We don’t need a Koch sponsored Green New Deal

By TARA SANTI and LUCY WEISS

SARAH FAGAN

Did you know that an on-campus organization accepts money from fossil fuel billionaires? The Alexander Hamilton Forum (AHF) supposedly offers students “an opportunity to think critically about the relevance of political and constitutional theory to a range of contemporary debates in American public life,” according to its site. The forum, however, receives funding from the Institute for Human Studies (IHS), an organization that has received over $35 million from the Koch family — who runs one of the largest oil and gas conglomerates in the country and is one of the largest forces guiding the right-wing agenda. Charles Koch currently sits on the IHS Board of Directors. 

On Feb. 20, the AHF will host a debate between two scholars arguing whether or not we need a Green New Deal. You may have seen the posters around campus — seems fine, right? Somebody arguing “Yes, we need one,” and somebody else arguing “No, we don’t.” Yet while this debate may seem innocuous at first, the AHF’s agenda in hosting this event is not harmless. When the AHF hosts “discussions” and “debates” like these, it undermines the validity of progressive ideals. The speakers don’t have to disprove every argument as long as they can plant doubts in our heads. By hosting the debate, the organizers of the forum choose which questions to ask, therefore reinforcing and normalizing discourses that question climate activism. 

A debate, even if it contains two differing opinions, is not a politically neutral event. Context matters! And in this context, an organization funded by Big Oil money is organizing a dialogue about a congressional resolution that would rapidly transition the country away from oil. This Big Oil money is Koch Industries, a company owned by the Koch family whose operations include but are not limited to oil and gas exploration, pipelines, oil refining and chemical and fertilizer production. Charles Koch, one of the wealthiest people in the world, jointly inherited Koch Industries with his now-deceased brother. Their father, Fred Koch, made his fortune building oil refineries for Hitler and Stalin.

The Koch brothers have been donating money to colleges and universities across the United States for decades. This funding often comes with strings attached, allowing Koch Industries to influence hiring and curriculum decisions. One notable example occurred at Florida State University in 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation offered their economics department millions of dollars under several conditions: the curriculum would align with Charles Koch’s deregulatory economic philosophy, the Foundation would partially control hiring of new faculty members, and Bruce Benson would remain chair of the economics department. Benson noted that “If we are not willing to hire such faculty, they are not willing to fund us.”

Taking the AHF’s funding into account, we want to question why the forum is hosting a debate on the Green New Deal. The AHF hosts various speakers and debates on campus, and is directed by Political Science Professor Keegan Callanan; on its steering committee are Political Science Professor Murray Dry, International Politics and Economics Professor Allison Stanger and Executive in Residence Jim Douglas ’72. While Callanan claims the program does not take direction from its conservative donors when inviting speakers, the forum is responsible for inviting Ryszard Legutko, a far-right Polish scholar and politician whose party is known for its homophobic and xenophobic orientations, and Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times who promoted American exceptionalism when he came to Middlebury in the fall. 

Given the AHF’s funding and the previous speakers it has brought to campus, we doubt the forum is inviting speakers in a good-hearted attempt to practice democracy and explore in earnest two sides of a debate. 

This concerns us. The Green New Deal is certainly not perfect, but it represents an attempt by members of Congress to foreground the struggles of indigenous, marginalized and working class people in a transition to clean energy, stable jobs and a more equitable world. It is unique in its unrepenting and progressive vision of what this country could be. The debate hosted by the AHF chips away at students’ struggle to enact transformations towards justice by dictating the terms of our discussions, and by silently and coercively controlling what kinds of climate action appear reasonable.

To affect students attending the debate, the AHF simply has to introduce enough doubt about the Green New Deal that it no longer seems to be a viable option. To Koch Industries, apathy or confusion is just as good as outright opposition; it means fewer people will support any change to the status quo.

We want to be clear that we are not arguing against open dialogue and debate. Dialogue, especially on college campuses, is vital to shaping informed opinions. But we do not support debates on environmental issues when these debates are indirectly sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. The AHF cannot possibly provide a fair and two-sided representation of political opinions in this context. Koch money has no place in our college.

Because we refuse to let a group funded by fossil fuel tycoons dictate the narrative of campus events, a group of students will host an open, alternate event at the same time to discuss resistance on Middlebury’s campus: “What Does it Mean to be a Student at Middlebury in the Age of Climate Catastrophe?: A Koch-Free Conversation.” Occurring on Thursday, Feb. 20, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Axinn 219, this event is for anyone who thinks there is something wrong with allowing Koch-funded groups to host events on Middlebury’s campus and who wants to do something about it.

Luckily, students have been resisting for years. We want to have our own dialogue, one where our voices and your voices are heard and considered. Students will provide an introduction to activism at Middlebury and connect various campaigns across campus against injustice. That means when you show up, you have a hand in forming both the discussion and the future of resistance at Middlebury. 

Rather than once again debate the validity of the Green New Deal, we’re asking: What bothers you? What angers you? What scares you? Where do you see injustice? Unlike those organizing the AHF debate, we want to know who you are and hear your responses.

Let’s have a conversation, Koch-free.

Tara Santi is a member of the class of 2020 and Lucy Weiss is a member of the class of 2020.5.