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WCU community grapples with academic pursuits in the face of politically-charged outside funding

coverA firestorm over the outside private funding of academia and its potential to undermine intellectual freedom has erupted in recent weeks at Western Carolina University.

Faculty and university leaders have been embroiled in a debate over whether to take $2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, a funding arm tied to the conservative Koch brothers. The money would be used to establish a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise.

SEE ALSO: WCU leaders, faculty at odds over Koch-funded free enterprise center

WCU is among dozens of universities nationwide to land in the Koch-money crosshairs. The Koch brothers and their various funding arms awarded $108 million to 366 colleges and universities from 2005 to 2014 — with $19.3 million across 210 college campuses in 2013 alone — according to political funding analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies and Center for Public Integrity.

The billionaire Koch brothers are well-known political operatives, spending hundreds of millions a year on a sweeping, comprehensive strategy aimed at reshaping national politics to their conservative ideology.

Universities play an important role in the Koch political machine by generating academic research that in turn informs public policy, according to writings and talks by their own strategists. 

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Dr. Ed Lopez, the WCU economics professor behind the proposed free enterprise center, said it would provide sound, valuable research in the field of economics. If policymakers apply the center’s research findings, that would be a positive outcome.

“The mission of the center as proposed is to conduct sound research,” Lopez said. “Engaging in abstract research, it plays a role of guiding the subsequent discussion among the intellectual class and ultimately among the political debate. It can provide important input.”

Faculty members who have criticized the proposed Center for the Study of Free Enterprise fear the outside funding from the Koch Foundation will unduly influence intellectual pursuits and curriculum.

“Accepting a monetary gift from a source that passionately believes in a fundamental socio-economic postulate without opening that postulate up for investigation appears counterintuitive,” according to a statement endorsed by a large majority of WCU’s faculty senate in October.

“Other institutions in recent years who have accepted gifts from the Koch Foundation have indeed struggled with academic freedom issues, with much negative publicity,” the faculty senate statement goes on. “Any research conclusions consistent with the Foundation’s ideological perspective may be considered fruit from the poisoned tree.”

WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar tried to placate some of the concerns expressed in the faculty senate resolution.

“Their resolution was based on alleged academic freedom restrictions and curricular control,” Morrison-Shetlar said. But she pledged that wouldn’t be the case. So did Lopez. And so did WCU Chancellor David Belcher.

“We have been completely clear there will be no strings attached,” Belcher said.

The problem, however, is that faculty has yet to see anything in writing from the Koch Foundation outlining terms of the gift. In fact, the Koch Foundation has not formally offered funding.

“There has been no gift agreement put forward,” Morrison-Shetlar said.

Dr. Bruce Henderson, a professor of psychology, questioned why the trustees and administration would approve the free enterprise center in principle without any written documentation from the funders Lopez claims to have lined up.

“Academe has a rich tradition of peer review that is absent in this case,” Henderson said. “Our administration and board of trustees appear to have bought a pig in a poke.”

Lopez has an open line of communication with the Koch Foundation and a longstanding relationship with them, including leadership roles in other think tanks and academic pursuits they fund.

So far, the conversation between Lopez and the Koch Foundation has been just that: a conversation about what could be or what might be if Lopez could get university approval.

Faculty members have no idea what conditions the Koch Foundation would try to put on the funding. Based on stipulations at other universities, the Koch Foundation has tried to influence everything from course syllabi to which professors are hired using their money.

Morrison-Shetlar said those conditions wouldn’t fly at WCU.

“When you receive any gifts or grants you have to identify the restrictions they may put on you, and you accept the gift or not,” she said. “We would not accept any grant or any gift from any entity to impact our academic freedom or our ability to have open discourse. That might be at other institutions but that would not the be the case at WCU.”


Under the microscope

Lopez, WCU’s Distinguished Professor of Capitalism, came up through the ranks of the Koch-funded Mercatus Center embedded within George Mason University in Virginia, which has been criticized as being a training ground for legions of free enterprise foot soldiers who go on to populate the halls of academia in American universities nationwide.

Lopez said he is a strong proponent of academic freedom and would personally object to any influence from donors to control the content of research or curriculum.

Even though Lopez is an undeniable supporter of free enterprise and has a longstanding relationship with the political think tanks funded with Koch money over the years, that doesn’t mean he would sell out his academic integrity to manipulation by the Koch Foundation.

“Anybody who thinks that about me, I personally invite them to come to my classes and look at my syllabus and see the assignments I give to me students,” Lopez said.

“Some of my students do say sometimes ‘Well, what do you think?’ I say ‘It is not my job to tell you what to think. It is my job to teach you and help you think or think deeply.’” 

Academic freedom cuts both ways, however. A faculty member should not be censored or prevented from studying a discipline simply because their peers find it offensive.

“We are a university and the university’s job is to make sure as many different points of view can be represented as possible,” Lopez said.

Lopez said he couldn’t postulate on whether faculty who oppose the center are a victim of their own personal political biases. Do they oppose any field of study supported by Koch funding simply because they don’t like what the Kochs stand for?

“If that is what is going on, that is wrong on a lot of different levels. A faculty member should not be someone who puts their head in the sand or shuts someone else down because they don’t like what they are saying. If that’s the case that’s wrong,” Lopez said.

Faculty who support the free enterprise center have found it ironic — even hypocritical — that liberal professors are taking issue with their hallowed halls of academia being polluted by conservative-leaning theories. 

In written comments submitted during a faculty feedback period, Dr. Scott Rader with the College of Business said most of his undergraduate college courses “had an all-too-often, not so thinly veiled advocacy for a particular political persuasion” and a “significant element of ideology, whether tacit or explicit, clandestine or overt.”

Rader said the perspective offered by the free enterprise center will perhaps be a needed counter to the “prevailing milieu of ‘skewed’ political viewpoints in other courses students take.”

Lopez questioned why so much attention has focused on private funding from the Kochs. WCU is among 300 universities nationwide that have received Koch money.

“There is widespread agreement among these universities that the donations, like donations from their other sponsors, do not infringe on curriculum or academic freedom,” Lopez said.

Lopez doesn’t see how that differs from the many sources of private, outside funding given to universities for particular fields.

“The list spans all types of programs funded by wealthy business donors from the entire range of diverse world views,” Lopez said. “The increasing diversity and magnitude of these trends bode well for the future of higher education.”

Lopez’s commitment to the free enterprise doctrine aside, Dr. Leroy Kauffman, an accounting professor, believes Lopez’s assertions about academic freedom are genuine.

“Academic freedoms is something we hold near and deer to our heart, and I think Dr. Lopez is thoroughly committed to that,” Kauffman said.

But Dr. Bruce Henderson, a psychology professor, questioned why WCU wants to pursue a center focusing on just one economic and political system — especially when WCU doesn’t even offer an economics major.


Shuffling the deck chairs

In exchange for Koch money, WCU would have to put up matching money of its own. That caused a vile reaction from faculty who questioned why WCU should devote any of its own resources to it.

The proposed budget for the center was tinkered in response, so that WCU’s entire match would come in the form of two tenured professors already in its budget for the business school. They would simply be labeled as free enterprise economic professors and qualify as WCU putting in matching funds, although both positions were existing ones and thus not new money WCU has to come up with.

Not all faculty buys the argument.

“We aren’t convinced there is no extra cost burden on the university,” said Dr. David McCord, chair of the faculty senate.

Henderson said allocating two fulltime tenured positions to the free enterprise center — even if they were already in WCU’s budget — is still expending university resources.

“In the 21st century, tenure track positions are the most valuable and scarce resources a university has,” Henderson said.

WCU already has one free enterprise economist on its payroll as a tenured professor, and that’s Lopez. The center proposed by Lopez calls for three more tenure-track professor positions under the free enterprise center structure. 

Two of those would be paid for by WCU. While those positions exist in the College of Business budget already, any spending on professors in one discipline detracts from spending in another.

“If were starting a department of any kind, I certainly would not hire three faculty members from the same perspective. Why would we want to hire three ‘free market’ economists rather than an internationalist, a behavioral economist and a Keynesian or a demographer?” Henderson said. “If we want to give our students a broad, flexible education that will serve them a lifetime, indoctrination in one perspective is not what they need.”

Dr. Kauffman, the accounting professor, said it is presumptive to assume all three economic professors hired under the banner of the free enterprise center would be advocates of the free enterprise doctrine. 

“I don’t know what kinds of requirements there would be that they have to by sympathetic to the free enterprise perspective. Or if we would be looking for economists,” Kauffman said. “I don’t see us ending up with three professor lines that are filled with the three people dedicated solely to free enterprise.”

While there is no offer yet from the Koch Foundation to fund the free enterprise center, Lopez anticipates a favorable response when he formally appeals to the foundation for funding in coming weeks.

If outside funding doesn’t come through, the free enterprise center won’t come to pass.

“It will not be established until we have external funding to support it,” said Morrison-Shetlar.

If the center hinges on outside funding — and won’t be created otherwise — then it seems to be driven merely by opportunity, rather than a legitimate need or mission of the university, said Dr. Brian Railsback, an English professor and former dean.

“Is this a curricular or enrollment driven decision?” Railsback questioned. “If not, if it is just an opportunity because Charles Koch has offered some money, then there is no denying it is a political entity.”

Even in the absence of a quid pro quo arrangement pinned down in writing between WCU and the Koch Foundation, faculty members fear there are unspoken expectations that the free enterprise center would contribute to a particular school of thought.

“I think there are very clear strings attached,” said Dr. Laura Wright, head of the WCU English Department. “The research that comes out of these centers is then cited by politicians who use this scholarship to argue a special agenda that is the Koch’s agenda.”

Lopez disagreed. He said there would be “no strings attached other than following through with the mission and deliverables of the Center,” which in his view is the pursuit of scholarly inquiry and research in the field of economics.

Lopez would get a raise of $45,000 if the free enterprise center comes to fruition, according to the proposed budget.

Lopez’s base salary is currently $136,000. As the director of the free enterprise center, Lopez would get an additional $45,000 a year. The salary increase would be funded solely from Koch money, not the university’s pocket, per the proposed budget. The salary increase reflects Lopez moving from what is technically a nine-month to a 12-month position.

The free enterprise center will not be housed in a physical building, at least not under the current plan. The center would exist solely through its team of staff — a director, three full-time professors, and an admin assistant.

Here’s a snapshot of the proposed budget:

• $128,000 a year in operational costs funded solely with Koch money, including guest speakers, policy forums, financial support for student and faculty research and travel to conferences.

• $550,000 a year in salaries and staff support, with $250,000 coming from the university in the form of pre-existing professor positions that will count as its “match.” The remaining $300,000 in salaries and staffing from Koch money would pay for Lopez’s raise, a tenured professor position, administrative support, student interns and $20,000 in bonuses to spread around to professors from various disciplines who contribute to the free enterprise center activities.


Trustees weigh in

Even if the center didn’t cost WCU a dime, faculty members who have been critical of the free enterprise center questioned the merit of university-backed research being carried out under the guise of promoting one economic agenda or model above others.

However, the unanimous vote by the WCU board of trustees last week endorsing the free enterprise center clearly shows that university leaders don’t agree.

“The donors are not trying to control what we teach, how we teach, the style we teach. They are trying to build a focus on creating entrepreneurship,” said Phil Drake, a WCU trustee and conservative Franklin businessman who built a vertically-integrated, multi-faceted business around his tax accounting software firm. “Their conservative beliefs should not impact whether we take that contribution.”

Drake said he would gladly take a contribution from any liberal foundation. To the contrary, turning down money because of the political leanings of a donor is tantamount to academic censorship by refusing to study a topic.

Belcher said the concerns about WCU being beholden to donors for accepting their money is an issue of “realty versus perception.”

“We try to foster diverse perspective and viewpoints.”

Those debates define a university,” Belcher said, pointing out that free enterprise is an economic model within the mainstream.

Chair of the trustees academic affairs committee Wardell Townsend agreed free enterprise doesn’t have political underpinnings in his opinion.

“It is a way of looking at our economic system,” Townsend said.

WCU trustee Bryant Kinney said he doesn’t understand the opposition to the study of free enterprise.

“Free enterprise is how we do business in this country. It is what makes our country great,” said Kinney.

Ed Broadwell, chairman of the WCU board of trustees, weighed in on whether Koch money is tainted in a written statement issued after the trustees’ vote last week.

Broadwell said the board was aware of faculty fears the money would bring with it “inappropriate influence over academic matters,” but assured that “academic freedom is and will remain paramount.”

Broadwell said the university should be a forum for exploring diverse schools of thought — and thus should not censor the study of free enterprise because of opposition to the “political and/or ideological leanings” of the Koch Foundation.

WCU’s creation of a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise — which has conservative ties — comes amid statewide debate in the university system over liberal ties of private funders for other academic centers of study. The UNC Board of Governors shut down the privately funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, led by a professor who has been critical of Republican lawmakers.

The Board of Governors also shut down the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University — which were criticized for promoting liberal agendas.

Dr. Bill Yang questioned why WCU would commit resources to opening a new center on the heels of centers on university campuses elsewhere in the state being closed down.

“From my personal point of view, the reallocation of the significant university funds to establish the center may not be prudent given the recent UNC system-wide review of university centers,” Yang said.

Tom Fetzer, a Raleigh conservative appointed to the WCU board of trustees by Gov. Pat McCrory, said free enterprise is a concept students should be confronted with.

“This is not indoctrination, but this is about exposing students to a set of values which they may or may not choose to embrace,” said Fetzer, who is past chair of the N.C. Republican Party and former staffer at the conservative John Locke Foundation think tank. “This is exposing them to a critical set of ideals.”



Behind the cap and gown

Western Carolina University is not alone in the debate over outside money and whether it’s undermining academic integrity and freedom on campuses across America. The Smoky Mountain News will continue to explore the issue in coming weeks.

• What exactly is free enterprise, and why is it controversial? Is the proposed Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at WCU beholden to a particular political philosophy or simply an mainstream economic discipline? 

• Private funding from foundations tied to the Koch brothers, known for the wide-reaching strategy to shape America’s political landscape and further their conservative Libertarian ideology, is increasingly being funneled to universities across the nation. Where and how is Koch funding cropping up on campuses? How is academia considered a lynchpin in the Kochs’ strategy to influence public policy and perception?

• It’s a little known fact that Western Carolina University has been getting annual contributions from the Koch Foundation for several years. How has Koch money been spent on WCU’s campus to date and what are the impacts on student teachings? 

• As universities struggle with state budget cuts, they are increasingly turning to outside funding from a variety of sources to prop up their academic mission. What sources of outside funding are finding its way into WCU and how is that influencing the research focus and teachings of faculty?

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