Steven Pearlstein is a Post business and economics columnist and the Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.
Thanks to a group of courageous and persistent students, George Mason University was recently forced to acknowledge that it had accepted millions of dollars from billionaire Charles Koch and other conservatives under arrangements that gave the donors input into several appointments at the university’s famously libertarian economics department. These arrangements violated traditional norms meant to insulate academic institutions from donor influence and come two years after similar gifts led to the naming of Mason’s law school after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The story fits neatly into the liberal narrative that the Koch brothers, Charles and David, have used their inherited oil wealth to fund the development of radical economic theories at Koch-funded universities. This, the narrative goes, translated into concrete policies at Koch-funded think tanks and legislation implemented by Koch-funded Republicans. For many liberals, this brainwashing of the American mind explains the ascent of the tea party and the election of Donald Trump.
There is some truth to this narrative of the rich, all-powerful puppeteers. But at Mason, the story is more complicated than that.
For the past seven years, I’ve been a professor at Mason. Although I teach economics and economic policy, I’m not a member of the economics department — they wouldn’t have me. But over the years, I’ve gotten to know and admire many of the economists there. For the most part, I have found them to be good economists and teachers, incredibly smart, intellectually honest and curious. In terms of the impact they have had on economics and the public debate on economic policy, they punch well above their weight class and have contributed significantly to Mason’s reputation as an up-and-coming public university.
Yes, the lavish support of Charles Koch and many other conservative donors has surely been a big factor in the department’s success and prominence. But any time someone makes a significant donation for a particular purpose, it influences a school’s priorities and identity.
When someone gives $10 million to an engineering school rather than the college of humanities, it changes the university’s priorities. When someone endows a center to study the causes and consequences of climate change, it affects who is hired and what is taught and researched. When someone gives enough to name a school after a public