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

fr lopezWestern Carolina University leaders bucked concerns of faculty when they voted last week to create a free enterprise center funded with outside money from politically-charged mega donors.

The WCU faculty senate voted overwhelmingly against the creation of such a free enterprise center in October — three in favor and 21 opposed. The majority who weighed in during a faculty forum and written comment period also opposed the free enterprise center. 

Faculty questioned whether the funding was politically tainted and would make the university a pawn in the sweeping strategy of the Libertarian Koch brothers to advance their ultra-conservative ideology through the robes of academia.

“It is not a small stakes issue here. This is the academic integrity of the institution over the long run,” said Faculty Senate Chair Dr. David McCord, professor of psychology.

Despite faculty concerns, WCU’s board of trustees voted unanimously to create a free enterprise center contingent on funding from outside sources. WCU Chancellor David Belcher backed the center’s creation as well.

Asked whether taking $2 million in Koch money would elevate or diminish the public perception of WCU, Belcher said some people are “ecstatic” about the prospect of a Koch-funded center and others object to it. But the source of the money shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

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“We have been completely clear there will be no strings attached,” Belcher said. “The issue is about reality and perception.”

Faculty wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the trustees’ vote given the fast track the free enterprise center has been on since September, but they were disappointed nonetheless.

“It is rare that the faculty senate has such a near unified voice on something,” said Dr. Brian Railsback, WCU English professor and former Honors College Dean. “The faculty, their charge is to protect the curriculum. There really should have been pause to reflect on what the senate was recommending.”

McCord agreed it is “fairly unique” to have the overwhelming majority of faculty take a stand one way and the administration do the opposite.

“What is that going to mean? Are we going to fall apart in disarray and open warfare?” McCord said in an address to the board of trustees at their meeting last week. “I predict we will continue to work together collaboratively and collegiately. There is no animosity.”

Likewise, faculty doesn’t plan to roll over.

“I will also have to be honest and say this battle is not over,” McCord told the trustees, promising they would hear from him on the issue again at their next quarterly meeting in March.

Belcher said he did not take the decision lightly when he endorsed the creation of a free enterprise center, especially since it meant going against the faculty senate.

“I have appreciated the healthy, robust conversation that this proposal has generated,” Belcher wrote in an email to faculty last week. “It is my firm belief that the university, of all places, is and must be the locus of civil discourse and debate on the worthy issues and ideas of our time.”

Belcher has fostered a collegial relationship with faculty since arriving at WCU four years ago.

“I think a hallmark of the healthiest relationship between faculty and administration is an environment where people feel free to disagree,” Belcher said. “I think the free flow of idea and the opportunity to disagree in the context of civil discourse is a hallmark of American higher education done right.”

Belcher was a breath of fresh air for faculty in that sense compared to his predecessor, long-time Chancellor John Bardo. Faculty often felt disenfranchised and under-valued by Bardo, especially in the final years of his tenure.

“Even right now, in the midst of this Koch crisis, if you were to ask people to contrast those two leaders, hands down we support Dr. Belcher,” McCord said. “So many of the things he has done are substantive and real and lasting.”

McCord cited transparency in the university budget process that Belcher has put in practice, as well as a more transparent and open style of leadership.

Faculty morale has improved under Belcher — in large part because they feel valued rather than extraneous — according to David Claxton, a health education professor at WCU for 22 years.  But now, going against the overwhelming position of faculty with not even a moment of pause seemed out of character for Belcher.

“I was surprised because in my opinion he had been very open to faculty opinions and seemed to value the faculty very highly,” Claxton said.

During a debate like this, professors have a comfort level that they can’t be fired for expressing their views.

Nonetheless, there are ways university administration can get back at a professor, from derailing their chances at promotion to turning down requests for research pursuits. 

While some professors declined to comment publicly for this article — citing a need to stay in administration’s good graces due to their particular academic station — no one seemed to fear retaliatory action outright, and that speaks volumes of Belcher, McCord said.

“He makes it safe to take a stand,” McCord said. 

But even in a less friendly climate, faculty would have taken the risk anyway, McCord said.

“If you are going to take a stand, this is what you want to do it on,” McCord said. “I was really proud of my colleagues.”


Faculty mandate questioned

WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar questioned whether McCord’s views reflect those of the faculty at large and whether his comments should be extrapolated as applying to all faculty.

Morrison-Shetlar even questioned whether the faculty senate vote was indicative of faculty sentiment.

Casting doubt on the clout of faculty senate could have made it easier for the chancellor and board of trustees to justify their own decision that ran counter to that of the faculty senate.

Short of a campus-wide poll of faculty, it’s hard to say definitively how the majority of faculty feels. But any professor taking the pulse of his peers around campus quickly concludes there are more against it than for it.

“The Faculty Senate voted in majority opposing the establishment of this new center, which is consistent with what I have heard from the general faculty,” said Dr. Bill Yang, chair of the faculty senate rules committee.

Claxton agreed.

“I have come across no one so far — actually make that only one faculty member — who thought it was a good idea. The vast majority of faculty I talked to are disappointed,” Claxton said.

Claxton said the faculty senate is elected to serve as the “faculty voice” and its legitimacy shouldn’t be questioned.

“If there was some question about whether this in fact represented the feelings of the entire faculty or just a few disgruntled faculty senate members, maybe we could have that discussion in a broader forum,” Claxton said.

During a two-week window allotted for faculty input, an open forum was hosted by the faculty senate, giving faculty the chance to speak out, ask questions and hear from the proponents of the center.

The majority of faculty who spoke at the forum expressed concerns about the center.

At-large faculty could also submit written comments with the two-week comment period. Faculty sent their comments to Dr. Brian Kloeppel, dean of the graduate school, who served as the collection point before turning them all over to Morrison-Shetlar and the provost council.

In an interview last week, Morrison-Shetlar said the majority of written comments from faculty support the creation of a free enterprise center. She said only one-third of those who submitted comments opposed it.

That’s not actually the case, however, according to an analysis of the written faculty responses based on a public record request by The Smoky Mountain News.

The written comments showed 20 were against the center, 14 were for it and three were in the middle.

Dr. Edward Lopez, the Distinguished Professor of Capitalism and the lead proponent of the center, and his colleagues in the College of Business are more likely to support the proposed center than faculty in other areas of the university.

During a written comment period, 11 of the 14 faculty members in support of the free enterprise center were from the College of Business.

Morrison-Shetlar’s characterization of the written faculty comments came with a caveat. She apparently discounted concerns raised by faculty over the funding issue as the product of faculty confusion over how much, if any, money WCU would have to spend from its own coffers. Comments that focused on the funding source for the center were qualified in Morrison-Shetlar’s mind as not truly being opposed to the center on its merits, but rather on faculty misperceptions over funding.


Time for vetting

While faculty was given a chance to weigh in, they were brought to the table fairly late in the game. By the time faculty was told about the free enterprise center, it was a fast-moving train, headed full steam ahead for the finish line of the chancellor’s desk.

The idea for the center was pitched by Lopez, who has longstanding ties with Koch-funded think tanks that predate his arrival to WCU in 2012 as the Distinguished Professor of Capitalism.

Lopez was given approval in mid-August to pursue his idea of a free enterprise center and craft a proposal. Only the business college dean and the WCU Provost knew about Lopez’s idea at this point.

Business college faculty weren’t made aware of the free enterprise center until late September when time was suddenly of the essence to get faculty input prior to the center coming up for a vote at an impending provost council meeting. Business college faculty were hastily apprised of the idea in a meeting — it is unclear how many attended — and asked for comments before the next provost council meeting in just four days’ time. 

The provost and dean of the business college had just realized that university policy required faculty input before formally initiating the planning phase of a new center or institute. 

Dr. Darrell Parker, dean of the business college, said in an email on Sept. 24 that he didn’t realize faculty input was needed during the planning phase. He hoped to have the provost council vote on the planning phase in just four days, and if faculty input was needed at the planning phase step, it would have to be done fast.

Thus the idea of the free enterprise center was carried to faculty in the business school the next day, and they were asked for a quick feedback.

Minutes from the provost council meeting on Oct. 1 also reflect that the preliminary round of faculty feedback had to be gathered hastily to comply with an 11th-hour revelation of the policy requirement.

Dr. Leroy Kauffman, professor of accounting in the College of Business, said Lopez should have told his fellow colleagues in the business school earlier.

“I told Ed it would have been really nice if we in the college had a chance to be more up to speed with what was happening as you were developing this, instead of it being dropped in our lap,” Kauffman said.

He said those in the College of Business barely had a heads up before the proposal showed up in faculty senate, making business school professors ill-prepared to address the campus buzz that exploded.

“It was kind of ‘oh here is something we are doing and we are moving ahead toward the faculty senate,’” Kauffman said.

As for the rest of faculty, they were informed of the proposal on Oct. 14 and given only two weeks to comment — a timeline once again predicated by an impending provost council meeting where the center was slated for a vote that would ship it up to the chancellor’s office.

Giving the faculty only two weeks to study, contemplate and debate the proposed center is concerning to Railsback.

“When you have a body like the faculty senate, the greatest way to empower that organization and make them feel like they are part of the process is to show them their voice makes a difference, and the biggest way to disempower them is to show them that their voice doesn’t,” Railsback said.

Before the WCU board voted on the center last week, Morrison-Shetlar told trustees that there had been “extra levels of stakeholder” participation across campus.

She also told trustees “extra measures” were taken to solicit faculty input.

That’s laughable to some faculty.

“It was a very high-speed process,” McCord said. “It seemed rushed and truncated.” 

University policy lays out a series of formal steps for proposing, vetting and creating a new center or institute.

“The writers of that policy envisioned a fairly comprehensive planning process,” McCord said.

Morrison-Shetlar said in an interview the policy was “followed to the letter.”

However, a few steps laid out in the policy were either skipped or altered to suit an accelerated timetable, according to a review of communication between key players during the process.

Wardell Townsend, chair of the WCU board of trustees, said university policy related to the center’s creation was followed, based on what he was told by the provost.

“I did inquire about that and I was assured that all tenants of policy 105 were followed,” Townsend said, referencing the university policy number for the creation of centers and institutes.

While an argument could be made that university policy wasn’t followed, procedural logistics aside, it often seemed like the horse trailing the cart, McCord said.

Lopez countered that university policy was followed in his opinion.

“I am not aware of criticisms the policy wasn’t followed,” Lopez said. “This decision is the end of a process that from the very beginning was transparent and inclusive.”

As a side note, the provost council comprised primarily of WCU deans did not unanimously endorse the creation of the free enterprise center. Minutes of the provost council meeting in late October made no mention of the split vote, however.

A public records request for the breakdown of votes on the provost council revealed that eight of the 12 provost council members voted in favor, two abstained, and two voted against it. However, the university did not respond to a request for which two individuals on the provost council voted ‘no.’

Morrison-Shetlar declined to mention the specifics of the vote totals among her provost council when she presented the free enterprise center proposal to the board of trustees for a vote last week. Nor did she mention the enormous controversy swirling among faculty to the trustees.

Townsend said they were all aware of the faculty controversy, however.

“We were aware of it,” Townsend said after the meeting. “We believe the provost also took it into account.”


A fait accompli?

Some faculty believe the creation of a free enterprise center was a forgone conclusion from the start. An email indicates administration was on board from the very outset of the planning phase.

“The Chancellor would like for the proposal to be to the Board of Trustees by the last meeting of this semester. That means we will have to get this turned around and back to the Provost Council in a timely manner,” Dean Darrell Parker wrote in an email to Dr. Brian Kloeppel, the dean named to handle the faculty input process.

The email dates to late September — and predates several steps outlined in university policy governing the creation of a new center or institute. Administration was already angling to have the center on the desk of trustees within a couple months, despite two rounds of faculty input still needed and a two-phased approval by the provost council.

Also, a job posting for a WCU economics professor opening appeared in early October — two months before the free enterprise center would come before the board of trustees for a vote.

The job description posted in early October said the position would “participate in a new interdisciplinary center for free enterprise research.”

Lopez, who wrote the job description, felt it was prudent to reference the free enterprise center since he anticipated the center coming to fruition and the position — the Gimelstob-Landry Distinguished Professor of Regional Economic Development — would be under the center as part of the university’s matching fund obligation.

It wasn’t the first time WCU posted a job opening for the new distinguished professor of economic development. Lopez previously announced the position last year, but said no good matches were found for the position.

The job description Lopez posted for the same professorship last year didn’t make reference to free enterprise, but instead called more broadly for a “prominent scholar of economic development” who would aid in regional economic development outreach.

The new job description Lopez wrote this year called for “thought leadership on public policies related to economic development” and stipulated that the professor would “participate in a new interdisciplinary center for free enterprise research.”

Referencing the free enterprise center in a job description could lead to self-selection of applications, appealing to those from the free enterprise school of thought.

One concern cited by opponents of the free enterprise center is whether its funders would influence the professors brought on board. Lopez was adamant that would not be the case.

“As far as I’m involved, there is no chance that any donor will appoint any university personnel, full stop,” Lopez said.

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