A showdown over who rules America’s college campuses came to a head in Kansas on Wednesday, in a clash that might be called Cancel Culture vs. the Big Donors. It began last week, when a technical college affiliated with Wichita State University scrapped plans for a virtual commencement address by Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, in a bow to student and faculty criticism of the President’s response to the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing. On Twitter, Ivanka blamed “cancel culture,” calling it “antithetical to academia.” In a compromise brokered by the university, Ivanka’s remarks, instead of headlining the event, were demoted to being one in a menu of choices during the ceremony, on June 6th. If they wished, students could click on a link and see her dressed for the occasion, in a regal white sheath and turquoise earrings and brooch, as she addressed them as “wartime” graduates.
The approach of Wichita State University’s president, Jay Golden, won praise from students and faculty members who had circulated petitions opposing the address. But the decision roiled the school’s conservative corporate donors, including, reportedly, the billionaire libertarian oil magnate Charles Koch, the owner of Koch Industries, the largest company in Wichita and one of the two largest private companies in the country. According to the Wichita Eagle, Koch Industries threatened to withdraw its financial support for the university; its basketball arena bears Koch’s name. The newspaper’s story cited a letter, sent to the Kansas Board of Regents, by another corporate booster of the school, Steve Clark, which called for Golden to be fired and warned that Koch Industries and other major corporate donors—including Dan Carney, the founder of Pizza Hut—were “very upset and quite vocal in their decisions to disavow any further support.”
In his letter, according to the Eagle, Clark described a conversation that he’d had with Koch Industries’ chief financial officer, Steve Feilmeier, the chair of a fund-raising campaign for a new business building on campus. “He advised me he’s resigning . . . from any further association with the University,” Clark reportedly wrote. “He is also advising that Koch Industries rescind all their financial support for programs at the University they’ve previously funded.” In an interview, Clark told the Eagle, “We had Koch in the fold. Now we’re going to lose them, and they’ll never be back.” To avoid risking the loss of millions of dollars in financial support for the university, Clark called on the Board of Regents to fire Golden.
Instead, the board held a closed-door session on the matter on Wednesday, while students held a rally and circulated a campus petition in support of Golden, which has now garnered eighty-seven hundred signatures. After meeting for four hours, the board issued an equivocal statement supporting “freedom of speech and diversity and inclusion.” Tajahnae Stocker, one of the W.S.U. students who helped organize the rally, told the Eagle, “The Koch brothers have had a huge influence for way too long, and now is about time to start supporting us instead of supporting a check to the university.”
Clark, who had called for Golden’s dismissal, declined to comment.
The political pressure that wealthy donors exert on universities rarely gets aired so publicly. But there’s no mystery in why W.S.U. might quake at the prospect of alienating the Kochs. Charles Koch, whose fortune is estimated to be slightly more than fifty billion dollars, has reportedly given or pledged some fifteen million to W.S.U. in the past seven years. In addition, Koch has committed $3.6 million to fund the university’s Institute for the Study of Economic Growth. Although W.S.U. is a public university, the Koch-funded center is a think tank devoted to promoting the billionaire’s personal political philosophy, which promotes private enterprise, and not government, as the panacea to virtually all societal problems. In recent years, exposing college students to his libertarian ideology has been a major focus of Koch’s philanthropy, and there are now similar Koch-funded programs at some three hundred American colleges and universities. Despite reportedly bridling at the disinvitation of Ivanka Trump, Koch has not been a full-throated supporter of her father, nor a donor to his campaigns. However, Koch and his private political operation have enthusiastically backed a number of Trump Administration policies, including the 2018 corporate tax cuts and the Administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations.
In a statement sent to me on Wednesday, a spokesman for Koch Industries tried to distance the company from the controversy. “Steve Clark is a private citizen who is not affiliated with Koch Industries,” the statement read. “His views were inaccurate and do not represent Koch Industries.” The statement went on to say that the company “is continuing its commitments to WSU” and believes in “academic freedom.” Yet it also said, “We object to speaker disinvitations,” adding that “universities offer students opportunities to encounter new ideas and think for themselves. Limiting access to unpopular speakers, viewpoints, and scholarship doesn’t protect students, it cuts off the chance to engage, debate, and criticize.”