UnKoching George Mason University: The Power of Organizing

by Bethany Letiecq

May 5, 2018

First published in Academe Blog

When I joined the George Mason University faculty in 2013, I had already had a taste of what could be achieved when faculty, students, community members, and organizations work together in common cause. Earlier in my career, I helped organize a faculty union at Montana State University and, in my community-based work in partnership with Mexican migrants, I co-founded the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, which successfully sued the state to block anti-immigrant reforms.

So when I arrived at Mason, I knew I wanted to continue to engage in scholar-activism, organizing, and building power—I just didn’t know where that would lead. Then in 2016 the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor gave $30 million to the GMU law school, seeking to change the name to the Antonin Scalia School of Law. Perhaps because of the public scrutiny surrounding this deal, the administration released the gift agreement and insisted that the gift came with no strings attached.

However, many faculty, students and concerned citizens had a different take. We saw the gift agreement as not only providing donors with too much influence, but also violating AAUP principles of academic freedom and academic control.

While the faculty senate of GMU worked on resolutions in opposition to the law school renaming and to the terms of the gift agreement, other faculty, concerned citizens, and I began organizing and petitioning in concert with a group of students known as Transparent GMU. This student organization had been working to expose the undue influence of private donors at Mason since 2012. And when the law school renaming gift became a fait accompli, this group stood in protest during a naming ceremony holding signs reading “Protect Public Ed, Not Private Interests.”

This background is important as we fast forward to the present, because the initial organizing and educating efforts begun in spring 2016 were critical to our recent campaign to expose undue private influence at Mason.

After the GMU law school scandal, I worked together with my AAUP colleagues to revitalize our AAUP chapter, which had grown somewhat dormant over the years. We formed a new executive team and began hosting meetings and organizing events on campus. I also started to educate myself in earnest about AAUP principles, gift acceptance policies at other institutions, and the like. I began reading books on the privatization and corporatization of public universities. Samantha Parsons, a cofounder of Transparent GMU as well as UnKoch My Campus, also began educating me about donor influence, and in particular, the specific ways in which the Kochs seek to manipulate universities and their faculty.

In 2016, I was elected to the GMU faculty senate. I nominated myself to serve on the newly formed Ad Hoc Institutional Conflict of Interest (ICOI) Committee, which was formed to study gift acceptance policies and other ICOI matters. As AAUP@Mason chapter president and faculty senator, I partnered with our faculty senate chair, Keith Renshaw, and together we agreed to visit with as many departments, colleges, and schools on campus as we could to talk to faculty about the senate and the AAUP. We wanted to remind faculty that there were structures on campus that we could use to organize us as a body and build our collective power. While many listened with a skepticism born out of years of top-down administrative overreach into faculty affairs, others joined our AAUP chapter and pledged to get involved.

In 2017, with support from the Virginia AAUP conference, I attended the AAUP Summer Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. And, as luck would have it, I got to share a dorm suite with Samantha Parsons of UnKoch My Campus. At the Institute, I met comrades from across the country who were likewise working hard to strengthen shared faculty governance and protect their institutions from undue donor influence. Perhaps most important, Sam and I got to know each other, and we bonded over shared values and a commitment to gift acceptance policy revision.

Early in fall 2017, as the ICOI Committee worked to understand the relationship between the GMU Foundation and the university and how gift acceptance policies worked, we learned that the student organization, Transparent GMU, had launched a lawsuit against the Foundation and GMU. After years of trying to access gift agreements from both entities and being stymied at every turn, the students determined they had to sue.

That October, I invited the cofounders of UnKoch My Campus to come to Mason to deliver a lecture on understanding donor influence. At this event, Transparent GMU student leaders also discussed their lawsuit premised on the notion that the GMU Foundation should be subject to public FOIA laws and should make all gift agreements public.

This was an inspiring time—networking and building opportunities to engage colleagues, students, and the broader community on issues of undue donor influence. In early April 2018, I had an opportunity to bring the UnKoch and Transparent GMU team back together as guest speakers. This time, they presented on a panel to members of the faculty senate of Virginia and the state AAUP conference, who had assembled at Mason for their joint spring meeting.  We also heard from AAUP member and GMU faculty senator Dave Kuebrich, who drew connections between Koch efforts to influence universities and climate-change denial. And the AAUP’s political organizer, Monica Owens, joined us to discuss the corporatization of public universities.

Looking back, each of these events was critical.

On April 24, 2018, the Transparent GMU lawsuit was litigated in court (with the judge’s ruling due in mid-May).

On April 25, the ICOI Committee placed motions on making gift agreements public and ensuring faculty involvement in gift acceptance procedures on the agenda for the May 2 faculty senate meeting.

Then, on April 27, President Cabrera sent an email to both faculty and students at around 8:00 p.m. In this email, he stated the existence of gift agreements in the possession of the university (and not the GMU Foundation) that did not meet his expectations of academic independence. It was a bombshell!

About an hour later, Samantha Parsons was among the first to receive the actual gift agreements that, we now understand, were responsive to her FOIA request made to the university in March 2018. Soon Sam and I were immersed in these gift agreement documents. We finally had the evidence we knew existed. We were at times celebratory because we felt vindicated after so many years of being made to feel like conspiracy theorists by the administration. But we also had to come to grips with the feelings of betrayal and confusion.

Cue the press. Cue the whirlwind of events that transpired over the past week culminating in a meeting with the president, two faculty senate meetings, and the passage of several motions calling on the university to make public all gift agreements, involve faculty in the governance of gift acceptance, halt new gifts that only partially cover the costs of donor-established tenure lines until we can understand the true costs of these arrangements, and begin the hard work of restoring trust—the public trust—and rebuilding our reputation as an institution of higher education that cannot be sold to the highest bidder.

This story is still unfolding. Stay tuned!

A few stories in the press:

GMU Fourth Estate (4 part series on Koch at GMU)




Guest blogger Bethany Letiecq is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science at George Mason University and President of the Mason Chapter of the AAUP (Advocacy Chapter).