Western Carolina considers center funded by Charles Koch Foundation

A proposed Charles Koch Foundation-funded center on free enterprise is a step closer to reality at Western Carolina University, where the Faculty Senate has voted to oppose it.

On Friday, WCU’s provost, Alison Morrison-Shetlar, recommended to Chancellor David Belcher that the WCU Center for Study of Free Enterprise go forward, according to a university spokesman. If Belcher agrees, the proposal will go to the campus Board of Trustees for consideration in December.

The center would be launched with $2 million over five years from the Charles Koch Foundation, which was established by billionaire businessman Charles Koch. He, along with his brother David Koch, is known for funding conservative, libertarian, pro-business and anti-regulation causes.

On Oct. 28, the Faculty Senate at WCU took a stand against the center, citing concerns about potential costs, threats to academic freedom and reputation, the lack of peer review and whether the center was needed. The vote to oppose the center was 21-3, with 4 not taking a position.

“The Charles Koch Foundation has previously set forth explicit expectations in line with their political views in exchange for monetary gifts to universities, thereby constraining academic freedom by influencing and interfering with the development of new knowledge,” a statement by the senate said.

Even if no strings are attached to the current gift, the statement said, “the legacy of such gifts carries a burden.”

This center adds a research dimension to Western’s capabilities.

Edward Lopez, Western Carolina University professor

Edward Lopez, an economist and professor who proposed the center, said it fits with WCU’s goals. “Western’s mission and its strategic directives are heavily occupied with serving the state and the region on matters of economic development,” said Lopez, who is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism at the university. “This center adds a research dimension to Western’s capabilities and pursuing that mission.”

He said any major initiative would draw scrutiny, but added, “I think some of it is ideological.”

The Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors this year completed a controversial review of all UNC system centers, and eliminated three that were focused on poverty, voter engagement and biodiversity. During the review, board members objected to centers that they characterized as having a political agenda.

In WCU’s proposal, the center is described as providing “thought leadership” on economic development “by conducting scholarly inquiry, policy analysis, educational activities and community outreach on the role of free enterprise in a flourishing society.”

Neither the provost nor the chancellor at the Cullowhee campus were available Friday, according to a spokesman.

David McCord, chairman of the Faculty Senate, said some faculty were concerned about the university having to invest $1.4 million in the proposed center. Though proponents say much of the money will come from vacant faculty positions, McCord said there are too many unknowns.

What’s the ongoing cost to the university in really lean times of doing this?

David McCord, Western Carolina University professor

“What’s the ongoing cost to the university in really lean times of doing this?” said McCord, a professor of psychology.

He said much of the opposition revolves around academic freedom. The Koch foundations have a history of explicit curricular requirements and intrusion into hiring decisions, he said.

Last month, the Charles Koch Foundation, which supports 250 universities, published on its website a set of principles for awarding grants. “We are committed to advancing a marketplace of ideas and supporting a ‘Republic of Science’ where scholarship is free, open, and subject to rigorous and honest intellectual challenge,” the statement said. “We seek university partners who are committed to realizing this ideal.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill