Education

Koch-funded center approved at Western Carolina University

The Koch brothers, money and politics

Washington bureau political editor Steven "Buzz" Thomma and political correspondent David Lightman explain why political donations might go further in Congress and why citizens don't know where all the money comes from, including the role of the K
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Washington bureau political editor Steven "Buzz" Thomma and political correspondent David Lightman explain why political donations might go further in Congress and why citizens don't know where all the money comes from, including the role of the K

Despite faculty opposition, Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees approved the creation of a center on free enterprise likely to be funded by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation.

The board voted unanimously Friday to approve the WCU Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. The center, to be led by an economics professor, was previously endorsed by the university’s provost and Chancellor David Belcher.

Now that the center is created, the university will seek $2 million over five years from the Charles Koch Foundation, which was established by billionaire businessman Charles Koch. He and his brother, David Koch, are known for funding conservative, libertarian, pro-business and anti-regulation causes. The foundation has been in talks with the university about the gift, but no written pledge has been received, Belcher said.

The board’s decision comes 10 months after the UNC system’s Board of Governors dissolved three academic centers that were aligned with progressive issues or professors.

One of those eliminated was UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a foundation-funded entity led by law professor Gene Nichol, a frequent critic of Republican elected officials in North Carolina. Members of the Republican-dominated board said the decision, which followed a systemwide review of centers and institutes, was not about politics.

The Faculty Senate at WCU took a stand against the free enterprise center this fall, citing concerns about potential costs, lack of peer review and threats to academic freedom and the university’s reputation. 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.

Belcher said he met briefly with foundation representatives a few months ago. Faculty hires, curriculum and center activities will all be in the hands of the faculty, he said.

There will no strings attached with any gift that might come from the Charles Koch Foundation — no strings attached at all.

Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher

“There will no strings attached with any gift that might come from the Charles Koch Foundation — no strings attached at all,” Belcher said in a phone interview after the trustee meeting.

But the Faculty Senate had warned that even if the Koch Foundation did not meddle in the center, “the legacy of such gifts carries a burden.”

Koch foundation grants have been controversial at a number of universities.

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that Boston-based Suffolk University will sever ties with the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative research center. The newspaper reported that the institute asked for an “amicable divorce” from the university, while a Suffolk spokesman cited the institute’s deficit as the reason. The relationship had been strained, the Globe reported, after the institute sought funding for a study “aimed at weakening a regional initiative to reduce carbon pollution.”

Ralph Wilson, a researcher with a national activist group called UnKoch My Campus, said Friday that the Charles Koch Foundation and donors in a group called the Freedom Partners have increased their giving to universities. It’s part of an overall shift toward funding education and research rather than political candidates, Wilson said.

“Universities are at the heart of their long-term political strategy,” he said.

The Charles Koch Foundation, which supports 250 universities, recently 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.”

Western Carolina’s new center will be led by Edward Lopez, an economist who is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism at WCU. He has said the free enterprise center fits with the university’s strategic mission to serve the state and region on matters of economic development.

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.”

Faculty expressed concern about whether the university followed policy correctly in establishing the center. They also said the university would have to invest about $1.3 million of its money into the center. That money comes from three faculty positions that are already funded, Belcher said. The faculty will be involved at the center.

I’m much relieved to learn that decisions by governing boards in the University of North Carolina system have nothing to do with politics.

Email from Gene Nichol, whose center at UNC-Chapel Hill was eliminated

After the vote, Trustee Chair Ed Broadwell said the board found that the university followed the necessary steps in reviewing the proposed center.

“The mission of the center is focused on applied economics research based on theoretical perspectives within the mainstream of the discipline,” Broadwell said in a statement. “The center will offer a range of opportunities for faculty and students in support of the university’s strategic priorities in economic development and regional engagement in Western North Carolina and beyond.”

Broadwell added that the board is aware of faculty concerns about the center’s presumed source of funding.

“We respect their views,” he said. “However, the Board of Trustees believes that an essential role of a university is to create a forum for exploration of diverse schools of thought. To do anything less undermines a core value of Western Carolina University as stated in its strategic plan: to provide a learning environment committed to the free and open interchange of ideas.”

In an email, Nichol, the UNC law professor whose poverty center was axed this year, wrote: “I’m much relieved to learn that decisions by governing boards in the University of North Carolina system have nothing to do with politics.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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