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Op-ed piece leads to story on donor’s role in green-lighting professor hires

Florida State University by Flickr user StuSeeger

The St. Petersburg Times has been reporting on an agreement between the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and Florida State University (pictured) that allows the foundation to green-light professor hires in the Department of Economics. Photo by Flickr user StuSeeger.

Let’s just get right to it:

Today’s Tip: Read the op-ed pages of publications in your coverage area.

That’s how Kris Hundley of the St. Petersburg Times found a Tallahassee Democrat piece written by one retired and one active professor at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. They criticized a contract that allows a donor to green-light professor hires in the school’s Department of Economics.

Kris writes:

“Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, … faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet ‘objectives’ set by Koch during annual evaluations.”

Kris says when she saw the op-ed, she immediately contacted FSU and filed a public records request for documents, emails and letters regarding FSU and the Koch Foundation. She also requested interviews with the chairman of the Department of Economics and the dean of the College of Social Sciences & Public Policy.

Kris Hundley, reporter, St. Petersburg Times

Kris Hundley

The first round of documents she received led to the May 10 article based on interviews, copies of the Memo of Understanding between FSU and Koch, and actual gift agreements between FSU and Koch, as well as another between FSU and the bank-holding company, BB&T, she says.  She says the school released those documents within a day of her request. Two days later, she received a stack of emails among administrators concerning negotiations with the Koch Foundation. She used those documents for a follow-up that ran May 14.

Linking to the documents helped assuage criticism that the story was wrong.

“When callers told me that FSU’s president was assuring them I was all wrong in my account of the issue, I simply encouraged them to read the documents for themselves,” she says.

The original source for the story — the op-ed page — brings to mind a nearby place to mine for sources and story ideas: letters to the editor. Gary Cohn, co-winner of a 2009 Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism, used LexisNexis to search letters to the editor nationwide for individuals complaining about AARP, the subject of his story.

In Featured, Investigation, Small | Private | Non-profit, Story ideas.

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