WASHINGTON — The founder and director of Wellesley College’s controversial Freedom Project, a program backed by the Charles Koch Foundation, is stepping aside amid an outcry from college alumnae uncomfortable with the libertarian billionaire Koch exerting influence on campus.
Thomas Cushman, a tenured sociology professor at the college, will leave campus for a year, and the college is overhauling the program, which brings conservative and controversial speakers to campus. The college will appoint a new director for the next academic year and is creating a task force to recommend ways to “explore the important role of free speech’’ on campus, according to a statement sent from the college.
The shake-up occurred after the Globe outlined how Wellesley’s Freedom Project was pitched to conservative donors as a way to break through perceived liberal dogma on American campuses. It marks a significant shift for a program that the political network founded by Charles and David Koch held up two months ago as a marquee example of its campus-oriented efforts.
Cushman and two student leaders in the project were flown to Indian Wells, a resort town in Southern California, in late January to report on their success to a roomful of nearly 600 donors who give at least $100,000 a year to Koch-aligned causes and organizations.
The Charles Koch Foundation issued $100 million worth of grants in 2017 for higher education, up from about $35 million in 2014, according to figures provided by the foundation. The money funded programs at roughly 350 colleges and universities last year. But the shift at Wellesley’s Freedom Project raises questions about the sturdiness of the Koch-backed programs at a time when the organization is aggressively ramping up funding.
“We’re noticing a sharp increase in students and faculty who are concerned about these programs, and who feel the urgent need to learn more about them,” said Ralph Wilson, the cofounder of UnKoch My Campus, a group that seeks to uncover Koch funding at colleges and universities.
Trice Jacobson, a spokeswoman for the Charles Koch Foundation, declined to say whether the organization will continue to fund the Wellesley program with new leadership. “We’re looking forward to learning more as the project evolves,” said Jacobson in an e-mail.
Cushman declined to comment.
The Charles Koch Foundation agreed to give Cushman’s project a $1 million grant in 2017, which was matched by a $1 million grant from Koch network donors George and Nancy Records.
Cushman launched the program in recent years with an initial $10,000 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to bring conservative speakers to campus. Cushman also, in 2012, began receiving grants from Koch donor Thomas W. Smith for the Freedom Project. According to Cushman’s resume, Smith provided $450,000 for the program from 2012 to 2017.
It has grown to include student fellows who apply to the project along with visiting scholars — some of whom are considered “scholars at risk” since they’re from countries with authoritarian governments and have been threatened for speaking out.
The Wellesley administration is open to continuing the “scholars at risk” initiative due to the “important sanctuary it provides to scholars who face grave threats for expressing their views,” according to a statement from the college.
Sofiya Cabalquinto, a spokeswoman for Wellesley, declined to say what caused changes to be made in the program. Wellesley president Paula Johnson didn’t respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
“The Freedom Project is grounded in many of the foundational values of the liberal arts: freedom of speech, pluralism, intellectual diversity, freedom of expression, and tolerance,” according to the statement from Wellesley. “These are ideals we all embrace. For some time, we have been considering how the College might build on this initiative to more effectively include—and better engage—all voices across campus.”
A Globe story about Cushman’s activities and his project’s Koch funding, published in February, shocked alumnae, who were surprised the college would accept a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation given the family’s reputation for pushing their libertarian ideology.
The alumnae also viewed the Koch claims to support free speech as a thinly disguised way of elevating fringe scholars who promote a small-government ideology that dovetails with their corporate interests.
“There was a sense of astonishment,” said Diane Ravitch, an author who graduated from the college in 1960 and has also funded a lecture series at the college. “People were saying ‘Why is the college accepting money from the Koch brothers to promote academic freedom at a bastion of academic freedom?’ ”
Ravitch said she wrote to Johnson asking the college not to participate in a Koch-backed program. “I’m putting my faith in president Johnson that she won’t let it be an embarrassment to the college, which it is right now,” Ravitch said.
By mid-March, Johnson, along with provost and dean of the college Andy Shennan, issued a statement detailing a process for overhauling the Wellesley Freedom Project.
The college also plans to launch a task force on “Speech and Inclusion” that will offer recommendations on “broadening the opportunities to start conversations” on campus, according to the message.
Cabalquinto, the Wellesley spokeswoman, said Cushman made the decision to step down on his own accord and requested that he spend the next academic year away. “He has not yet shared the details of that visiting affiliation with the college,” Cabalquinto said.
Mustafa Akyol, a visiting fellow with the Wellesley Freedom Project, said he believes the campus center has been “misunderstood” and has no agenda beyond providing a meaningful debate on campus. “It was seen as a right-wing conspiracy. It hasn’t felt like that since I’ve been here. I’m a defender of freedom.”
But the debate hasn’t always been respectful.
After the Globe story ran, Cushman engaged in a high-profile social media exchange with prominent New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, a leading investigative reporter who has published work critical of the Kochs.
Cushman had told the Globe he would not invite her to speak on campus because he believes she didn’t properly provide balance in her award-winning book chronicling the Koch empire, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”
Mayer took offense, and called him out on Twitter by saying that he would “bar” her from speaking on campus, a message that was retweeted 1,500 times. (She updated the tweet to clarify she would be barred from speaking at the Freedom Project.)
As the two sparred, Cushman at one point dismissed Mayer’s entire body of work. “People should see @JaneMayerNYer for what she is: someone who spreads falsehoods and distorts facts to fit her narratives,” Cushman wrote.
Cushman later changed course and invited Mayer to address the Wellesley Freedom Project, though she was asked to debate a Georgetown professor instead of giving a lecture.
Mayer declined, saying she would like a public apology. “I have more speaking invitations than I want or can handle, and none of the others are from institutions whose directors have called me a liar,” Mayer wrote.
Speakers who have been invited by the Wellesley Freedom Project include Alex Epstein, author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” a 2014 volume that David and Charles Koch, who have massive stakes in the energy sector, recommended to their donors.
When Epstein came to Wellesley in September 2015 to discuss his book, he launched the talk with a brief self-narrated video. “Without fossil fuels society slides backward,” Epstein said in the video. “It’s good that we use fossil fuels. Our world would be better if we used more.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.