Government by other means; more on FSU/Koch

My post on Florida State’s sellout to a right-wing foundation deserves some more general, and less snarky, reflection on several aspects of the deal.

Donor Influence

A distinctive, possibly unique, feature of the way Americans do our collective business, noted by de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago and long predating the tax preferences for charities and donors that many think ’causes’ it, is our delegation of what others do through government to the large and ramified non-profit sector.  As Feld, Schuster and I discussed in the context of the arts [Patrons Despite Themselves, 1983 NYU Press], this system has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it diffuses control of programs and practices relative to a centralized government agency, encourages niche and “small-market” activity, and protects us from a lot of mischief.  On the other, it gives wealthy donors more influence than they would have as voters, influence amplified by the income tax deduction that makes giving cheaper per dollar as one’s tax bracket is higher.

Charitable institutions with ethical or professional claims can always refuse gifts with inappropriate strings, but this power is at least partly illusory.  The director of the Metropolitan Opera told us flatly that donors are not allowed to determine programming, and ten minutes later that the new production selected for the next season from several options was thus because it had a donor willing to fund it and the others didn’t. It’s naïve to think an institution doesn’t think about what sort of behavior might induce an “unrestricted” gift later, so this influence can be quite tacit.  For explicit restrictions, institutions have codes of ethics and rules that make it easier to stand up to donors who wants to muscle them. For example, museums are not supposed to accept artworks with conditions that they be displayed, or how (though this is violated, sometimes spectacularly, for very big gifts).  The powers that be at FSU might have viewed the Koch offer as something that would be implemented elsewhere if not there, and maybe with worse oversight and outcomes, so what’s the harm in getting it under the salutary regime of our own shop?

With all its faults, I do not think this philanthropic tradition is more dangerous or less effective than an all-government system (though I would much prefer a tax credit to the deduction).  The policy challenge is not to avoid risk but to choose the right risks, and then to manage them, which is what FSU spectacularly failed at.

Program focus and program results

Governments and individuals want universities to do some things and not others.  The land grant system was specifically designed to get brainpower directed to useful stuff like better agriculture and engineering; RISD and Mass Art were founded to help the textile industry make money with better fabric designs.  It was our sister campus at Davis that put cheap good wine on your table and cleared away the cobwebs of myth and superstition from that industry, whose devotion to better uses of bioethanol (than driving cars) is itself admirable in my book.  I have no problem with any of this; private or public, universities are given resources that could be used in other ways, and we have a duty to create value for the society, not to amuse ourselves. Yes, what looks like woolgathering and methodological navel-gazing is part of creating that value; those art schools were given painting and sculpture departments because the founders understood that the arts were integrated and cross-fertilizing.

The (somewhat fuzzy) line here is between directing academic attention to an issue area (how markets work and don’t, how to make wine, what might live on Mars) and directing findings about those things.  If the Davis oenologists had been offered a gift conditional on showing that acquired characteristics of vines were inherited (what put Russian science in the toilet for a generation), or on hiring faculty who would teach that wine prevents heart attacks, they would have had none of it, and correctly so.  We are always at risk of having our institutions corrupted to give someone a short-term benefit (even with the best intentions on all sides), but More’s caution to his careerist apprentice (at least in the movie) – about cutting down the laws when convenient and then having nothing to hide behind when the devil comes for you – applies in spades to science, including social science, and everything else in the academic grove.  (Actually, I think playing by the rules for their own sake  in the small because it pays off in the large applies to the sports subsidiary as well.)  FSU crossed that line in football four years ago, and in economics in 2008; maybe the campus culture is generally that cheating is OK if you win?  That anything that can be bought and sold should be? If a student ghostwrites a term paper for another for $100, can he defend himself by pointing to his economics prof?

IOKIIMM

No, it’s not OK if it makes money;  universities could diffuse their management attention and resources, and spend their reputation, across all sorts of things that would be profitable, but a lot of them are inappropriate and a lot of them are mischievous and dangerous.  Selling course content or research findings is one of those, and high up on the list.  What FSU did besmirches the reputation of everything its faculty does from now on, in the classroom and in the lab, and because of the tacit anticipation issue noted in my first heading, properly so.  Most troubling to me is that this scheme constitutes nearly flat-out lying to the citizens of Florida.  If they are anything like California citizens, they are desperate to believe that they can have (for example) a fine university system without actually having to pay anything for it, and letting Koch (or anyone else) infect it this way enables that tragic wrong belief.  What they will have on this plan is something completely different from a university, dressed up in a nice gown and mortarboard.  We have an (imperfect, granted) accreditation system to help people distinguish a real university from that sort of thing and I think FSU deserves its attention.

Comments

  1. NCG says

    They should just give the money back and promise never to do it again.

    I hope the students are going to sit-in for a few weeks and make a big fuss. They deserve better, even if they don’t know it!

  2. Ben M says

    I would also draw a connection to the blurry lines between news and advertising. If I want unbiased (+caveats) news of the world, I can pay the New York Times to deliver it to me. If I want General Motors to tell me the benefits of Chevy Aveo ownership, GM will actually pay for the right to tell me whatever they want, including lies. So the Times automotive section is compromised; unfavorable reporting risks driving off advertisers, but patently-unreliable reporting risks driving off subscribers. The editorial desk and the ad-sales desk both know this, they both bring in revenue, so they have to watch their balance.

    Some news outlets have embraced this outright; I can’t imagine that the “amazing new gizmo” blurbs in Popular Mechanics were anything other than press releases. The once-interesting site HowStuffWorks now has lots of articles in the vein “How the Hammacher-Schlemmer Personal Ion Generator Works”. Ugh.

    So, where does a Koch-approved FSU professor fall on this spectrum? I can’t see it as anything more than straight advertising; a undergrad lecture from the FSU Koch Professor has the same reliability value as a timeshare sales pitch. The lecture content has a huge incentive to do what the ad sales desk wants, and approximately zero incentive to editorialize freely. (In principle, doesn’t the administration, or the department, play the contrary role—defending the reputation of the school in the eyes of its “subscribers”? Yes, they should have rejected the Koch offer. Now that they’ve accepted it they *no longer* have their thumb on the scale at all.)

    By analogy with the newspapers, maybe the balancing force could be *disclosure*. All of this prof’s course listings, lectures, press releases, and journal articles should be subtitled “SPECIAL ADVERTISING SECTION”.

  3. says

    MoH: “museums are not supposed to accept artworks with conditions that they be displayed”. Why ever not? You have fulminated rightly here about the hamster instinct of museums, which would rather a work of art lay for ever in their cellars than sell it to some unwashed billionaire to flaunt in his vulgar mansion. I cited a nice example of a display requirement from Edinburgh here.

    “If the Davis oenologists had been offered a gift conditional on showing that acquired characteristics of vines were inherited (what put Russian science in the toilet for a generation)..”
    Only Russian biology and agronomy – bad enough in all conscience. Physics and engineering say weren’t affected by Lysenko – Sakharov, Kurchatov, Korolev.

  4. Michael O'Hare says

    Are you sure the physicists didn’t look down the hall at what was happening at the ag school and trim a little? I was told that at IIASA before ’91, the iron curtain staff only worked on methodology because doing anything applied was too dangerous.

    I do not retract my fulminations, but there is such a thing as professional expertise in the arts and given a collection, which part of it should be on display should be the decision of the curator and not a donor who pushes painting A off the wall because he wants B on it.

  5. SamChevre says

    The (somewhat fuzzy) line here is between directing academic attention to an issue area (how markets work and don’t, how to make wine, what might live on Mars) and directing findings about those things. If the Davis oenologists had been offered a gift conditional on showing that acquired characteristics of vines were inherited…

    But (unless there’s nothing useful in the study of “free enterprise”) that’s not a very useful comparison. I would argue that a more comparable comparison would be “study the acquired characteristics of grapes and wine made from them”–and I would argue that it would be entirely appropriate to fund a position studying the influence of soil characteristics on grapevines, and to say that no, studying the genetics of grapevines is not what we are funding.

  6. politicalfootball says

    But (unless there’s nothing useful in the study of “free enterprise”) that’s not a very useful comparison

    It’s not that Koch’s proposal is useless; it’s that it’s harmful. Studying free enterprise is a fine thing, and some of our current problems in this country are a result of the collapse of economics education.

    Koch wants to indoctrinate students in his own particular view of free enterprise. According to the terms of the grant, Koch gets unconditional rights to approve not merely the area of study, but the conclusions reached. So the analogy is precise.

    Brett explained this clearly enough in the other thread. Koch pays; Koch should dictate content. I suppose that in this view, academic freedom is a pernicious device that keeps the funders of scholarship from dictating the results of scholarship.

  7. says

    Isn’t this really the GB Shaw quote about establishing the price? What’s remarkable about the Koch/FSU deal is not so much money for intellectual opinions of a certain slant (GMU, anyone?) but the level of micromanagement. Without some kind of coercion to give gifts to higher education (oh, wait, that’s called government funding, and the governors of Florida are agin it) there’s always going to be an implicit quid pro quo that the beneficiaries are doing something the donors like, and that future gifts will be contingent on more liking. But making it explicit on a year-to-year level should be too much for a sensible university. If nothing else, unless their tenure-track junior faculty contracts run year to year, they take on a significant monetary risk in the case that their, uh, good faith efforts to toe the company line are insufficient. It’s like a sex worker offering a money-back guarantee.

  8. Dennis says

    @ Paul

    And, having established the price, I’m astonished that Florida State sold itself so cheaply. $1.5M over six years is $250K/year. That barely covers the costs of hiring two faculty members. FSU hired these people on the tenure-track, and guaranteed funding even if Koch withdraws their funding. The University has made a long-term commitment, or at least the offer of a potential long-term commitment without resources in place to cover the commitment. Nice. Koch pays for the six years of journeyman status, keeps a club over the department and faculty member’s heads and then gets to walk away with their ideological sycophants in place and funded by the State of Florida. The Gershwin brothers wrote a tune about that: Nice Work If You Can Get It.

    To pursue your sex-worker metaphor. this is a sex worker working for tea and cakes provided by a donor (not the client). But in this simile, the donor (not the client) has the right under the deed of gift to decide at any time that they don’t like the product and dismiss the sex worker.

    For those not completely familiar with the Land-grant campuses, MO’H's use of UC-Davis as an example shouldn’t be read as an implication that Florida State is a land-grant school. It’s not: Florida’s Morrill Act campus is U of Florida, as in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada and a few other States.

  9. Allen K. says

    (though I would much prefer a tax credit to the deduction)

    Can you say more about this?

    I have heard that one reason Russian mathematics did not suffer in the age of Lysenkoism is that people who wanted to do un-politically-tainted science chose to do math, exactly because it was of no interest to the elite. (Then, whenever they wanted to publish in the West, they had to sign a document affirming that their paper was of no value to anyone. That seems rather dispiriting.)

  10. Michael O'Hare says

    A deduction reduces the price of a gift by your marginal tax rate; if you don’t itemize you don’t get any tax benefit from the gift. A credit, say 25%, would give you back 25% of the amount you give no matter what your income or tax bracket is.