Koch money at WCU remains under scrutiny
A Western Carolina University professor with ties to the ultra-conservative Koch brothers political network worked behind the scenes with outside donors to devise a coordinated strategy that would influence the hiring of professors and use WCU to further conservative economic theory in society, according to a review of university email communications.
“lf things do go the faculty’s way with these hires, then WCU would be poised to emerge as a powerhouse of student development and research in the areas of economic freedom and free market policy analysis,” wrote Dr. Ed Lopez, an economics professor, in an email to the Koch Foundation in July.
At the time, Lopez was laying the groundwork for a $2 million gift from the Koch Foundation. In exchange, the Koch Foundation could advance its own mission of cultivating “a pipeline of students” trained in free enterprise theory and stacking the economics faculty free-enterprise “thought-leaders,” Lopez wrote in the email.
By the fall, however, controversy had erupted among WCU faculty over whether to take $2 million from the Koch Foundation in exchange for creating a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise on campus.
Despite widespread concerns among faculty about the intent and motive behind the free enterprise center — namely whether it would serve as an advocacy machine for a specific socio-economic and political school of thought — it was approved by the university administration and board of trustees.
Chancellor David Belcher did not see the $2 million gift, the largest in WCU’s history, nor the creation of a free enterprise center as compromising academic freedom.
However, strategy communications between Lopez and the Koch Foundation — obtained through a public records request by The Smoky Mountain News — suggest part of Lopez’s goal is to stack the economics department faculty with professors who support conservative economic theory. Lopez described what he called “the hiring possibilities and my proposed strategy for successfully navigating them” in the planning document sent to the Koch Foundation in July.
In the document, Lopez shared an itemized assessment of each economics professor at WCU, including how “friendly” they were to free enterprise theory.
However, Dr. David McCord, chair of the WCU faculty senate, said the mission of academia is to serve as a marketplace of ideas, and students shouldn’t have one view being heralded over others.
“Students need to acquire over time the ability to sort through competing ideas and look at their advantages and disadvantages,” McCord said. “The idea of picking a specific, narrow, elaborate point of view and promoting that as the right way is not consistent with what the university education system should be.”
McCord said it is not uncommon for faculty in any department to want more professors from their discipline to be hired.
“There is a tendency to try to tap people from your own niche and try to develop it into a degree program,” McCord said. “But a healthy university has checks and balances.”
The planning documents reveal a vested interest by both Lopez and the Koch Foundation to make WCU a hub for the promotion of the free enterprise school of thought, a socio-economic philosophy rooted in conservative principles.
Koch-funded hubs on university campuses have been spreading across the country, serving as incubators for free enterprise theory. Lopez makes repeated references to the idea of “clusters” — his term for groupings of universities in a geographic region that also have Koch-funded free enterprise activities — and suggests WCU would be a valuable contributor within its “cluster.”
Professors could serve as “thought leaders” for the advancement of free enterprise ideals, Lopez wrote in the preliminary planning dialogue to the Koch Foundation.
But Dr. Bruce Henderson, a WCU psychology professor, said the university needs thoughtful leaders, not thought leaders.
Henderson said focusing on a particular school of thought can create an identity for a university and establish it as an expert in a particular field. However, that approach has drawbacks.
“The disadvantage is that students are faced with an education that is much closer to training or propaganda,” Henderson said.
More troubling to Henderson is that Lopez is acting unilaterally with an outside organization to steer university administration into developing a concentration in a school of thought outside the typical planning and prioritization process. That’s something a university should decide for itself, he said.
“Here a tiny, unrepresentative portion of the university faculty has decided on a strategic direction that has major consequences for the university, not in discussions with the rest of the faculty, but with an outside group with a decidedly biased perspective,” Henderson said. “To my amazement, the administration bought it. That, in my experience, is extraordinary.”
Henderson said the early strategy discussion between Lopez and the Koch Foundation highlights their own interests of expanding economics course offerings and restoring the previously eliminated economics major, which don’t necessarily square with the university’s priorities.
“The university faculty has been left out of the discussions and the Koch Foundation and Dr. Lopez are clearly the beneficiaries of the decisions that have been made,” Henderson said. “The process was off the rails.”
Henderson pointed to the campus-wide strategic planning process recently undertaken known as the 2020 plan. That was the proper venue for the academic community to decide collectively what WCU’s focus areas should be.
“When the 2020 report was publicly presented, I asked the group on stage if I was walking down the street in Charlotte in the year 2021 and asked a random person, ‘What is WCU known for?’ no one on that stage suggested we would be known for right-wing economic research,” Henderson said.
Gaming a professorship
University administration said they weren’t aware of the strategy discussions between Lopez and the Koch Foundation. But they should be taken for what they are: preliminary brainstorming.
“An individual faculty member’s early draft of his discussion points regarding a proposal to a foundation had no bearing on the process of establishing a center at WCU. As stated previously, the university remains committed to an open and transparent process, with appropriate faculty involvement along the way,” said Bill Studenc, director of WCU communications and public relations.
In his dialogue with the Koch Foundation, Lopez wrote that the plan to create a free enterprise center hinged on convincing Chancellor Belcher to restructure a vacant economics professorship. Lopez said there was a problem to overcome: Belcher wanted the position filled with a professor who would serve as an economic development liaison for communities in the region.
“Among our upper administration, there is a strong preference to situate WCU as an institutional leader in the region’s economy,” Lopez wrote.
But Lopez and the Koch Foundation wanted this professorship to be brought into the fold of the free enterprise center instead. Lopez wrote that this was an “important difference between the preferences of administrators and the preferences of the free enterprise (Economics) faculty.”
“The administration wants external engagement … with a clear emphasis on raising external funds. The faculty wants an academic thought leader who contributes to the University’s mission through sound research in economic freedom and, equally importantly, who helps lead our Free Enterprise Educational Activities toward their fullest potential,” Lopez wrote.
Bringing Belcher around was critical to pulling off the $2 million gift. In exchange for the gift, WCU would have to put up matching funds, but dipping into limited university coffers would be a hard sell and a likely deal killer. The only way to make it work was to use existing faculty positions already on the books to “count” toward WCU’s matching funds.
Enter the vacant economics professorship. Lopez laid out what he called a “two-pronged strategy” that would meet the Koch Foundation’s goals as well as Belcher’s.
“First prong: persuade the administration that the University’s economic development mission is better served with a thought leader instead of a speech-giving fund raiser. I will argue that a University’s comparative advantage is (and should be) in the production of ideas. In doing so, I will deploy my own research on the intellectual structure of political/social change,” Lopez wrote.
Lopez not only had to win over WCU administration, but also had a sales job to do when it came to winning the Koch money. His dialogue with the Koch Foundation aimed to show the donors that WCU would be fertile ground for the dissemination of free enterprise theory. Lopez cited the effectiveness the economics department has already shown in reaching students with a free enterprise message, thanks to annual funding it already gets from the Koch Foundation — about $15,000 a year — to support a Free Enterprise student club, to take students to free enterprise conferences and to bring in free enterprise speakers that students get extra credit to hear.
“A pipeline of student development has been the result, and we have helped a number of quality students move on to careers in ideas,” Lopez wrote. “There is much potential for more growth of this pipeline.”
McCord said political think tanks play an important role in society, but they shouldn’t be embedded on public university campuses.
When liberal groups like MoveOn.org or Southern Poverty Law Center issue a report or study, no one expects it to be unbiased.
“We know exactly how it will come out and how it won’t come out. There is nothing wrong with that because those are point-of-view advocacy organizations,” McCord said. “But we can’t let MoveOn or Southern Poverty Law Center buy shelf space in our university to give an aura of objectivity to what they are doing.”
Lopez was asked to explain and comment on the strategic planning discussions he had via email with the Koch Foundation. He requested that his comments be published in full. They appear below:
“The email that I provided is an exploratory document from the earliest stages of this process. The fact is, no one at that time had any idea if a partnership between Western and the foundation was in the realm of possibility.
“Both sides gained a lot from learning more about each other, and that exploratory email served its purpose of initiating the process and moving things to the next steps.
“We’ve come a long way since then. It has been a rigorous and evolutionary process from the point of the initial proposal, through the periods of faculty review & comment, followed by the resulting changes to the proposal, and ultimately onto the Board of Trustees’ approval of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise last month.
“Now the University begins the gradual process of establishing the Center, and hopefully hiring additional faculty according to the normal procedures and objectives pursuant to the University’s mission, so that we can all get to work creating cross-disciplinary research and outreach opportunities for Western’s students and faculty.
“I think as we move forward, a lot of the confusion and skepticism will give way to better understanding. At the end of the day, free enterprise means a level playing field for economic opportunity, with no special privileges for the powerful and connected, and with the freedom for our communities to serve each other economically.
“By studying the capabilities and limitations of free enterprise as one consideration in how to organize our shared institutions, Western’s talented thinkers can make a fundamentally valuable contribution to the public discussion. We all want this to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and ultimately the work of the Center will speak for itself.”