WCU faculty members discuss Koch funds
Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher had a heart-to-heart with university faculty last week about the controversy over a politically charged financial gift to WCU from the conservative Koch Foundation.
The majority of WCU faculty opposes the $2 million gift that will establish and fund a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, a socio-political economic theory steeped in Libertarian ideology. Belcher went against faculty in December and approved the gift and the center’s creation.
In a conversation with WCU’s faculty senate last week, Belcher admitted the university went through a “bit of a rough patch” over the issue and offered what amounted to an apology.
“When you are criticized you should reflect on the criticism,” Belcher said to about 50 faculty in attendance at the senate meeting. “I have been trying to figure out how I could have done things differently. I realized it would have helped if I had given details about how I made the decision.”
Belcher also agreed in hindsight that the decision-making process was rushed. Faculty only had a short input window — three weeks from the time they first learned of it to digest, consider and formulate their views on the Koch-funded free enterprise center.
“In hindsight, it occurs to me that the faculty needed more time to grapple with this and discuss it,” Belcher said. “I feel like if we had taken an approach like that it would have allayed concerns in some quarters that we were rushing toward a foregone conclusion.”
Provost Allison Shelter-Morrison also said she would go about the process differently if she could do it over.
“There have been many teachable moments for me over the past few months,” she said. “I believe I also did not communicate effectively, and for that I apologize.”
The candid discussion between Belcher and faculty last week underscored the healthy, strong relationship that he has cultivated — one that has not existed under previous chancellors.
Belcher told faculty that he respected their views and wanted to foster a collaborative environment where they felt comfortable disagreeing with him.
“I realize some of you disagree with me and that’s OK. It is OK for you to disagree with me on it,” Belcher said.
Still, faculty members were troubled that university leaders, including the board of trustees, didn’t heed faculty concerns.
“That makes we wonder about process and voice,” said Dr. Patricia Bricker from the School of Teaching and Learning.
Belcher engaged in an open-ended discussion with faculty as he walked through each of the concerns that had been raised in point-by-point fashion.
Faculty concerns have centered on whether the free enterprise center would be a veiled advocacy arm for the political ideology of the conservative Koch Foundation. The wealthy Koch brothers fund a vast national network of ideological think tanks and political action groups — a network that has increasingly come to include economic research centers embedded on university campuses.
“To be vulnerable to billionaires to say in your marketplace of ideas I am going to buy 10 shelves full to put my material on, it undermines the fundamental integrity of education,” said Dr. David McCord, chair of the faculty senate.
Belcher said it’s a slippery slope if the university starts to pick and choose who it will and won’t take gifts from, however.
“I squirm a bit about starting to pass litmus tests on who we take money from,” Belcher said.
But Dr. David Henderson from the philosophy department said the question isn’t whether to draw a line at all, but rather where to draw it.
“Surely there are some we would not want to take money from,” Henderson said. “What standards should we have or not have about who we take money from?”
Belcher said the problem is ensuring that individual subjective biases aren’t part of that litmus test, alluding to whether liberal faculty members are opposed to a conservative donor.
“I am not saying that’s what happened, but if it is a ‘You have to think the way I do’ sort of thing, that would be a problem,” Belcher said.
Faculty also fear the university could be co-opted by outside entities trying to advance their own interests rather than support the university’s mission.
“It appears to me from everything I read, which is a lot, that the Koch’s fundamental mission is to prepare and train a pipeline of extremely narrow-minded, free enterprise students,” McCord said.
Another concern for some faculty was the investment the university must put up to land the Koch gift. While WCU is not putting up hard cold cash of its own, it is devoting three professor positions to the Center for Free Enterprise.
“The only real skin in the game the university has are three faculty lines that already existed,” Belcher said.
But if the university has three tenured faculty positions to devote to a field or major, is economics the place it wants to put them — let alone under one particular economic theory, faculty countered.
“The center has a very narrow focus on one part of the field of knowledge. Is that a wise use of our university resources?” asked Dr. Bill Yang, an engineering professor.
Belcher said the free enterprise center will actually have a broader economic focus than just free enterprise.
In that case, Yang suggested, perhaps it should have a name that reflects that broader focus.
“What is the potential of changing the center’s name to the center for the study of economics?” Yang asked.
Belcher said it was too late for that, as the name has already been sealed.
Faculty wondered how WCU would ensure a diversity of views on the economic department for the three professors being hired under the banner of the free enterprise center. Particularly when Dr. Ed Lopez, the free enterprise economist on WCU’s faculty who invented the center, put out three professor job ads back in October, citing the free enterprise center in the job description.
Belcher said those job ads should not have gone out when they did, since the free enterprise center hadn’t even been approved by administration at that point.
“That was a mistake. You can’t talk about a center that doesn’t exist,” Belcher said.
“I am still trying to figure out how we would end up with more than one particular type of economics being taught,” said Dr. Kae Livsey from the nursing school. “How do you ensure multiple perspectives are being examined?”
Belcher said that same question could be asked any time a campus department hires a new professor.
“Are we hiring somebody who thinks like me or are we hiring someone with a diametrically different perspective?” Belcher said.
Dr. David McCord, chair of the faculty senate, said it was admirable for the chancellor to parley with the faculty on such a difficult issue. He said the faculty respects and appreciates that.
However, McCord told Belcher that it doesn’t mean faculty members have come around to his way of thinking.
“We are not supposed to always agree or we are redundant and useless,” McCord said. “I am still opposed to this.”
Coming next week
WCU administration is making good on its promise to give concerned faculty a voice in the oversight of the Koch-funded Center for the Study of Free Enterprise.
Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar has commissioned a faculty task force to develop ground rules for the free enterprise center, including the structure, composition and charge of an advisory and oversight board.
Next week, The Smoky Mountain News will explore the task force’s role and whether it goes far enough to quell faculty concerns.