A Former UofL Lobbyist’s Perspective.
A few months ago, someone anonymously sent me preliminary news reports about the University of Louisville’s engagement with politically conservative donors over the establishment of a new University Center. A fair amount has been written since about the UofL’s willingness, if not eagerness, to accept a grant from the John H. Schnatter Family to fund a new John. H. Schnatter Center for Free Enterprise within, but effectively independent of the School of Business. Insider Louisville and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting have followed the matter closely. The grant itself is contingent on the University’s also accepting a grant from and sharing controlling interest with the Charles Koch Foundation. Most community concern stems from attached strings that restrict the academic viewpoints that can be addressed by the funding, and which give inordinate and inappropriate academic control to outside political and business interests. Read the Grant Contract yourself (6MB). As I lifetime member of the Academy, it made me shudder— and I am not alone. Alas, I do not think the University felt it was in a position to say no. Even as a non-University person, would you have agreed to all the provisions in this contract? If so, tell us why in your own name in the comments section. What parts of the contract do you believe are inappropriate? I don’t have enough room to do so here.
At a recent meeting of the UofL Faculty Senate, something more than concern was expressed. Any new Program, Institute, or Department requires approval through its committee structure by the faculty as a whole. Individuals from those committees expressed more than annoyance that President Ramsey, signing for both the University of Louisville and the University of Louisville Foundation, signed this contract without faculty approval for the new unit— indeed even before the faculty had a chance to see the agreement! It took a Freedom of Information Act request even to make the contract public. The contract itself states an intention to make the terms of the agreement secret! Mystery Attachment C, possibly summarizing the Schnatter part of the agreement, was not provided at all! When thus gently scolded by her faculty, Provost Shirley Willihnganz wondered aloud whether the University should have waited longer to make an announcement in order to avoid the judgment of the media. In my opinion, her statement that, “we all value the input of this body,” rang hollow in the Chao Auditorium that day. Grant funding will begin by April 15, 2015, hardly enough time to obtain faculty review, let alone approval! In addressing the concerns of the faculty, the Provost offered a circular-type argument (that I could not follow) concluding that the faculty could not address the matter until after the University had actually accepted the contract. One faculty rejoinder was that individuals on the faculty committees of jurisdiction and within the School of Business would face unreasonable pressure to approve this fait de compli. In my opinion, reasonable concerns about retaliation for opposing the President and Foundation were an unstated faculty concern.
Other realistic criticisms of the contract have been put forward by faculty and by the public. When the seven-year term of funding disappears, the University will be left holding the bag of salary and support for new tenured faculty whose academic mission would likely remain in support of a far-right political agenda. Since funding can be withdrawn at any time at the discretion of either of the grantors should Center activities not meet the criteria of the funders, a financial Sword of Damocles will hang perpetually over the University. The name of the Center however would contractually remain as a legacy! The agreement gives what seems to me to be an unprecedented free hand within the University structure to its contractually designated Director, Professor Stephen Gohmann, who is said by the Provost to have requested the current initiative, who is personally the major beneficiary in terms of control of the Center’s staffing and agenda, and who has worked with other Koch-supported organizations of the Ann Rand/Atlas Shrugged and Cato Institute far-right persuasion. Professor Gohmann will now be surrounded by a cadre of like-minded individuals in his department. This is network-building in progress— a smart idea, but one with specific and restricted academic and political goals. In the think-tank world, the ability to define the vocabulary and terms of the debate wins the game.
Academic freedom indeed!
Although the intention of grant is said to be “Promoting Academic Freedom,” even a superficial reading belies that promise. I am reminded of the legislative tactic of assigning a name to a piece of legislation that correlates poorly with its intent. In my opinion, this contract does not promote academic freedom, but instead restricts it. In the academic world, we still believe that corporations are not people, and that the validity of ideas is not proportional to the amount of money used to promote them.
Saying no gets harder to do.
Enough about the Schnatter/Koch contract here. Others will say more and better. What I want to explore here is my opinion of why the University of Louisville’s administration is in a positon where it cannot say no, even if it acknowledged the concerns expressed above,. This is not exclusively a concern of the Belknap campus, but includes the School of Medicine and Academic Medical Center. In its increasing emphasis on commercial research, and on financial earmarks from the federal government to advance its agendas, UofL essentially aligned itself functionally with the Republican Party. It effectively has given away much control of its own destiny. In so doing it also damaged its relationship with at least some elements of Kentucky’s state government, its faculty, and its public. Allow me to explain the reasons behind this assertion which I watched unfold. As usual, I welcome any alternative analysis.
It started benignly enough.
In the late 1980s and 1990’s when UofL announced that it wanted to more fully serve its business community, it meant more than just producing the students with the education that a new economy required. It wanted to be a part of the commercial world around it. It hoped to emulate the economic development activities of a Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
The agenda of UofL and Louisville’s Chamber of Commerce merged. The problem was that our research programs at that time were relatively moribund. Our ranking for competitive research grants from the NIH was among the lowest in the nation among Universities or Medical Schools. One way to try to jumpstart the process was, with the full support of Louisville’s business community, to convince the Kentucky legislature to plow several hundred million dollars into building research facilities and supporting research faculty at a time when the University’s educational activities needed that support even more. Thus we are surrounded today by new research and sporting facilities while tuition soars, the majority of our undergraduate courses are taught by part-time faculty, programs are on probation, and our liberal arts academic environment is so weak that our application for a chapter Phi Beta Kappa has been rejected at least the last three times running. The irony is that our ranking for NIH grants has hardly budged over the last 15 years. Has the commercial research agenda worked? Now is certainly an appropriate time for assessment and reevaluation. I suspect University and community leaders believe we are in too far to turn around now. That is a typical gamblers dilemma.
The earmark route.
A second initiative to expand University funding was through federal earmarks. These are largely non-competitive federal grants and contracts that depend on the willingness of a legislator with enough clout to attach very specific spending instructions to appropriation and other bills. Legislators like earmarks because they make constituents happy, advance their own agendas, and for other reasons as suggested below. This initiative began about the same time I began working as one of UofL’s lobbyists. This was also the time when Louisville’s federal representation switched entirely to the Republican Party including members who had good representation or influence on the committees that distribute money. The University and our legislators began to work very closely. UofL fired its Democratic lobbyist in Washington and retained the Republican lobbyist recommended by our legislators, who I liked and enjoyed working with, but who was clearly also a political operative for the Republican Party. We met regularly with legislative staff to collect and prioritize earmarks. The earmarks and other favors began to flow in from a variety of federal agencies.
University research and administrative leaders would meet regularly with the legislative aids of our legislators to sort through and prioritize proposals. It is fair to say that many, or even most of the projects I was familiar with would not have been competitive in the open academic or even commercial market. Some were assembled quickly so that we could put something on the table. Full disclosure— I was a part in this process and helped to encourage academic departments to participate. The initiative was quite successful, but not all the earmarks were equally deserving of pride. One federal administrator told me to my face that we were not qualified to conduct our earmark in his budget. It is my understanding that the criminal scandal in our school School of Education revolved around such an earmark. When awards and grants are made outside of the traditional competitive process, controls and oversight are less rigorous. After 2003 I was not a part of the earmark process. It would be interesting to review all the earmarks or targeted requests since to judge their impact on the University and community.
Once the earmark train got moving…
One of my jobs was to comb through each year’s federal spending bills to look for items designated for Louisville. We did well, but we lost control of the process. We became “partners” in earmarks awarded to entities not necessarily chosen by us. Having a single earmark benefiting more than one constituent is a good deal for legislators. That is the way we expect them to do their jobs. Admittedly, expanding partnerships could be a good thing for the University also if we were doing the choosing. Not all of these partnerships ended well. Then we began to get earmarks that we did not even ask for that advanced the interest of others! We began to lose control of our academic destiny. This was the price for becoming a political player. We were grateful to our legislators. We were in for a dime and we stayed in the game for a dollar.
Examples of out-of-the-blue-earmarks.
Around 2000, I stumbled on a $50 million or so earmark to UofL to expand the Ekstrom Library on the Belknap Campus. I knew nothing about it nor did anyone else in the government affairs office. When I called the University’s head librarian, she knew nothing about it. I could not find anyone on the Board of Trustees who would admit to knowing anything about our biggest earmark to date. I am not sure it even made the papers. It is possible that the then-President of UofL might have known, but I was never able to ask. The addition has added wonderful capabilities to the library, but the library now also houses what is in effect, a museum extolling the career of Senator Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party. While Senator Bunning was still in office he had his own diorama outside the Chao Auditorium. The Library will now also house the McConnell Chao Archives. It has been impossible for me not to conclude that that these were the initial purposes of the earmark in the first place. It is possible, even likely that the Archive will be a positive thing for UofL, but did we have anything to say about it? Who can clarify the legislative history of this earmark for us?
It is relevant in considering the present Schnatter/Koch contract that the library expansion was not Senator McConnell’s first eponymic initiative at the University. The McConnell Center for political studies was being established as I was transitioning to my government and community relations role. It too is now housed in Ekstrom Library. I have been at some distance from that program since and am well aware that speakers and participants with a variety of political leanings have participated in its widely recognized activities. Perhaps the Center is truly the non-denominational program it should be, but when its first director was pulled from his prior position as advisor to a group of conservative college newspapers, I confess I had my doubts about its intended purpose at UofL. Others might choose to comment below about how things have turned out.
The revolving door makes deliveries to Louisville.
I want to tell one more story about the consequences of asking for special assistance from the government. It explicitly shows the barbs on hooks baited with earmarks and political favors. In one of my searches of federal spending bills, I was surprised to find a multi-year, multi-million dollar earmark related to research on heart failure to be shared by three institutions across the country: a major East-coast research University that considered earmarks to be beneath them, a community hospital in the West, and UofL. The UofL “earmark committee” knew nothing about it, nor did our research administration, nor anyone else for that matter. I called the government affairs representatives at the other two institutions, one of whom I knew pretty well, and they were as surprised as I was. To deepen the mystery, when I asked my legislative-assistant friends in the offices of Senator McConnell and Representative Northup, they knew nothing either. I believed them. In the face of this true mystery, the old academic researcher in me was concerned that the reputation of the University might be compromised by its participation in an unknown research endeavor. I broadened my inquiries within the local medical center at which time a ton of bricks fell on me.
During my 18 months in Washington, I worked in a Republican Senate committee office. One of my contacts in Washington who had access to Appropriation Committee’s files looked into the matter at my request. I was told only that the earmark was “not placed by a sitting member of Congress,” and that I should “be careful.” To make a long but interesting story short, the earmark was initiated by a former Republican legislative leader who was now working in a major Washington lobbying firm which had been hired by a non-Louisville Kentucky company that wanted federal money to finance development of its private project. There was said to be a note from the Republican Chair of one of the Appropriation Committees assuring his former colleague that there would be no problem. About that same time, I received an unexpected visit in my Louisville office from the recent senior staff member of yet another very prominent Republican Senate leader who I knew, and who was currently employed by the lobbying firm behind the initiative. I was told in so many words that concerns were being raised about my inquiries, and was advised/threatened that if I persisted, other funding initiatives to the University of Louisville would be at risk. I had seen political hardball in action before when I was staffing Senate committees, but this was the first time I was personally its target. My unmistaken belief was that I was being threatened by a private lobbyist with withdrawal of future federal funding to advance the interests of their client.
Believable? A misunderstanding?
I wrote a detailed memo to UofL’s administration about what I found and what had transpired. The University accepted the money as directed and I believe did the developmental work for the private company. It obviously felt it could not say no. I am unaware that any product or publication came out of that particular initiative. What I gained was a demonstration of the full extent and power attached to the revolving-door careers of legislator to industry lobbyist and back, and of the disruption to the social contract imposed by the earmark system. My institution had become, perhaps involuntarily, a player in that process. Is this story hard to believe? There was a time when I would not have believed it either. I doubt there is a sitting or former legislator willing to claim that such an event could never have occurred. I retained my notes and documents on the matter. I am certainly willing to consider any corrections to the narritive.
Enough for now.
I could go on about expectations in return for political favors, but this is enough. I recognize that funding for state educational institutions is being withdrawn across the country, and that a search for money is part of the necessary job of running an educational institution. I would feel better about it if I thought the money was actually being used to educate students, but that is another matter. The fact is that colleges and universities accept gift agreements with strings attached all the time. Strings, however, can strangle as well as bind.
Certainly as I interacted with state Democratic legislators, they complained to me that UofL had aligned itself inappropriately with the Republican Party. The fact that a UofL Vice President appeared in a re-election campaign advertisement for Senator McConnell in full white-coat uniform as though he was representing the University was suggested to me as an example. Would this have been permitted if the Senator had not lent his reputation, or brought so many earmarks and other resources to our state university? It is difficult for me to tell how badly the University’s relationship with the rest of our state suffered as a result of this perception but there was some damage. When I once approached a leader of Kentucky’s House of Representatives to present the University’s position on an issue, I was angrily turned away with— “Ask Senator McConnell for help.” Others would tell me literally or in effect, “I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m not going to help you either.” I am perfectly ready to admit that if the parties were switched, the complaints would likely be the same, but this is the reason that UofL and all other state schools must go out of their way to be non-partisan. In my opinion, the University of Louisville had not done a good job in that regard, and accepting the Schnatter/Koch contract makes matters much worse.
Better, worse, or the same?
I have not been an insider at UofL for over 10 years now. Some things may have changed. We once again have a Democratic Representative in Washington. Earmarks have technically been officially discouraged in Washington, but UofL still speaks of “targeted requests,” and federal agencies still assume that every call from a legislative office expects some degree of compliance. The revolving door of legislator to private-actor continues as always. When a University actively engages these intensely political processes, in my opinion it surrenders an unfortunate degree of its academic independence. Universities become a vehicle to advance the political or commercial interests of others. The discussion above illustrates why, in my opinion, the University of Louisville’s administration has so readily accepted the Schnatter/Koch “gift” without looking too carefully in its mouth, and regardless what its faculty or public may think is proper.
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
23 March 2015