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"What happens when you put ideologues in charge of a university"
In 2018, Dan Colson, a Professor of English at Emporia State University (ESU) in Kansas, published an article titled, "Teaching Radically with Koch Money." In the piece, Colson details how he was fighting ESU's "embrace of right-wing, free-market 'investments' in higher education." Colson shares his experience using a grant from ESU's "Koch Center for Leadership and Ethics" to "work directly against the Center’s agenda."
Colson could feel secure writing such a provocative article because he was a tenured professor. Academic tenure is a foundational component of higher education and the free exchange of ideas on campus. It gives professors like Colson the ability to express unpopular opinions without fear of retribution. A tenured professor generally cannot be terminated except under extraordinary circumstances, such as professional misconduct.
But on September 15, Colson was told to report to an off-campus, ESU-owned building. When he arrived, an ESU administrator read from a script. Colson, who had taught at ESU for 11 years, learned he was being terminated.
“It looks like the right-wing fantasy of what happens when you put ideologues in charge of a university,” Colson told Popular Information.
Colson was one of 33 employees, most tenured faculty, that were terminated from ESU last month. The firings were made possible through a state-wide policy change introduced in early 2021 by the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR), the board that oversees Kansas' public colleges and universities. The other five public universities in Kansas declined to violate the principles of tenure to cut costs.
Gwen Larson, a spokesperson for ESU, told Popular Information that the firing decisions “were not in any way politically motivated” and said that the university “supports the right for free expression by our faculty, staff, and students.” Colson and other faculty members interviewed by Popular Information disagreed.
ESU receives extensive funding from non-profit groups controlled by Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries. For decades, Koch has been a critic of liberal arts education and the tenure system. Still, for nearly two years, ESU did not submit a plan under the KBOR policy to fire tenured faculty.
But then ESU appointed a former Koch Industries executive as its new president. Suddenly, there was a willing executioner. Colson and other faculty who were let go told Popular Information that they believe they were victims of an ideological purge, cast aside for failing to conform to the university's political agenda.
And what happened at ESU could be a harbinger of what's to come at colleges and universities across the country.
Why the right-wing hates tenure
In the United States, tenure has long served as a safeguard for academic freedom. Tenure prevents professors from being fired for discussing controversial ideas. And it's the tenure system that insulates faculty from undue influence by university donors, administrators, and politicians.
That's exactly why tenure has become a frequent target of right-wing lawmakers and pundits.
In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) "signed a bill that makes it harder for faculty at state universities to retain tenure" by creating a "review" every five years where tenured faculty could be fired for unspecified reasons. Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R) said the purpose of the bill was to make sure a "professor that's been told they get a lifetime job" could not indoctrinate students with a "radical political agenda." Another law signed by DeSantis will survey students about all professors, including whether they believe the professor expresses a political viewpoint.
Earlier this year, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R) proposed ending tenure for all new hires at the state's public universities. Patrick says the move is necessary to prevent professors from "indoctrinating" Texas students with concepts he doesn't like, including racial justice and critical race theory. Republican lawmakers in states like Iowa, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have also called to eliminate or weaken tenure.
How Kansas found someone willing to play ball
In January 2021, with the pandemic driving declining college enrollment, the KBOR — a nine-member body appointed by the governor to oversee the state’s public higher education system — announced "temporary amendments to the Suspensions, Terminations, and Dismissal policy." It was initially pitched as an emergency measure to respond to the unique challenges of COVID-19. Public universities and colleges would have 45 days "to submit a framework," which could include cutting costs by terminating tenured faculty.
At the time of its enactment, the KBOR insisted that the "workforce management” policy was "not a threat to tenure" and an essential tool to manage financial challenges. But the 45-day deadline neared, and none of the universities in the system had submitted a proposal. In February 2021, the KBOR approved a request from the University of Kansas to extend the deadline for submitting a proposal to July 2021. Then that extended deadline passed. No public institutions in Kansas, including the University of Kansas, wanted to terminate tenured faculty.
By May 2022, the situation had changed. The justifications for the policy, including pandemic-related restrictions on campus and state funding cuts, were no longer in place. In-person classes had resumed, mask mandates were dropped, and 2023 state funding dramatically increased. Still, the KBOR insisted that “enrollment and financial challenges at the universities are still a concern.” They voted to revive the policy and extend the deadline to submit a proposal to December 2022.
A month later, the KBOR named Ken Hush, a former Koch Industries executive, as the new president of ESU. A day after Hush’s appointment, ESU's position abruptly changed. Blake Flanders, the KBOR President, told the Kansas Reflector that “officials at Emporia State University were examining the possibility of implementing the policy to address operational challenges.”
Meet Kansas' least-qualified university president
Hush, who had been serving as ESU's interim president since November 2021 and is an ESU alum, was considered by many to be an unlikely choice. He doesn’t hold any advanced degrees, making him the least academically credentialed president in the Kansas public university system. He has also never worked in higher education. Most of his career has been spent at Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Between 2004 and 2013, Hush contributed more than $43,000 to the Kansas-Based Koch Industries’ PAC.
At ESU, Koch’s influence runs deep. Since 2005, ESU has received about one million dollars from Koch-affiliated organizations, according to public IRS filings. The most recent public donation to the university is a $313,000 check in 2020 from the Charles Koch Foundation. On ESU’s website, the Charles Koch Foundation, along with the Fred C. & Mary R. Koch Foundation (established by Charles Koch's parents), are celebrated “for lifetime giving at a transformational level.”
In 2017, Dave Robertson, COO of Koch Industries and an ESU alum, gave the school $250,000 to support the football program. Robertson was also one of the founding donors of Emporia’s Koch Center for Leadership and Ethics, which was established in 2014 with initial grants of $750,000 from the Fred C. & Mary R. Koch Foundation, Koch Industries, and two other Koch employees. The mission of the center is “to explore the impact of principled entrepreneurship on a free society and to apply market principles to management.”
This isn't a complete picture of Koch-related financial support to ESU. Filings are only available through 2020, and the amount does not include donations made through the many Koch-controlled entities that are not required to disclose their spending.
Koch's vision for higher education
For decades Charles Koch has been interested in transforming higher education in the United States. His vision involves colleges and universities functioning as training centers for corporate America. Under this model, academic inquiry and liberal arts education are cast aside. Professors are judged on their ability to help students secure employment in a large company.
In 1971, Charles Koch co-authored an article for the "Center for Independent Education," the first non-profit organization he established on his own. The article presented the General Motors Institute (GMI), a corporate-run educational institution, as the ideal model for higher education. Koch noted that, at GMI "[f]aculty members do not have tenure" and can "be discharged with thirty-days notice." This allowed GMI faculty to be judged "solely on performance," which Koch described as to prepare students to "later accept a responsible position."
Charles Koch has previously used his financial donations to exert influence over university management, including faculty hiring. In 2009, Koch donated $1.5 million to Florida State University with a variety of strings attached, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. Specifically, "the curriculum [the donation] funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch" and "the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired."
In 2012, private foundations controlled by Charles Koch and his late brother David "combined to spread more than $12.7 million among 163 colleges and universities, with grants sometimes coming with strings attached." Since then the pace of Charles Koch's giving to universities has only increased.
In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R), a staunch Koch ally, signed a state budget that eliminated tenure protections for public university professors. Walker, who was at the time described as working in “lockstep” with the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, received more than $5.6 million from the Koch brothers during his campaign.
Hush wields the ax
Less than three months into Hush’s presidency, ESU officials announced that they were formally submitting a framework to justify the dismissal of employees, including tenured faculty. These layoffs, they said, will give them “flexibility to realign resources to address the university’s structural deficits that have been ongoing for several years, accelerated by COVID.” University employees had two business days to submit feedback.
The KBOR unanimously approved ESU’s framework a week later. The university could now terminate employees for low enrollment, cost of operations, realignment of resources, and other poorly-defined factors. Following KBOR’s sign-off, ESU spent the next two days firing a total of 33 faculty and staff. Faculty estimate that 24 of the 33 were tenured professors, comprising about 20% of ESU’s total tenured faculty.
Several tenured professors who were fired told Popular Information that they believe these terminations were ideologically driven.
Max McCoy, a tenured Professor of English who was let go after teaching at the university for 16 years, described the recent dismissals to Popular Information as having “the feel of a purge” and called it a “Koch-driven initiative… to establish a beachhead to eliminate tenure.”
A columnist for the Kansas Reflector, McCoy has written a range of pieces critiquing the encroachment of right-wing and free-market politics into healthcare and education. In September, a day before KBOR approved ESU’s proposal to fire employees, McCoy wrote an op-ed condemning the university’s workforce management plan and argued that the firings were “a political maneuver to end tenure.” In the piece, he also calls into question Hush’s qualifications and Hush's ties to Koch.
He told Popular Information that he fears he was “dismissed as retaliation” for his columns and his advisory role with ESU’s student-run publication, The Bulletin.
McCoy also pointed out to Popular Information that he received “very little information” on the specific reason for his firing. According to McCoy’s dismissal letter, which was obtained by Popular Information, the professor was fired “due to extreme financial pressures accelerated by COVID-19 pandemic, decreased program and university enrollment, continuing and ongoing increases in the cost of operations across campus, and substantive changes in the educational marketplace.”
The letter simply regurgitated the complete list of possible justifications for firing an employee featured in ESU’s framework that was approved by the KBOR. The letter does not inform McCoy of why, specifically, he was targeted. The ambiguity “invites abuse,” McCoy said. Last week, the American Association of University Professors announced that it is investigating “the absence of any specific rationale in any of the termination notices.”
McCoy believes that other tenured faculty were also targeted for their criticisms of the administration, their liberal views, or both. “[Hush] has managed to make all tenured and tenure-track positions into political appointments,” McCoy said. “When you can be fired for–let’s be frank–no reason, no cause, when you can be dismissed in this fashion, then you’re serving strictly at the pleasure of the university president.”
Popular Information also spoke with Douglas Allen, a tenure-track Professor of Geography who was fired in September. Allen, who has been with the university for the last two years, is an Urban Cultural Geographer who studies the intersection of geography and race. He told Popular Information that while he doesn’t know why he was let go, he suspects his dismissal had to do with the fact he emphasizes social justice in his courses.
“I think they got rid of my position because I don’t think they find things like race and place [and] geography of social justice…ideologically valuable,” Allen told Popular Information. “These topics and classes are impactful for students, but is it valuable to the administration?”
Jon Rolph, chair of the KBOR, told Popular Information that the KBOR stands by ESU’s framework, stating that it was a necessary response to declining enrollment and “provides a way for the university to make strategic decisions about how to align its resources with the needs and interests of students.” Rolph added that the framework “does not allow any employee to be fired for politics, speech, [or] conduct.”
Other Kansas universities, including Kansas State University and Pittsburg State University, have experienced greater enrollment declines over the last 5 years. The University of Kansas and Fort Hayes State University have experienced similar enrollment declines as ESU on a percentage basis. But only ESU has fired tenured faculty.