A New Hire, a Koch Grant, and a Department in Crisis

The search for a new philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University was relatively uneventful at first. A committee was formed, applications came in. Committee members culled the pool and, as 2015 came to a close, narrowed it down to a handful of people to interview.

But Christian Coons, an associate professor, felt that there was at least one person in the pool who didn’t belong. Brandon Warmke was not as well-versed as some of the other candidates in the history of philosophy, the topic the new hire would teach, Coons said. In an email, he told a colleague that he thought another applicant was better. (The Chronicle reached out to Warmke, who declined to comment.)

“The application alone leaves out critical information that is very important,” Kevin Vallier, an associate professor, wrote back. (Vallier did not respond to emailed requests for an interview.)

Warmke was hired in 2016. Three years later, Bowling Green announced that it had received a $1.6-million grant for its philosophy, politics, economics, and law program. That meant the philosophy department, which had shrunk in recent years, would be able to hire two new tenure-track faculty members and support two graduate fellowships. For a small department, it was a life raft.

The infusion could have meant a new era of stability for the department. That’s not what happened. Instead, Bowling Green’s philosophy department turned into a war zone. Professors who once edited books together are no longer on speaking terms. Colleagues have filed complaints against each other, prompting investigations. At least one faculty member left Bowling Green for another job. Graduate students felt ill at ease in the department.

In the end, an outside lawyer, hired through the Ohio attorney general’s office, was brought in to investigate a long list of allegations made by Coons. Though the investigator did not find “nefarious misconduct” or actions made in bad faith, she wrote that the rifts within the department ran deep and could at times be toxic.

But to Coons, “this is not a tale of ‘conflict.’” It’s a tale of “persistent corruption.” Adding to the discordance was the source of the grant, an increasingly ubiquitous research funder that has drawn sharp criticism on other campuses. It was the Charles Koch Foundation.

The 2016 hire should have been a triumph. After losing professors to retirement or other universities for years, the department had shrunk to under 10 full-time professors. Now they were rebuilding.

The department was always small, but it was renowned in the field of ethics, particularly applied ethics. It had a reputation for hiring scholars who were early in their careers but already making a name for themselves. “A lot of ethical stars and superstars had spent a few years there before going on to other jobs,” said John Basl, a former assistant professor at Bowling Green who moved to Northeastern University in 2013. Historically, it had a libertarian streak, in part because of the presence of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, a think tank that hosted a conference, funded research, and published a journal. But the center had moved to the University of Arizona around 2012.

The department’s reputation as a place for up-and-coming ethicists meant there was a lot of turnover. In 2008, when Michael Weber, who is now the chair, joined the department, there were roughly 13 full-time professors. Then came the Great Recession, which prompted the university to impose a de facto hiring freeze, Weber said. Several professors left and weren’t replaced.

Nell-BowlingGreen

Brittany Greeson for The Chronicle

Christian Coons

“The department really took a hit,” said David W. Shoemaker, who was the chair at the time but left for Tulane University in 2009. “We lost six research-heavy moral philosophers, which was the bulk of the department, in a two-year span.”

By 2016 that trend was reversing. Molly Gardner had been hired as an assistant professor the year before and the new professor the department was searching for would help round out its offerings. By February, members of the hiring committee had narrowed their search to two people. Warmke had an offer somewhere else and had informed a committee member that he needed to give that institution an answer “very soon.” Vallier, the professor whom Coons had emailed with reservations, advocated for Warmke’s hiring. The committee moved quickly to vote and Weber offered Warmke the job. In a memo to the dean recommending the hire, Weber praised Warmke’s publication record and said he was “capable of teaching required history courses, and also adds strengths in ethics and philosophy, politics, economics and law.”

Several faculty members, including Coons, were upset with how the process had unfolded, for various reasons. Gardner voted for Warmke, but told The Chronicle she had felt pressured to do so. Coons peppered Weber with questions about why it had gone the way it did. Why had the vote been so rushed? What was Warmke’s deadline with the other university where he had an offer?

Unsatisfied with the responses he heard, Coons got angry. In the spring of 2018, he wrote a narrative of how he felt the search had gone wrong, among other issues. He included copy-and-pasted emails that had been sent between him and Weber and annotated those emails using track changes. He sent the narrative to his dean.

At first, nothing happened. Warmke garnered a considerable amount of responsibility within the department. He became the chair of the graduate admissions committee. He was put in charge of graduate job placement, meaning he reviewed students’ CVs and recommendation letters. He helped lead a committee that selected speakers who would come to campus to give talks. Suddenly a relatively new professor had a hand in almost every part of the graduate students’ experience.

Meanwhile, the department’s connection to the Charles Koch Foundation and institutions it supports seemed to Coons to be growing. He caught wind in the fall of 2018 that Vallier was trying to recruit undergraduate students for an on-campus “discussion colloquium” called “Tolerance in a Free Society.” It was co-hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies, a nonprofit that has received millions from the Koch Foundation. Coons said he didn’t have a problem with the foundation, but was unnerved that he wasn’t told about the colloquium directly.

Then came the Koch grant. It was announced in 2019 and would go to Bowling Green’s philosophy, politics, economics, and law program. Vallier and Warmke were named in the grant agreement as director and assistant director, respectively. That meant that they would control the program’s budget and supervise its staff.

The grant also provided money for two new tenure-track professorships. The department started a search for the first hire. By then, Coons wasn’t the only philosophy professor who was worried that the department was, intentionally or not, becoming entwined in the Koch network. Gardner, who served on the hiring committee, said, “It felt to me like some candidates whose values were not in harmony with Charles Koch Foundation values were removed from consideration.”

A spokesman said in a statement that the Koch Foundation supports “universities where scholars are driving progress through their research and empowering students in their teaching. They come from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, and what unites them is a shared commitment to scientific discovery. All scholars’ work deserves substantive, merit-based scrutiny rather than ad hominem speculation.”

That summer Coons learned about a document that the nonprofit UnKoch My Campus had posted on its website. The document purported to be one of the Institute for Humane Studies’s proposals to the Charles Koch Foundation. It described a need to invest more in faculty members in order to speed up its mission of promoting “classical liberal” ideas.

“Imagine, for example, what our graduate student support capability might look like if hundreds of trusted faculty at PhD-granting institutions acted as our agents,” the proposal said.

Agents? Coons found that word alarming.

The document talked about on-campus “liberty discussion colloquia” as a way to support and build relationships with faculty members. It proposed supporting “aspiring and current freedom-friendly professors across the full arc of their careers.”

Freedom-friendly professors? Coons believed he had some of those in his department.

It wasn’t the politics that bothered Coons. “There’s no problem whatsoever with bringing someone with IHS associations to your campus,” he said. “There is a problem with bringing someone to your campus because they’re associated with IHS.”

According to IHS, the document is “an incomplete draft of some initial thinking.” Caroline Phelps, director of communications and outreach, said in an email that “‘agents’ refers to a suggested change where professors might be in a better position than IHS to know when and what kind of fellowship support grad students might need. The idea being proposed was that rather than IHS selecting which grad students receive support, professors would make those selections.”

She added that “most of what IHS does is convene scholars and support their research. Occasionally professors ask us to help them in hosting on-campus and online discussion colloquia. These discussions center around authentic conversation and bring a small group of students or faculty members together in an open forum to discuss ideas.”

(Editor’s note: The Charles Koch Foundation underwrote a recent Chronicle virtual panel about how to support transfer students during the pandemic.)

All the pieces had come together for Coons. The “critical information” that Vallier had said wasn’t in Warmke’s application? It was his ability to help the department get the Koch grant, Coons speculated. He didn’t have any evidence that the Charles Koch Foundation had directed anyone to hire Warmke, nor would they have a say in the two new hires. But he was concerned that professors in his department were a part of its network and “would make decisions for the department with the aims of this network in mind.”

The Charles Koch Foundation has been accused before of asserting too much influence over which professors are hired at universities that receive its donations. In 2008 Florida State University established two programs with money from the foundation. Though faculty members would choose candidates for the faculty jobs, an advisory committee whose members were chosen by the foundation would review the pool “and make a recommendation as to which candidates are qualified to receive funding.” The university and the foundation later amended their agreement.

Ten years later, some of the foundation’s grant agreements with George Mason University became public. They showed that donors were able to potentially influence which scholars were hired and how they would be evaluated. George Mason launched a review of its gift-making policies.

The agreement between the Charles Koch Foundation and Bowling Green explicitly states that the selection of program directors, assistant professors, and graduate fellowships will follow the university’s normal procedures.

Michael Weber, the chair, tells a very different story than Coons about the Koch grant. To him, it was a lifeline. The department had gotten so small that its Ph.D. program was at risk of dissolving under his watch. “We just weren’t going to make it,” he said. The whole department agreed to pursue the grant, he added.

He didn’t write the agreement, but Weber said he had reviewed it to make sure it met the department’s standards. He said he was wary of taking money from the Charles Koch Foundation, because he doesn’t agree with the organization’s politics.

“I’d certainly much rather have gotten a grant from a less controversial source, but there aren’t many,” Weber said. “Especially for philosophy.”

But when he looked over the agreement, he didn’t see any way that the foundation could exert influence on the department.

Weber agreed that the 2015-2016 search had issues. One member of the committee had dominated the process, he said, though did not name names. But he didn’t think it was unethical. He also said that search committees consider it “a positive” when applicants “seemed to be the kind of person that generates grants.” It’s not the case, Weber insisted, that the committee made a decision to hire someone because the Koch Foundation might approve of that person and give them a grant later.

In describing their apprehensions with the Bowling Green philosophy department, some of its members point to the speakers who were invited to give talks on campus, some of whom had connections to IHS or the Koch Foundation.

Twenty-two “concerned” graduate students signed a letter in January 2020 to department faculty members expressing disappointment with one of the speakers and suggesting that the department create clear guidelines on how speakers would be chosen. The graduate students weren’t opposed to conservative speakers, nor did they say they should not be able to come. But they wanted to question how the speakers were chosen and bring attention to the problem with inviting speakers because they were in a particular network, said James Perrine, one of the graduate students who helped organize the letter.

“We were saying, broadly, Hey if we’re going to have this Koch money,” Perrine said, “we need to be super, hyper watching who we’re picking and why we’re picking them.”

Perrine started the philosophy masters program because he was interested in applied philosophy. He noticed when he got there in 2018 that the department’s philosophy, politics, economics and law program was growing. The discipline is not inherently conservative or libertarian, but Perrine felt that at Bowling Green it had that bent, “which, academically, I’m curious about.” But he felt that some professors were unfriendly toward other political views. Perrine, who describes himself as far left politically, said, “If I ever brought up any opposing theory, I was almost immediately shut down and made the butt of a joke because of what I was discussing.”

After the department got the Koch grant, Perrine felt like some of its members adopted a “join or die mentality.” You were expected to be on board with it, he said. Still, he said he was accepted into the Ph.D. program with a plan to study critical race theory and politics. But he said he couldn’t find enough professors to sit on his dissertation committee and ended up leaving the university after earning his masters degree in 2020.

Molly Gardner worried that the graduate students would have to censor their political views or risk losing professional opportunities. “Students who endorse conservative values are offered scholarship opportunities, seminar opportunities, and other networking opportunities that students with more liberal values seem less likely to receive,” she said.

But not everyone felt this way. “I’m not sure it’s some evil plan,” Weber said. He saw no evidence that any student was being favored over any other because of their political views. He agreed that a string of libertarian speakers had been invited to campus, but didn’t see anything nefarious in that.

“It’s difficult to get people to come,” he said. “They want to go to more glamorous places.”

Professors tend to invite speakers that they know, he said. Some faculty are very active in inviting speakers. “Might they be more libertarian than you might expect?” Weber said. “Yeah, possibly.”

Some members of the department believed that students were becoming conspiratorial when it came to Koch and IHS. In a faculty meeting in February 2020, a recording of which was shared with The Chronicle, Vallier said that a graduate student had developed suspicions about working with him because of his work with IHS. Warmke added that another student had raised concerns that a theater Ph.D. student who was taking his class was actually a member of IHS.

“That’s got to stop,” Warmke said in the meeting. “My encouragement is that if you hear or see grad students or faculty expressing these sorts of sentiments, if you can’t stop it, walk away.”

Some graduate students were feeling stressed out by the fighting between their professors. The department had changed from a small, collegial community to one where people had to choose sides.

When Ryan Fischbeck, a graduate student, started at Bowling Green in 2013, the department was “the definition of an academic community,” he said. Everyone was interested in everyone else’s work, they all hung out, and talked about philosophy all the time. But after the 2015-2016 search, “you started seeing people develop into cliques,” Fischbeck said. “It got hard to know who to trust and who to believe.”

“It’s certainly affected my own performance and mental health,” he said. “And that of others.”

Tim Walsh, another graduate student, worried that the department was losing its “commitment to openness, freedom of inquiry, diversity of thought, and the sense of community” that he said were its hallmarks when he first got there.

“Given the legal and university-governance problems that arose at some other institutions in connection with their Koch grants,” Walsh said in an email, “I don’t think it is unreasonable for graduate students to ask questions about the nature of our relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation and related organizations.”

Christian Coons tried to find out what had happened to an investigation that had been launched after he sent his narrative to the dean about the 2015-16 search, but he said an open-records request turned up very little. He said that he was never able to submit evidence for the investigation and didn’t find out when it was completed. Later on, the outside lawyer’s report on Coons’s allegations referenced the earlier investigation and a report that found “misunderstandings, inconsistencies, and procedural errors in the search process” but “no provable conspiracy, manipulation, or intention to disrupt the search.”

In February 2020 Weber sent an email to members of the department asking them to save a date. Two emeritus faculty members from Kent State University’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies were coming to “help with the conflicts” in the philosophy department.

Then the pandemic hit. Members of the philosophy department retreated to their homes. The global crisis did not allay the tensions within the department, however. Nor have its ranks grown substantially. A professor was hired with the money from the Koch grant, but Gardner left Bowling Green for the University of Florida, in part because of her experience on the hiring committees.

There have been multiple complaints from faculty members alleging harassment and bullying by Coons, according to the outside lawyer’s report. He has received an “oral reprimand.” Coons also filed a discrimination complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, though it was dismissed.

It was last year that the Ohio attorney general’s office appointed the outside lawyer to investigate Coons’s complaints dating back to at least 2016. The investigator, Jennifer A. McHugh, a litigation lawyer who has represented employers in discrimination, retaliation, and harassment claims, analyzed allegations about the Koch grant, the IHS events on campus, and the selection of speakers, among many other topics, and found very few policy violations. The investigator wrote that she found no evidence that the policy violations she did discover were made in bad faith nor did she find intentional wrongdoing or fraudulent activity.

McHugh wrote that “Koch grant funds have been used to hire faculty members of varying ideologies, and that the Department has hosted speakers with differing political viewpoints.” The report cited as an example one department member whose position is funded by the grant and whose research is focused on climate science.

“The depth of the conflict in the Department is troubling,” the report said. Members who were interviewed said they do not know how to repair the rifts, but “nearly all Interviewees expressed a desire to improve the climate and mend relationships.”

In the end she said “multiple interviewees” said Coons “interprets everything certain colleagues do as having evil intent or nefarious motives.” She wrote that she “does not find sufficient evidence to support Coons’ theories of this nature, and finds them to be speculative.”

Coons acknowledged that he has been expressing frustration and outrage where others haven’t, but said that “it’s also, in my opinion, 99 percent of the time, an appropriate response.” He reiterated that he wasn’t able to submit all the evidence in the earlier investigation, which McHugh considered a closed matter, and vehemently disagreed with the conclusions, saying she was “writing to exonerate the university.”

In an emailed statement, the university said it “initiated a thorough and independent investigation into Dr. Coons’ concerns and allegations which ultimately date back to 2016. The findings of the independent investigation are informing the University’s work with both administrators and faculty in the Philosophy department. The Department is focused on resolving conflict and fully leveraging the talents of all its faculty.”

The university declined to comment further, calling the issue an “ongoing personnel matter.”

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