Who Is Funding Your University? Unpacking the Hidden Influence of U.S. College Donors With Jasmine Banks

Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKnoch My Campus. (Courtesy of Jasmine Banks)

In 2017, when Jasmine Banks was hired by UnKoch My Campus, a national organization devoted to disrupting hidden corporate influence on U.S. college campuses, she had only a cursory knowledge of the role that oil and gas magnates Charles (born in 1935) and David (1940-2019) Koch play in higher education. However, she quickly understood the magnitude of their influence.

Now, as UnKoch’s executive director, Banks has helped steer the group’s work to oppose the outsized influence of libertarian and conservative money on public and private campuses—money that always comes with strings attached. Banks and her team have also publicized the ways that these funders’ ideology fits with a broader right-wing agenda, from the maintenance of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, to anti-union repression, voter suppression and an ever-expanding prison industrial complex.

Banks spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader last month about UnKoch’s ongoing work, research and organizing. Their discussion ranged from Banks’ childhood in Oklahoma, to the $2.1 billion expended by funds that Charles Koch oversaw from 2019 to 2021. These groups include the Charles Koch Foundation, the Claude Lambe Charitable Trust, the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Fund and the Koch Cultural Trust.  

Eleanor J. Bader: Tell me about your background and how you became a political activist. 

Jasmine Banks: I spent my earliest years in Enid, Oklahoma. I was a welfare kid. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who had schizophrenia.

When I was 8, my family moved to Tulsa. My mom, my little brother and I lived in domestic violence shelters, hotels and our car until the summer before I turned 13. At that point, we learned about the Charles Page Family Village, an apartment complex for single mothers who had two or more kids. If we were accepted, we could live rent free until my brother graduated high school.

We lived at Page from the time I was 13 until I was 18. It was the first stable home I’d ever had. Not having to pay rent or utilities allowed my mom to return to school, get her GED, and become a certified nursing assistant. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all rosy. As a child, preteen and teen, I survived sexual violence. When I was 17, my dad died of an overdose. That same year, my brother developed a strange fever and we learned that he had a rare form of leukemia. He died from the disease. 

Despite all this, I finished high school and graduated from John Brown University, a private Christian college in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, in 2004. I had a mentor whose husband was on the board of the college and I got some scholarships.

In 2016, I worked as a digital organizer at a national reproductive rights organization. Working there as a Black feminist got dicey. Like other women of color, I wanted my white colleagues to adopt a reproductive justice framework that is linked to issues that are related to, but go beyond, abortion. These include advocating for things like affordable childcare, comprehensive healthcare, good public schools, living-wage jobs, affordable and available housing, nutritious food and contraceptive access.

Once I left this job in 2017, I wanted to do organizing that would be less fraught. I saw an ad for UnKoch My Campus. I barely knew who Charles and David Koch were, but I applied and they hired me. About two weeks in, I began to see how climate change, economic justice, reproductive and racial justice and educational policy were connected. I became the executive director in 2018.

Bader: What helped you connect the dots between the disparate issues you mentioned?

Banks:  I was aware that I’d been poor growing up, but life had not given me the language to discuss neoliberalism or the racist and gendered economic systems we live with. Reading the words of Charles and David Koch provided that instruction. Their letters and memos were very clear about their vision for the United States. They want a libertarian, free-market, anti-taxation and anti-regulatory system of governance that forces people to fend for themselves.

The more I read, the more personal it became. People like the Kochs want to limit the kinds of social support that made my life possible. I began to see the ways Supreme Court decisions, like 2010’s Citizens United, hinder efforts to create meaningful social change. I came to understand that while reforms matter, they do not automatically lead to social transformation.

Bader: When UnKoch My Campus began in 2014, it worked to curtail the influence corporate donors exerted on curricula, hiring and faculty governance. The focus seems to have broadened since then. Is this accurate?

Banks: UnKoch was initially a watchdog organization that investigated and researched how corporate influence impacted higher education. We wrote and disseminated reports.

Once I became the executive director, I wanted to organize college campuses to oppose this influence. Journalist Jane Meyer called fighting Koch money a “Kochtopus” in her 2017 book, ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.’

Working to preserve democracy, oppose the denial of climate change and support anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-trans and anti-homophobia efforts, is part of opposing the Koch agenda.

[The Kochs] want a libertarian, free-market, anti-taxation and anti-regulatory system of governance that forces people to fend for themselves. … People like the Kochs want to limit the kinds of social support that made my life possible.

Jasmine Banks

Bader: Has there been opposition to this wider framework? 

Banks: At the beginning, funders did not seem to understand the shift. But everyone now seems to understand.

Bader: What’s on the agenda for the upcoming academic year?

Banks: Some of our latest work involves collaborating with a group called F-Minus. Our mission is to expose lobbyists who represent oil and gas companies and hold colleges, universities and organizations that have pledged to phase out the use of fossil fuels accountable. We’re starting at the University of Pennsylvania. We’ll be calling on the administration to do better, to resist using lobbyists who also represent Koch interests.  

In addition, we’re updating our critical race theory report to show the longitudinal impact of the Koch-funded campaign to control what U.S. students are taught. Our initial report found that 28 conservative thinktanks and political organizations with ties to the Koch network, wrote 79 articles opposing CRT between June 2020 and June 2021. One man, Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, wrote 43 separate articles on the issue, all of them opposing CRT as an affront to white people. 

Finally, we’re continuing to train students to do community organizing and progressive change-making.

Bader: What are the biggest challenges in doing this work?

Banks: Koch Industries and the entire Koch network are willing to fund projects for many years. They understand the importance of deep investment. Folks on the left rarely do this. The progressive sector needs progressive funders who are willing to mirror the philanthropy of the right.

In addition, there are now many competing issues facing higher education. Graduate students, teaching assistants, faculty and support staff are organizing for better pay and better benefits. They’re facing constant attacks on tenure, faculty governance and what can be taught. Books are censored. Of course, undue corporate influence continues to be significant, but it’s just one of many issues facing students, faculty and staff. 

Koch Industries and the entire Koch network are willing to fund projects for many years. They understand the importance of deep investment. The progressive sector needs progressive funders who are willing to mirror the philanthropy of the right.

Jasmine Banks

Bader: Still, UnKoch has had some impressive victories in its nine-year history.

Banks: Yes! At Brown and George Mason Universities, professors were able to get model policies put into place to ensure that they have a say in how or if corporate money is used or accepted. I’m personally proud of our training that helps students become community activists and organizers. Seeing them develop the skills to launch campaigns and projects is really gratifying. It’s heartening work.

Up next:

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .