The Liberty and Security Speaker Series hosted by Sam Houston State University has now concluded. The series was initiated by Assistant Professor of Security Studies John David Payne, Ph.D. in March 2014 with the last speaker, Radley Balko, a Washington Post journalist, speaking Jan. 27.
The series was funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, a noted libertarian think tank and politically conservative activism group. The Houstonian interviewed Payne and Koch Foundation’s Director of University Relations John Hardin about the series and concerns from students that sponsorship by a political organization may give way to political bias.
This is a condensed transcription of the interview with John Hardin.
H: The Koch Foundation is bankrolling a speaker series at Sam Houston State University with the criminal Justice department, correct?
JH: We provide funding so that Professor John Payne can provide his speaker series in the Security Studies Department for students at Sam Houston State University.
H: How much is the Foundation spending on this speaker series?
JH: We provided a grant of $6,500 to support Professor Payne’s program. This supports things like speaker travel and hotels, and Professor Payne decides how to spend it.
H: Is the recognized criminal justice program, here at SHSU, one of the factors that influenced the foundation’s decision in sponsoring the series?
JH: The balance between liberty and security is a critical issue for society and one that students are grappling with, and we are pleased to play a small role in supporting a university to explore them.
H: Is this sponsorship a politically motivated action?
JH: Not at all. SHSU developed this educational program and we are grateful for the opportunity to provide funding for it.
H: There has been some responses from students that it seems strange that an explicitly political group, a very ideological group, would be bankrolling this series at a public university. What would you say about this?
JH: Some people have mistakenly called the Charles Koch Foundation political. None of our educational grants are political in nature. This is often a criticism made by people who disagree with the ideas of the professors we support. We encourage those critics to openly challenge the ideas, rather than avoid open and honest debate by trying to discredit the source of support. After all, that is what academic debate is all about.
The following is a condensed transcription of the interview with SHSU Assistant Professor of Security Studies John Payne, Ph.D.
H: What is the purpose of the Liberty and Security Speaker Series?
JP: The goal of the series is to bring in speakers that can offer interesting perspectives on the interaction between security and liberty. I am a big believer in the value of the marketplace of ideas. In my classes, I routinely invite other professors to come and speak, so that my students are exposed to different points of view and different ways of approaching the same problems. The free exchange of ideas is, I think, fundamental to academic inquiry.
H: Given that the Koch foundation is a highly ideological and partisan organization, what would you say to a student who would argue that it may seem inappropriate for a university to have an affiliation with such a group?
JP: Well, for starters, I simply don’t agree that the Charles Koch Foundation is highly partisan, since they’re not affiliated with any political party. My understanding (although again, if you want to know what they’re thinking the wisest thing would be to talk to them) is that the foundation is libertarian in its ideology. If you’re not familiar with this word, as simple way to think of it is that libertarians usually side with political liberals (like the Democratic party) on social issues and with political conservatives (like the Republican party) on fiscal issues. In other words, they cut across party lines, which is the exact opposite of being partisan. Cross-cutting cleavages like this are usually thought to be healthy for a pluralistic society, and I must say that I agree. As Barack Obama said in his 2004 DNC keynote address, there are people who want to ‘slice and dice our country into red states and blue states,’ but there is more that unites us than divides us. And I think it’s important for us to look for opportunities to find common ground.
H: Do you think that there maybe a chance of political bias that could result in the Koch foundation possibly influencing policy through the series, such as their opinion on militarization?
JP: No. The university doesn’t receive any money for doing this. Unlike government grants, none of this grant money is allotted for overhead. It’s a condition that the foundation insists on, and I’m glad that they do, since it makes it easier for us to maintain our autonomy and academic integrity. Further, the foundation doesn’t tell me which speakers to invite, or what anyone should say. I ask who I ask, and the speakers say what they say. If the foundation isn’t happy with who I invited, or what those people said, then I suppose they might not approve my next grant application. (The supporting grant was for a one year speaker series and is now concluded, although I do plan to apply for another one in coming weeks.) As I have told my students many times, I don’t agree with everything the speakers have said and that’s okay. I don’t invite people to speak because they agree with me or because I want the students to agree with them – or with me. That’s simply not how a university works. I stand up on the first day of every single class and tell my students that I don’t want them to regurgitate my opinions. I want them to figure things out for themselves.