Students Took Koch Money to Fund On-Campus Lecture

Charles Koch in 2016.


Charles Koch in 2016.


The college’s Open Campus Initiative (OCI) hosted a talk on free speech in large part through funding from the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a libertarian think tank. Charles Koch, an astronomically wealthy champion of the right who has helped back the Tea Party among other Republican causes and politicians, is on the board of directors of the IHS.

IHS is based at George Mason University. According to donor agreements released on Monday, in exchange for multi-million dollar donations to the university, the Koch brothers and other donors have played a role in hiring and firing faculty members. George Mason has denied this connection between the Charles Koch foundation and the university for years. 

The OCI brought Jonathan Rauch to campus on April 19 for the talk, entitled “Why Free Speech is the Only Safe Space for Minorities.” Rauch has authored six books and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Much of Rauch’s research focuses mainly on public policy issues, though he has also written about cultural issues. As an openly gay man he has stood up for gay rights, most prominently in his 2004 book “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America” and his 2013 memoir “Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul.”

Sam Zieve-Cohen ’19.5 and David Rubinstein ’18 founded the OCI at the college this fall with an aim to foster the discussion of diverse opinions. Zieve-Cohen and Rubinstein serve as president and treasurer of the OCI, respectively. 

“The group aims to facilitate discussions, lectures, and other activities to overcome cultural and political balkanization on campus and beyond,” Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein is also co-president of the College Republicans and a member of the American Enterprise Institute. 

When asked about the seemingly politicized source of funding, Rubinstein said that the choice of speaker was not influenced by the IHS and denied serving any political agenda.

“In dealing with potential sponsors, we make one thing very clear: the leaders of OCI – and no one else – need to have full control over the event,” Rubinstein said. “We would reject any funding that comes with political strings attached.”

According to Rubinstein, the OCI reached out to the IHS for funding after they had decided on bringing Rauch as a speaker.

“Our choice of speaker was made by Sam and I alone,” Rubinstein said. “Only after choosing our speaker did we go about soliciting funding.”

This was the first event that the OCI had received external funding for, as all previous events had been funded by the Student Government Association. This was also the OCI’s first event with a speaker; the group only hosted informal discussions in its first months.

Rubinstein said he was not opposed to accepting funding from the IHS for future events. 

“We do not discriminate against any potential sponsors on the basis of their politics,” Rubinstein said. “If our conditions for student control were met, we’d accept funding from a foundation with George Soros on the board. In the same vein we’d accept further funding without strings from a foundation with Charles Koch on its board.”

Last spring, following national press about free speech on college campuses, students established an organization called the Open Campus Initiative at Harvard University. Harvard’s OCI’s mission statement reads: “We believe that a liberal arts education benefits from ideological diversity and we aim to offer that ideological diversity for the student body.” 

The Harvard OCI brought Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor who speaks out against non-binary gender and refuses to use pronouns other than “he” and “she,” to their campus in April 2017. The Harvard OCI invited Charles Murray to speak the following September. 

While the Harvard and Middlebury groups bear the same name and similar purposes, Rubinstein said, “The Middlebury Open Campus Initiative is an entirely independent organization and has no connections to clubs at other colleges or universities.”

When the OCI applied to be a student organization in the fall, the Student Organization Oversight Committee (SOOC) rejected their application due to lack of organization, according to Trisha Singh ’18, committee chair of the SOOC.

Singh said that members were also concerned about how the organization would ensure it represented a diverse array of viewpoints. 

“The committee was concerned with the potential of the club’s membership to be comprised only of people with the same viewpoints,” the official statement specified.

“The OCI lists ‘encouraging and seeking viewpoint diversity’ and ‘encouraging reasonable, free, and civil discussion across differences of opinion’ as a part of its purpose on its constitution,” Singh said. “When asked about how they would ensure the viewpoint diversity and differences of opinion at their meetings and events, they did not seem to consider it as a priority and did not give a convincing answer.”

According to Rubinstein, the OCI has members who are Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

“The OCI is strictly non-partisan and committed to welcoming any interested community member,” added Zieve-Cohen. However, he also described himself and Rubinstein as sharing only mildly differing political beliefs.

Despite the initial concerns, the SOOC approved the group with reservations during winter term. The group’s student organization status is guaranteed for a year. At the end of this period it will undergo a review during which the status can be either revoked or renewed. 

Singh clarified the committee’s support of the group. 

“The SOOC fully supports OCI’s goals and mission and its decisions so far have only been based on logistical concerns about whether the leadership is well organized and whether they will fulfill the goals listed in their constitution,” Singh said.

The talk was also sponsored by Ross Commons and the Political Science department, in addition to the IHS, though the Political Science department did not provide any funds for the event. 

Chair of the political science department Bertram Johnson said that the department’s decision to sponsor the talk was an easy one, as the topic of the lecture, free speech, pertained to interests of the department and the department was not providing funding for the talk. 

Johnson also said that he views the department’s role as sponsor as a chance to support dialogue in general. 

“I see our role as not being the place where dialogue gets shut down,” Johnson said. 

Political science professor Keegan Callanan serves as the OCI’s faculty advisor. Callanan did not comment on the organization’s choice of funding or mission when contacted by The Campus.

The group does not currently have more events planned, but hopes to hold more lectures and discussions in the future.