In 2005, a forward-thinking Ivy League professor envisioned a powerful antidote to the polarization that now afflicts our society. He created a program that allowed students to interact freely with a diversity of ideas. It encouraged them to consider and evaluate alternate points of view—even if they didn’t ultimately find the ideas persuasive. The cornerstone of his project was a speaker series that featured prominent people with radically different ideas discussing challenging and divisive topics such as inequality and immigration. The professor’s mission was to make his university “worthy of students who arrive expecting a great adventure.”
That was a great idea. So great that by the time I became a funder, it was already on its way to becoming the most prominent lecture series on campus. Why has it been so successful? Because the discussions are riveting—and relevant. By engaging in critical thinking and considering different ideas and perspectives, students participate in a discovery process that helps them learn about themselves, identify their aptitudes, and experiment with how to contribute as active participants in society. Programs like these help prepare students for the kind of innovation and collaborative problem solving that just might help them overcome society’s most intractable challenges.
We have all heard troubling stories about controversial speakers being shouted down or even disinvited from college campuses. But the story capturing fewer headlines is the strong demand from within the academy to support more programs and opportunities that expand open inquiry and a rigorous exchange of ideas that are essential for universities to be engines of learning, science, and the resulting discovery.
This, to me, is the essence of a university and a big reason why, through my philanthropy, I have supported higher education so enthusiastically for more than 50 years. It’s also why I’m more committed than ever to supporting the courageous, far-sighted scholars who are grappling with our country’s toughest challenges and who are working hard to help more people realize their potential.
It was only after my graduate studies at MIT that I began to discover the principles of scientific and social progress. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Smith and Marx to Polanyi and Popper, along with Aristotle and Maslow. I buy into Newton’s philosophy that we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I realized that the principles I’d been learning from fields as dissimilar as science, philosophy, economics, psychology, and anthropology were often consistent and interrelated. It’s the meeting, merging, and testing of those ideas that drives discovery. An environment open to humble but rigorous inquiry makes that possible. It’s essential for the scientific method. And that, in turn, fundamental to human progress. By exposing myself to so many different perspectives, I came to better understand how to beneficially apply them.
It became clear to me, as I studied the ideas that shaped human history, that virtually everybody has the ability to learn, contribute and succeed if given the opportunity to do so. As I absorbed and applied these ideas, they transformed my life and enabled me to accomplish more than I ever dreamed possible. That success made me want to help as many people as possible to do the same.
With that in mind, I began giving scholarships to college students who were passionate about realizing their potential. Since 1963, through my various philanthropies—and most recently focused at the Charles Koch Foundation—we’ve helped many, many students do so. As professors witnessed this they began to approach us with relevant and innovative ideas for teaching and research.
Over the years, the work we’ve supported has evolved, but the kind of grant proposals that attract our attention have remained consistent. We support scholarly work that contributes to an understanding of how best to achieve a society of equal rights and mutual benefit, where people succeed by helping others. We focus on programs that fill a need, have a real-world impact, and foster what I call a three-dimensional education. By that I mean programs that enable students to identify their innate abilities, turn them into valued skills, and apply them in ways that contribute in society.
I can’t overstate the importance of education, since it can inspire critical thinking and foster innovative research to help remove barriers holding people back. To that end, I support programs in diverse fields such as criminal justice, economics and entrepreneurship, technology and innovation, foreign policy, open inquiry, and the humanities.
We currently support about 1,000 faculty members and are open to assisting even more. As demand for our support for students, professors, scholars, and universities continues to grow, I’ve been happy to increase my giving and I expect to continue to do so. The common thread in my support is the recognition that when people collaborate to understand and remove injustice we all benefit. We’re grateful for the opportunity to work alongside so many outstanding professors, students, and donors, and we’re ready to do more.
Chairman, Charles Koch Foundation