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From the Chinese government to the Koch Brothers, outside donors receive scrutiny at Texas universities

Under pressure to keep up with rising expenses, colleges in Texas and across the country have turned to outside groups to underwrite certain initiatives. But bringing in outside funders can lead to questions about whether their donations come with strings attached.

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Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute has found itself in liberals’ crosshairs before, and it takes just a glance down the institute's list of funders to see why.

Appearing almost a dozen times, next to donations that total $5.5 million over four years, is the Charles Koch Foundation. The conservative-leaning John Templeton Foundation, which gave nearly $1.7 million, is also listed amid a catalog of mostly redacted names that The Texas Tribune obtained through an open records request.

University leaders and the funders themselves say donors exercise no influence over the institute’s research or academic programs. Benjamin Powell, the institute’s director, said it's staffed with “highly productive scholars" who "compare favorably with other faculty on campus and at peer institutions on standard, non-ideological, scholarly metrics." 

But the donors' names left some Tech faculty uneasy, at least initially. The advocacy group UnKoch My Campus – whose research director, Ralph Wilson, said they’ve “extensively documented instances of undue donor influence" on college campuses, including Tech – still has strong reservations about the institute, which has sponsored events with titles like "Finding Your Purpose: Why Economic Freedom Matters." 

Tech officials aren’t the only university officials who've had to defend scholarly work at their schools because of the donors who helped fund it. Under pressure to keep up with rising expenses, universities in Texas and across the nation have frequently turned to outside groups to underwrite specific initiatives. Courting private donors, wooing foundations and teeing up corporate research sponsorships have become an ever-growing part of schools’ financial plans. 

Just months ago, Texas Southern University announced it had received its own $2.7 million grant to establish a criminal justice center – with much of the funding also coming from the Koch Foundation. Since then, several universities have announced big fundraising hauls with fanfare or given updates on their capital campaigns.

But bringing in those outside funders can beget new problems. Donor dollars can be subject to the caprices of the market, changes to the tax code and the priorities of the funders. And, as Texas Tech’s experience setting up a Free Market Institute in 2013 demonstrates, external funding can spawn risks that range from bad optics to real concerns about undue influence and academic integrity.

“A threat to our nation’s security”

A similar issue was raised, unprompted, by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, during a legislative hearing in January. After a discussion with a Texas A&M University System official about free speech on campus, Nelson shifted gears to ask if academic researchers there are required to disclose funding from outside organizations.

“It would be important for us to know that because a lot of the decisions we [the Legislature] make are based on information that we get from our universities and if it’s being partially funded by an external organization that may, I would hate to say it, but may bias...” Nelson said, her voice trailing off. 

She seemed to be alluding to a fracas over a 2016 study that University of Texas at Austin researchers co-authored with state health officials. That study drew unflattering conclusions about changes to a state women’s health program that had been spearheaded by Nelson. At the time, she called out one of the UT-Austin researchers’ funders as a possible source of prejudice. 

At issue was $8.4 million the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation had given to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project – dedicated to "assessing the impact of reproductive health legislation," according to its website – on the Austin campus. Named after the late wife of billionaire Warren Buffett, the foundation has ardently funded other causes related to women’s reproductive health, including Planned Parenthood. 

"Criticism of scientific research is expected and welcome," said UT-Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird. But "there are many checks and balances built into the academic research system, including on-going forms of peer review and strong policies on conflict of interest and research misconduct" that prevent study results from being swayed.

Bird said companies that turn to universities for research know it will be "subject to peer review and they will not have control over the results." For a college, the draws of such a partnership include "having research that benefits society but does not have to be funded by taxpayers ... better jobs for students and greater awareness of industry trends for researchers."

This year, a different UT-Austin program came under scrutiny. In an ominously worded letter, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, urged the school not to partner with a Hong Kong-based foundation he said spreads Chinese propaganda.

Soon after, the Texas A&M University System, Texas Southern University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at San Antonio were on the receiving end of a similar missive. The schools received a message in April from U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, that called Confucius Institutes, which are backed by the Chinese government but embedded on numerous campuses, “a threat to our nation’s security.”

The A&M System quickly said it was ending its contract with the institutes, and UT-Austin President Greg Fenves said he had made the decision to bar the controversial funding before receiving Cruz’s letter.

But some colleges, including those that haven’t axed their relationships with the Confucius Institutes, have said the programs are devoted to the exchange of culture and that their funders exert no influence on the schools’ academic mission.

A partition between funding and academic control

School officials, including UT-Austin researchers, the hosts of the Confucius Institutes and Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec, all describe a partition between funding and academic control at their institutions. 

“The one thing that we have to absolutely insist on is, if you give money, that does not give you any license to affect the curriculum and affect the academic freedom of the faculty,” Schovanec said. “It would be a big mistake for a university to allow an individual, just by virtue of their gift, to try to interfere with the academic process. Faculty control the curriculum. That's the way it is, and that's a sacred right on campuses.”

Spokespeople for the John Templeton Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation agreed that they have no control over faculty research and governance.

"We support excellent scholars investigating important questions with rigorous methods," the John Templeton Foundation spokesperson said. "We encourage them to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to share their findings widely."

A spokesperson at the Koch Foundation, John Hardin, said academic freedom and independence are among the foundation's “giving principles" and that it fund initiatives across a range of disciplines at about 350 colleges across the country.

"It's absolutely critical that the people who are closest to the research and the information, they have to be the ones making the decisions about what are the right questions, what is the right data, what are the right conclusions. Our responsibility is to provide the funding so that they can do that,” Hardin said. 

A representative of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation could not be reached. 

Schovanec pointed out that the roughly $15 million that's flowed into Tech’s Free Market Institute – including the funding from the two foundations – has let the school hire faculty, offer them tenure in different departments and “support a lot of graduate students who actually are interested in the study of free markets.” He noted that faculty skepticism has dissipated since the institute was founded.

Donations and funding for research initiatives have historically made up 10 to 15 percent of Tech’s budget, he said – and as the entire budget grows, so does the need for dollars coming from outside funders. Declining federal investment in research, and tight spending on higher education at the state-level, suggests colleges will see alternate sources of funding play an "ever-growing" role in their financial puzzle, Schovanec said. 

That means forging corporate partnerships but also chasing fundraising and philanthropy dollars that are not earmarked for a specific project.

“Up until this year, we did not have a vice president of development at Texas Tech. Now we do," Schovanec said. "When you hire a dean now, they know that fundraising is a very important part of their duties.”

On a recent trip to Houston, Schovanec had a 9 a.m. Sunday breakfast with a donor. A few days later, he was going to an event held by a foundation that’s giving Tech money. 

“That’s very typical,” Schovanec said. 

Disclosure: Texas Tech University, Texas Southern University, the University of Texas at Austin, Planned Parenthood, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here

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