[NOTE: A version of this story was published in The Providence Journal.]
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Visit the website of the Political Theory Project, a think tank at Brown University, and you’ll see a homepage that appears not so out of place for a group based at an Ivy League school with a long-established liberal-progressive reputation.
Featured prominently is a photo of radical political theorist Noam Chomsky, a reference to the Enlightenment and “the rise of democratic ideas and institutions,” and an excerpt from a letter to Karl Marx by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
But critics of the think tank and its director, Prof. John Tomasi, say look closer: What you’re really seeing is a clever veneer meant to project a commitment to free speech and unfettered academic inquiry while distracting outsiders from the group’s true aim — to advance extreme free-market ideology on the Providence campus.
Their alleged smoking gun? For starters, the more than $653,000 in donations the project received in 2016 from the Charles Koch Foundation, according to an Internal Revenue Service 990 form filed by the charitable organization named for the billionaire CEO of Koch Industries, a conglomerate operating in the chemical, pipeline, agriculture and energy sectors.
“The Koch network is essentially buying the legitimacy of Brown University for their own private gain and recruiting the next generation of free-market activists,” Ralph Wilson, co-founder of the advocacy group UnKoch My Campus, said in a phone interview. “It’s upsettingly cut and dry if you look at the primary sources.”
Between 2008 and 2016, Brown and the Political Theory Project collectively received more than $1.5 million in donations from the Charles Koch Foundation, according to tax disclosures made public by the foundation and the investigative reporting project ProPublica. The Brown think tank was founded in 2003.
According to a Brown financial report, the Political Theory Project was awarded $1.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation during the school’s 2016 fiscal year to be paid out over a multi-year period.
The Bridge Project, a progressive group that maintains a database of IRS filings from conservative foundations, reports that Brown has received millions of dollars in contributions from other right-leaning donors, including the Kovner Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and the Atlas Network.
“Their strategy is to establish a beachhead at elite universities, which is what they are doing at Brown,” J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies at the school, said in a recent email. “They fund research to support their extreme positions, and to capture the hearts and minds of young people who might become leaders.”
He continued, “They use these beachheads to propound the dismantling of basic protections against corporate abuse, and the biggest problem is that they are pushing their private interests, not the public interest.”
Tomasi, the founder and director of the Political Theory Project, says his aim is simply to promote a diversity of perspectives.
“I think we owe every generation of students at Brown a chance to think for themselves,” he said in a phone interview, “and I’m sincerely committed to that. I know not everyone agrees with that.”
He pointed to Chomsky’s appearance at an event sponsored by the Political Theory Project and other “controversial” speakers his group has hosted. The think tank, Tomasi said, does not hide its donors and publicly thanks the Charles Koch Foundation, the free-market Thomas W. Smith Foundation and other contributors on the “Support the PTP” page of its website.
“Any decisions we make are our decisions,” Tomasi said. “If some donor watches what we do with our program and decides that they don’t want to support us anymore, they can walk away.”
Brown junior Anuj Krishnamurthy brought attention to the issue last October when he published an opinion piece in the Brown Daily Herald titled “The Kochs are here,” calling out his school for accepting sizable contributions from right-leaning donors.
“Brown continues to rely on donations from individuals with a vested interest in sustaining the systemic failings that make deprivation and inequality possible,” Krishnamurthy wrote. “We should all be afraid.”
On ratemyprofessors.com, a website where students post anonymous reviews of instructors, Tomasi is described as “witty, engaging, and brilliant” and a “stunning lecturer.”
One reviewer wrote that “seeing his mind work is just fascinating.”
Wilson, of UnKoch My Campus, said he’s not surprised by student reactions to Tomasi, because “charismatic instructors” are part of the Koch network’s “rebranding of free-market economics.”
Tomasi is a past recipient of the Charles G. Koch Outstanding Alum Award given out by the Koch-backed Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
The institute’s website recognizes Tomasi for “distinguishing himself as a force for change at Brown University” and says he benefited from “more than a dozen IHS fellowships, grants, and career-development programs as he completed an MA at the University of Arizona and DPhil at Oxford University in the U.K.”
The site describes Tomasi as a “popular professor who was also an active participant in campus debate about the Brown educational experience.”
Brown named Charles Koch’s foundation in its 2012-13 “Honor Roll” of donors. A university listserv once directed community members to the “2008-2009 Koch Associate Program,” which the school called “a unique Washington, D.C. career opportunity … designed to develop promising leaders and entrepreneurs interested in liberty and a career in the non-profit arena.”
Among the courses listed on the Political Theory Project’s website are “Prosperity: The Ethics and Economics of Wealth Creation,” “Capitalism: For and Against” and “Global Justice.”
“Traditionally, theories of global justice treat ‘free market capitalism’ as a problem that the theory of global justice is meant to redress,” a description of “Global Justice” reads. “This course considers a different possibility: from the perspective of the world’s most poor, a system of free markets may constitute a form of global justice.”
According to a Brown course website, Tomasi is currently teaching a class titled “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.”
The Political Theory Project’s associate director, associate professor and assistant research professor all received PhDs from George Mason University, which the environmental group Greenpeace ranks as the top university recipient of Koch-connected funding between 2005 and 2015.
Greenpeace identified Brown as the top Charles Koch Foundation beneficiary among Ivy League schools, and second out of colleges and universities in New England, behind Suffolk University in Boston.
Providence College, at roughly $44,000 in donations in the decade ending in 2015, is the only other Rhode Island school to receive Koch funding.
UnKoch My Campus was founded in 2014 to counter what organizers say are insidious attempts to undermine liberal American institutions and facilitate the ascendance of a “corporate state.”
In addition to its initiatives on college campuses, the Charles Koch Foundation has launched a “media and journalism fellowship” for professionals with “a commitment to limited government and individual liberties.”
The foundation offers K-12 scholarships, funds efforts to promote “toleration and free speech,” and “supports scholars who are examining the barriers to innovation in myriad areas, from transportation and health care to online communication.”
“We’re providing the funds so that they can pursue their interests,” said John Hardin, the Charles Koch Foundation’s director of university relations. “I think it’s disturbing that folks are trying to shut down or destroy opportunities for students.”
Tomasi countered UnKoch’s criticisms with his own questions about the organization’s funding.
″[S]o far as I can see, UnKoch themselves do not specifically list a single donor by name on their website,” he said in an email.
Wilson directed a reporter to the “Partners” page of UnKoch’s website, which displays logos for Greenpeace, and the American Federation of Teachers, organizations the UnKoch co-founder says have provided financial support.
Wilson said most of UnKoch’s budget comes from individual contributors, and he suggested Tomasi was trying to “deflect” criticism “to bypass the documented concerns.”
Tomasi said “innuendo” and “falsehoods” were driving the debate about his group, rather than genuine questions about donor transparency.
“They don’t like what we do,” Tomasi said of his critics. “But I’m going to keep doing it, and Brown’s going to keep doing it.”
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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