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WCU chancellor pledges transparency, faculty involvement to vet controversial Koch money

WCUWestern Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher announced to faculty this week that he would engage their input and oversight in crafting the terms and conditions of a $2 million grant from the politically charged Charles Koch Foundation.

Many faculty had expressed concerns over the creation of a WCU center dedicated to free enterprise, a libertarian-leaning economic philosophy espoused by the conservative network of the Koch brothers, and were disheartened when university leaders barreled ahead with their approval of the center earlier this month. 

To help assuage fears that the Koch Foundation is trying to buy its way into WCU’s lecture halls, Belcher has pledged to appoint a faculty committee to review the gift contract between WCU and the Koch Foundation and presumably ferret out any overt or hidden strings that may be attached — although Belcher has said he won’t allow any.

An existing university policy — policy 104 — calls for this sort of faculty review, but technically it is triggered only if a gift has presumed “curricular implications.”

Belcher said he would err on the side of caution.

“In this case, because there are many concerns that the gift might result in an infringement of academic freedom, I am going to go ahead and involve an ad hoc committee just to assure and reassure people,” Belcher said. “Because there is so much concern about this I will appoint an ad hoc review committee and let them be involved.”

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That’s the right move, according to many faculty.

“I would say it is best for the university to go through this process, because it would show we are following the policy and that it is not up to the eye of the beholder whether there are curricular implications,” said Todd Collins, director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute.

Before Belcher’s announcement Monday, faculty weren’t sure whether policy 104 would be triggered automatically, or if they would have to lobby to make it happen. But Dr. Brent Kinser, an English professor, said Belcher made the right call given the climate among faculty.

“I do not anticipate the chancellor or his team will try to slide around policy 104 if there is the slightest hint or suggestion there are curricular issues,” Kinser said. “It will help make sure it conforms to the will of the faculty, so that any slight perception or misperception about what this thing is, is rectified. This is why these policies are in place. I am confident that’s what is going to happen.”

Dr. David McCord, chair of the faculty senate, said he hopes faculty will embrace an “energetic implementation” of policy 104.

“A lot of my colleagues — smart, energetic, engaged colleagues — are frustrated by what they perceived as substantial glossing over of faculty concerns,” McCord said, citing the trustees’ approval of the center despite an overwhelming resolution by the faculty senate opposing it. “There is a temptation to check out, but we need to engage rather than disengage. That is our job, we need to be the guardians of the mission of the university.”

Belcher acknowledged the faculty review of the gift agreement could slow things down, but so be it.

“When one is working with donors sometimes time is of essence, but particularly in cases where there may be some question, it is important to take the time necessary so we can all ensure the integrity of our institution is sustained,” Belcher said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Koch-backed free enterprise center have cried foul over academic freedom issues as well. They accused faculty on the other side of the issue of trying to shut down the study of viewpoints they don’t agree with.

“Academic freedom and tolerance of varying views is our intellectual capital,” Dr. Ed Wright from the College of Business wrote in support of the free enterprise center. “Dismissing the gift of $2 million on the basis that the giver’s political views conflict with the more liberal views (of faculty) seems silly to me.”

But Dr. John Whitmire, a philosophy professor, said it’s a false choice: turning down the money is not tantamount to shutting down academic freedom. Critics of the free enterprise center aren’t suggesting faculty can’t study what they please. The question, instead, is whether WCU wants to lend its name to a cause by creating a center for it.

“A center carries a level of institutional legitimacy. A center represents an institution in a way an individual faculty member doesn’t,” Whitmire said. “We are talking about the mission and identity of the institution.”


Drop in the bucket

The endorsement by WCU trustees of a free enterprise center earlier this month was contingent on outside funding from the Koch Foundation. But nothing has been formally penned yet.

Other than a visit from two Koch Foundation representatives in early fall for a meet-and-greet with top WCU brass, communication with the Koch Foundation has been handled almost entirely by Dr. Ed Lopez, an economics professor with long-standing ties to the Koch network.

While faculty are eagerly awaiting their first glimpse of what the gift agreement may entail, and will then turn their attention to wordsmithing the contract between WCU and the Koch Foundation, there are outstanding concerns over the unspoken implications the Koch funding will carry.

WCU is among dozens of universities across the country grappling with the conundrum of Koch money. 

The Koch brothers and their various funding arms awarded $108 million to 366 colleges and universities from 2005 to 2014, seen as part of a subtle strategy to use scholars to steer political policy and influence the collective consciousness of society.

“They use funding as traction to change the intellectual climate on campuses, and that’s what this is about,” Kinser said.

The Koch Foundation gift is one of the biggest gifts WCU has ever landed — if not the biggest gift ever.

WCU has gotten only six gifts in the past decade that topped $1 million. The Koch gift is the only one out of those to hit the $2 million mark.

But, collectively, WCU has gotten $30 million in outside gifts over the past decade, not counting grants.

Nearly lost amid the media mayhem over the controversial Koch gift, WCU proudly announced another $1 million gift last Friday — from the homegrown accounting firm Dixon Hughes to benefit the accounting program in the College of Business.

WCU has made a concerted effort to ramp up outside giving in light of state budget cuts in recent years. Last year, WCU set a record in outside gifts, bringing in $3.8 million.

But the increased reliance on outside gifts makes the university vulnerable to donors — perhaps not through overt stipulations but by leading the university to take up whatever mantel of study a donor is willing to underwrite.

“I understand we are under an aggressive new giving campaign, but that must be tempered with common sense and a sensible business case for the gifts,” Dr. Patrick Gardner, a professor in the Kimmel Construction School, wrote during faculty comments.

Faculty who have voiced support for the free enterprise center questioned why this gift is getting so much attention, when theoretically any gift comes with an implied mission of the donor.

“It seems to me that every person or organization that donates funds to a university has an objective to influence the performance and outcomes of the university,” Dr. Scott Huffman, a chemistry professor, wrote in faculty comments on the issue.

John Hardin, the director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, said outside funding at universities is “entirely commonplace,” pegging the collective outside funding at colleges and universities in North Carolina over the past decade at $24 billion.

“Colleges and universities welcome these gifts, because they benefit both students and professors. Students gain from the expanded access to new ideas and concepts. Professors gain opportunities to teach new classes and expand their research interests,” Hardin wrote in a guest column to the Asheville Citizen-Times last week in response to the WCU funding controversy. “Most importantly, private funding helps further the transformative ideas and pioneering studies that have long been a hallmark of American education.” 


Invisible strings

Despite the steady flow of outside gifts WCU receives, this will be the first time policy 104 has been triggered. 

The policy dates back to 2008, when a similar faculty controversy broke out over $1 million in outside funding from the BB&T Foundation. The gift had strings attached that were unpalatable to many faculty at the time — namely by dictating the philosophical and political viewpoint of the professor being hired with the BB&T money and by imposing course content for students.

An ensuing uproar among faculty over academic freedom from outside influences led to the creation of policy 104.

To Todd Collins, the director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, what’s playing out at WCU is a microcosm of how policies are born at every level of society.

At the nucleus of almost every policy, there’s a singular episode that sets off a chain reaction. At WCU, the BB&T gift drove faculty to come up with parameters that would head off or neutralize a similar problem that might arise in the future.

Policy 104 will now have to prove its mettle for the first time since it was put on the books seven years ago.

Faculty that wrote the policy were careful not to get in the weeds over the type of gifts allowed, or even whether academic criteria can be imposed.

Instead, it provides a check-and-balance through a faculty committee that would be tasked with analyzing a gift agreement.

“How do we write a policy or law after a specific instance that is general enough to apply to all future instances?” Collins said. “We can’t anticipate everything that will happen but that’s what a good, effective, policy attempts.” 

But remembering that such a policy is on the books often comes down to institutional memory.

“A problem comes up, you don’t think about it for 10 years and you can forget this policy is in place,” Collins said. “This is an issue that, luckily for us, hasn’t come up very often.”

The criteria initially imposed by the BB&T Foundation in exchange for its $1 million gift in 2008 was ultimately rewritten as a result of faculty pushback.

It initially required WCU to make Atlas Shrugged — considered a Bible of libertarian economic philosophy — required reading in College of Business courses and required a copy of Atlas Shrugged to be given out to every business major their junior year.

That criteria was tempered as a result of faculty pushback that maintained outside donors should not be permitted to dictate what professors teach, or force professors to teach a particular viewpoint to students.

New wording made it clear that BB&T would like for professors to assign portions of Atlas Shrugged to students, but left it up to “their sole and unfettered discretion” whether to do so.

The donor also initially stipulated that the professor bearing the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism title had to “work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.”

While that language was formally struck, WCU’s job posting for the position in 2011 nonetheless called for a professor who was “at least familiar with, if not actively receptive to, the writings of Ayn Rand.”

Lopez, the professor now at the center of the Koch funding, answered the call and was hired. In his time at WCU, he has been an active advocate of the free enterprise school of thought, and collaborated closely with think tanks that promote a libertarian and conservative agenda, according to a review of his email communications with outside, his published papers and his conference groups.

Even if there is no stated ideological litmus test for faculty hires embedded in the Koch gift agreement, some faculty have expressed concerns over the unspoken expectations.

Three new economics professors would be hired under the banner of the free enterprise center. All three positions have been advertised already, and incidentally, Lopez ran the wording of the job descriptions past the Koch Foundation before they were posted, according to email records.

The job descriptions make reference to the free enterprise center, even though it had not been approved at the time they were posted, and some faculty fear that will influence the pool of applicants who may apply — amounting to an “a priori ideological requirement for faculty hires,” according to written comments from Dr. Elizabeth Heffelfinger.

“I am concerned that the influence that may be exerted may limit any hiring of faculty with perspectives counter to that of the funder,” agreed Dr. Kae Livsey from the nursing school.

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