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A Real Threat to Campus Free Speech

When Avital Norman Nathman became media coordinator at UnKoch My Campus in 2019, she knew that businessmen Charles and David [1940-2019] Koch were right-wing libertarian donors who promoted environmentally destructive policies. She did not know, however, that between 2005 and 2017 they’d also given $256 million to public and private universities—colleges that included Duke, Florida State, George Mason, New York University, Rice, and the University of Arizona. Their goal, she says? To control what students study and learn.

Nathman describes the discovery as jarring, and says that as she spoke to her new colleagues, read UnKoch’s many investigative reports, and spoke with students and faculty from across the country, she realized that the Koch Foundation, along with its allies, including the Bradley Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and a hard-to-track network of well-heeled contributors to the Koch-controlled Donor’s Trust, were exerting tremendous influence over curriculum and hiring at hundreds of cash-strapped colleges and universities. As UnKoch My Campus sees it, this fits into a broader conservative agenda meant to bolster corporate influence and roll back the social progress of the last half century.

Nathman spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader about UnKoch’s work in late April.

Eleanor J. Bader: Before joining the staff of UnKoch My Campus, you were working as a freelance journalist and had published a book called The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality [Seal Press, 2014]. What made you want to stop freelancing and work for UnKoch?

Avital Norman Nathman: Freelance life can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. I still freelance a bit, writing about the cannabis industry for a local New England magazine called A Different Leaf. Writing articles like these is a lot of fun, but helping to craft op-eds and tell stories, narratives, about the way that Koch money influences social policies has become a passion for me.

I love the fact that UnKoch’s work has a direct impact and is intersectional, addressing race, class, and gender. I care deeply about policies that impact maternal health and Black and Brown bodies, as well as about education, so this is a way to bring these concerns together. I get buoyed by the organizing people are doing, by students who are rising up to fight for transparency, to end undue donor influence on campus, and to promote environmental policies that will protect the earth.

We just studied the Koch Foundation’s 2019 tax forms—that’s the most recent year that is available for scrutiny—and found that in that one year alone, they distributed $112 million in donations to different educational programs. The year before, they’d donated $87 million so they’re clearly ramping up. The amount of money they’ve donated is pretty staggering but these “gifts” almost always comes with strings attached regarding hiring and curriculum.

EJB: And yet, colleges and universities are willing, and maybe even eager, to take their money.

ANN: Schools are scrambling and as things currently stand, if they want to pay staff decently and give students the education they deserve, they have to rely on outside funding. This is why we need adequate public financing of all educational programs. Some colleges are facing dwindling endowments, but many colleges simply don’t care where money comes from. I was surprised that some schools that trade on their progressive appeal, like NYU, take Koch money.

EJB: It sounds like you didn’t expect to see such a blatant lack of ethics and integrity.

ANN: I am a first-generation American on both sides and am very much a child of immigrants. My maternal grandfather came to the US as a concentration camp survivor and started a business even though he barely spoke English. The same was true for my father, an immigrant from Israel. The message I got was that you work hard, you don’t complain, and you do whatever you have to do to make ends meet. At the same time, I was raised to understand that you don’t take injustice lying down. For me, that’s Judaism. The concept of taking care of the
earth and taking care of each other was instilled in me really early.

I also knew my mom’s family story, that her dad, my my grandfather, had been in a number of concentration camps and was liberated from Dachau. My mom’s mother, my grandmother, had spent two years hiding in a bunker in the woods with her siblings and parents. My grandparents met in a Displaced Persons camp after the war, then moved to Germany where they had my mother, and eventually emigrated to the United States. This wartime experience was always in the background as I was growing up.

I still have in my mind someday doing a project, writing something, about this.

EJB: Let’s go back to your work with UnKoch My Campus. The organization has a reputation for trying to mirror its values in its workplace structure.

ANN: UnKoch My Campus has a unique work culture. It’s truly transparent. We have an executive director, Jasmine Banks, but decisions are not made unilaterally. All of us on staff—four full-timers and some part-time contractors—have a say in everything, whether it’s hiring or organizing strategy. We’re also incredibly supportive of each other as individuals. For example, I’ve been really forthcoming about my issues with severe anxiety. I don’t hesitate to
say, ‘I have to leave early today,’ or ‘I need to take a day off.’ I feel very supported. We face our struggles openly and we confront them. Conflicts and concerns get dealt with which has helped the organization grow, develop, and flourish.

EJB: Tell me about some of your ongoing or new organizing campaigns.

ANN: Sure. Right before the pandemic closed campuses, we helped students at George Washington University in Washington, DC, win a commitment from the administration to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. It was a huge victory. Students there are now focusing on getting the school to address the campus’ Regulatory Studies Center. The Center is funded by the Koch Foundation and ExxonMobil. It produces comments about environmental regulations and brings guest lecturers in to talk about deregulation and the need to protect corporate interests. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Trump administration was receptive to the Center’s recommendations. The campaign to close the Center is ongoing.

We’re also working with a multigenerational group of people to oppose the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, usually just called the Freedom Center, at the University of Arizona. The Center has been angling to get an anti-environmental, pro-corporate curriculum– and teachers–into the University as well as into public elementary schools and has been met by fierce resistance from the entire community: Students, parents, teachers, and local activists, including Raging Grannies and Raging Grandpas in their 70s, are fighting back. It is really exciting. 

At a Midwestern college, I don’t want to name the school due to the sensitive nature of the campaign, but students and faculty are working to oppose the hiring of a Koch-backed philosopher with no teaching experience whatsoever.  We’re trying to help faculty find the courage to oppose this person—and hope that this will give others the courage to speak out when or if this happens on their campus.