge will benefit the well-being of individuals and society.” 

The principle of a “republic of science” is key to Koch’s donations to universities across the country, and it’s almost ubiquitously written into grant agreements, Parsons said. 

The term was coined by Michael Polanyi in a 1962 journal article titled “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory.” The essential idea behind the article is that the same principles that guide a free market should guide scientific research. 

“Subsidies should be curtailed in areas where their yields in terms of scientific merit tend to be low, and should be channeled instead to the growing points of science, where increased financial means may be expected to produce a work of higher scientific value,” Polanyi writes. 

Parsons said that even though center purposes can often seem very broad, it's important to contextualize them with the free market ideas surrounding the republic of science.

“The center purpose ... is very general," she said. "But when it’s situated within this commonly used language around promoting a republic of science at the university, I think that’s when it becomes much more narrow.” 

Why the focus on criminal justice reform? 

Criminal justice is one of six issue areas the Koch Foundation highlights as important on its website, along with K-12 education, foreign policy, technology and innovation, tolerance and free speech, and economic freedom. 

In an email statement to The State Press, a Koch Foundation spokesperson said the grant was part of broader work to “identify opportunities to improve the criminal justice system so that it respects human dignity and improves outcomes for communities and the formerly incarcerated.“

In a 2016 New Yorker article about the Koch brothers, Jane Mayer, the author of "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right," explains that the Koch brothers’ long-standing push for criminal justice reform aligns with their libertarian views. 

“Their distaste for the American criminal-justice system is bound up in distrust of government and a preference for private enterprise,” she wrote. “Until recently, the criminal-justice victims the Kochs focused on were businessmen who had run afoul of the modern regulatory state—that is, people like them.”

During the Obama administration, the Koch brothers joined forces with White House and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to push for criminal justice reform. 

In a 2015 speech at the NAACP annual convention, Obama responded to laughter over the Koch brothers' support of criminal justice reform by saying, "No, you've got to give them credit. You've got to call it like you see it."  

In an open letter explaining his reasons for giving money to universities, Charles Koch said his donations currently support more than 1,000 faculty members across the country. “As demand for our support for students, professors, scholars, and universities continues to grow, I’ve been happy to increase my giving, and I expect to continue to do so,” he wrote. 

Luna said he is aware of the criticism that the Koch Foundation has received related to its university donations, but that he sees criminal justice research as space to seek consensus. 

“Criminal justice and criminal justice scholars have existed in an environment of resource scarcity for a long time,” he said. “The notion that if you’re enemies on one subject you have to be enemies on all subjects, I find that not only wrong, I find that perverse.” 

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