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Revealed: The Charles Koch Foundation’s Staggering Donations to UK’s Top Universities

New research by Byline Times reveals that billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch – behind hundreds of millions in annual donations promoting climate science disinformation and right-wing causes in the US – has been contributing to academic research in UK institutions

Charles Koch. Photo: TNS/SIPA USA/PA

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Charles Koch, libertarian chair and co-owner of the largest private energy company in America, has spent decades influencing US politics – pushing the agenda rightwards on issues spanning voter reform, environmental protection, climate action, regulation, taxation, foreign policy and public education.

Along with his late brother David, Charles and Koch Industries have funded anti-union legislation, backed efforts to block bills expanding voting rights and curbing money in politics, and secretly funded groups attacking climate science and policy. 

The Charles Koch Foundation acts as a primary vessel for philanthropic efforts and has contributed hundreds of millions annually to more than 300 universities across the US, where academia represents a key pillar in the Koch hierarchy of lobbying. Koch himself has argued for a “focus on ‘attracting youth” because “this is the only group that is open to a radically different social philosophy”.

New research reveals that the Koch Foundation has donated more than $1.1 million to five leading universities across the UK, registered as grants covering general operating support, research, and travel expenses.

Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, King’s College London and Surrey have all received funding dating as far back as 2014, following an examination of US tax documents by Byline Times. There is no accusation of wrongdoing on behalf of any of the institutions or organisations involved. 

Oxford University – which accounts for nearly 75% of the total – confirmed to this newspaper “that the university holds records of funding from the Charles Koch Foundation dating from 2016”.

The Foundation has donated $832,400 to ‘Americans for Oxford Inc’, the university’s “primary charitable organisation in the US”, and an independent tax-exempt entity, as well as a further $16,000 to Oxford directly. All but one £5,000 donation is listed as for “general operating support” split between the university, Americans for Oxford Inc, and a donation to Pembroke College. 

Oxford University told Byline Times that “since 2016, the university has received £500,000-£750,000 from the Foundation, to support research in the Blavatnik school of government, the department of international relations, and the department of sociology”.

The University of Birmingham has received $115,000 in three payments listed on tax returns between 2019 and 2021. The Foundation granted $32,500 for a project titled ‘What Makes America Great? National Esteem, Grand Strategy and Intra-State Ideological Contest’. It is described as a “study of the contest of ideas between American intellectuals focused on US grand strategy, focused on the ‘clash of worldviews between American intellectuals who embrace ‘liberal order’ as the central concept of US strategy, and critics who offer a ‘realist’ counterpoint’”.

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The stated aim is to “generate a new framework for analysing the topic that synthesises elements of theoretical literature on international relations, grand strategy, ideology, nationalism, status and self-esteem”, including “some empirical field research, in the form of interviews with relevant intellectuals working at think tanks and universities in the United States”.

Birmingham also lists a project titled ‘Churchill the Appeaser: The Better Part of Valour’ as having received funding. It ran between 2021-2022 and was allocated $42,000. Further information was withheld so as not to “prejudice the university’s commercial interests”. The latest Koch Foundation tax filing shows a grant of $50,000 to Birmingham for general operating support, with no further description of the work involved. 

The University of Birmingham told Byline Times that it is “strongly committed to maintaining academic freedom for all its researchers” and “we respect the intellectual independence of our academics and support their freedom to undertake research activities and express their views without interference”. 

“All research at the university must comply with our rigorous code of practice for research to maintain the highest standards of responsible ethical conduct, as well as scholarly and scientific integrity,” a spokesperson added. “All research proposals go through multiple levels of scrutiny within the university to ensure this happens, both during project development and implementation, including full due diligence on ethical and reputational issues.”

King’s College London was awarded $106,200. It lists a research grant for a project titled ‘Two Eyes of the Earth: Spheres of Interest in Late Antiquity and its Lessons for Contemporary Geopolitics’ that cost $5,000 and was run by two academics from the university’s department of defence studies. The department itself is based at the UK Defence Academy, responsible for educating forces personnel, giving it a “unique position as an academic department” that is able to “benefit from and influence defence thinking and policy-making not just in the UK, but across the world”.

King’s College said it had “been unable to locate any other record of funding without further clarification” and that it “cannot speak to another party’s records”. 

The University of Surrey received two payments totalling nearly $42,000 between 2019-2020. As confirmed by a spokesperson, the allocated projects included exploring the use and potential racial bias and implications for algorithmic risk assessment in the US criminal justice system, and ‘post-hegemonic US foreign policy’.

“The University of Surrey was grateful to receive funding from the Charles Koch Foundation,” a spokesperson told Byline Times.

The work looking at criminal justice reform spanned two papers titled ‘Evaluating Algorithmic Risk and Race’ and ‘Evaluating Algorithmic Risk Assessment’, which explore race-based and accuracy performance in the US public safety assessment risk assessment tool for pre-trial decision-making.

Under the Obama administration, the Koch Brothers and presidency frequently took aim at one another, with the Koch Network distributing vast sums of money to counter Democrat initiatives such as health reform and a cap and trade on carbon emissions. Obama criticised the Kochs for benefitting from oil subsidies while opposing green energy. Despite this, the Kochs engaged in bi-partisan efforts for sentencing reform to reduce the population of America’s overcrowded prisons. 

The second research grant, examining post-hegemonic US foreign policy, was secured by Dr Nicholas Kitchen, a senior lecturer in international relations at Surrey University, and director of the institutions’ centre for the study of global power competition. In 2021, Dr Kitchen also addressed the US Foreign Policy Working Group’s annual conference held by the British International Studies Association (BISA), which promotes the study of “international relations and related subjects”.

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The event featured a plenary roundtable, sponsored by the Koch Foundation, on ‘The Past, Present and Future of American Grand Strategy’, which featured Dr Kitchen as a speaker, along with representatives from Oxford, Duke, and Tufts universities, as well as the US Naval War College – all of which have independently received Koch Foundation funding. BISA was approached for comment.

Dr Kitchen told Byline Times that “academic researchers work with a wide-range of research funders, primarily government and government-funded research councils, as well as private and charitable foundations. All are seeking to influence the research priorities of academia. What these institutions cannot, and do not, do is influence the outcomes of research”.

“Over the last 20-30 years, inside and outside of the United States, there has been an ongoing discussion about what kind of role the US should play in the world,” he added. “More recently, major interventions in that debate have been supported by an alliance of the American left and right.”

Many grants seem to align with another interest where Charles Koch has found bi-partisan support: influencing US foreign policy to reduce or influence America’s world impact by “investing in the infrastructure of ideas: scholars, academic centres, Washington think tanks”, in keeping with the Koch’s ‘shrink the state’ ideology. While a push that receives less money than others, foreign policy and geopolitics dominate the agenda in the UK.

Manchester University said it could not provide the information Byline Times was seeking as “we have checked centralised university systems and we cannot find
any information about this payment”.

“The university is, however, a large, complex organisation with over 12,000 staff and myriad information systems,” a spokesperson added. “Whilst we have been unable to locate the payment you reference in our central systems, we cannot state definitely that it was or was not made at this stage.”

In the US, Charles Koch has poured hundreds of millions into higher education institutions in grants and scholarships. Greenpeace has estimated that, between 2005 and 2017, the Foundation contributed more than $256.8 million dollars to universities, with recent donations climbing to more than $100 million per year. The foundation donated $82 million to 140 universities and colleges in 2021, which in Charles Koch’s own words is used to mainstream right-wing worldviews on campus.

In a 1974 speech at the Institute for Humane Studies think tank, Koch stated that “the educational route is both the most vital and the most neglected… We should [support] only those programmes, departments or schools that contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system”.

Universities represent the baseline in the Koch Network 3-step “structure of social change” – a plan for financing and promoting low-tax, low-regulation, small-state ideology drafted by Koch executive Richard Fink. 

It involves first funding universities through courses, scholarships, lecture series, professorships, and the creation of in-house academic centres like the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason, or Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah.

Professors and researchers then create literature which can be picked up by think tanks – like the Cato Institute – and turned into policy proposals.

These ideas are then fed to the public through ‘grassroots’ campaign vehicles like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which put pressure on legislative bodies aided by Koch-backed policy-makers and candidates.

Koch’s influence has been accused by students of turning schools into “libertarian mouthpieces”, with mechanisms like the Koch Scholars programme (linked to Koch Industries, as opposed to the family foundation) criticised for promoting sympathetic reading lists, and vetted and funded “Koch professors” on university campuses producing work useful to Charles Koch’s enterprise, like attacking renewable energy. 

In their book Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War, Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola describe the Kochs’ relentless push into higher education as the development of an “academic ecosystem in which donor-preferred ideas can thrive. This ecosystem includes its own journals, conferences, professional organisations, and academic centres”.

So influential is university funding from the network that the Kochs have in the past been able to influence the curriculum, and the hiring and firing of faculty staff (though the Foundation has expressed that this language related to outdated grant agreements). 

In the UK, a previous investigation revealed that Koch funding had reached an entity called ‘Young Voices UK’, a public relations and talent scouting non-profit which “places a diverse roster of classical liberal writers under 35 in top media outlets”. Its parent organisation in the US was listed as a “Media and Journalism Fellowship Partner” of the Charles Koch Institute in 2019 and 2020, and Young Voices US executive director Casey Given was previously a policy analyst for Americans for Prosperity. 

The Charles Koch Foundation was also revealed to have donated $300,000 to the US funding arm of reactionary UK publication Spiked Online to produce “public debates in the US about free speech, as part of its charitable activities”. The Managing Editor told the Guardian that the Foundation supports projects “on both the left and the right”. The funding was for the ‘Spiked UnSafe Space’ campus tour, boasting an “all-star free-speech line-up” of “un-PC provocateurs”.

A representative for the Charles Koch Foundation told Byline Times: “Scholars play an essential role in researching the challenges our world faces. We partner with a broad swath of academics, non-profit organisations, and universities that prioritise conducting world-class research, educating students, and protecting the free exchange of ideas. We believe academic freedom is paramount to discovery and we support our partners in pursuing their work, regardless of the outcome.”

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