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WCU faculty closely monitoring $2 million Koch gift

WCU faculty closely monitoring $2 million Koch gift

A firestorm over a $2 million gift from political operative Charles Koch ignited the campus of Western Carolina University last fall in a rare but heated clash between faculty and university leadership.

Critics feared WCU would be used as a propaganda hub for Koch’s libertarian economic philosophies. An on-campus think tank called the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise would stray into political advocacy disguised as academia — a model employed by the Koch Foundation at dozens of universities nationwide.

But to reject the money and quash the center would be tantamount to academic censorship. Dr. Edward J. Lopez, the rainmaker behind the Koch gift, would be muzzled from pursuing ideas of his choosing.

So Chancellor David Belcher decided to take the money. WCU’s trustees approved. Faculty lost. Lopez won. Koch added another tentacle to its vast academic network.

And the flare-up died down. Or so it seemed.

In reality, all is not quiet on the Western front.

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Faculty wasn’t lulled into complacency. Lopez isn’t marching toward the center’s launch. And Koch hasn’t sent a check yet.

Instead, Western’s faculty has been diligently plugging away at what some might say faculty does best: holding meetings.

When Chancellor Belcher bucked the faculty senate by taking the Koch money, he did so with a caveat. A broad-based faculty task force would help shape how the gift came down, a move Belcher hoped would slake or at least temper faculty concerns.

“There are a lot of faculty concerns around this proposal,” said Dr. Bill Yang, WCU’s faculty senate chair and an engineering professor. “We wanted to address those. How can this be operated in a way to address all these concerns? If we are going to do this center, we are going to do it right.”

SEE ALSO: WCU faculty set new precedent for standing up to political influence of big donors

Faculty members have lauded administration for giving them a seat at the table. That wouldn’t happen at most universities. 

“I think it is a sign that faculty voices are appreciated here. It is a compliment for Western,” said Chris Cooper, department head of Political Science and Public Affairs. “At the university at large, I think there is an appreciation of diverse viewpoints and faculty governance. I think we can see that in this process.”

Three working groups of faculty are scrutinizing different aspects of the Koch gift and the new center, a process Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar called a “multi-tiered approach.”

One task force set the stage for how the center will operate, coming up with checks and balances to monitor it. Another is vetting the contract between WCU and the Koch Foundation to root out signs of undue influence on academics. And yet a third will tackle a policy rewrite to tighten up on the process for creating new centers and taking outside money.

Faculty who opposed the Koch money may have lost the war, but they won a critical battle along the way.

“I think it says something about the faculty and administration side,” said Erin McNelis, a math and computer science professor. “Faculty have gotten better at being engaged with aspects of the university that involve curriculum and the integrity of our programs. And Chancellor Belcher has always reached out to faculty, and in my opinion, has been quite transparent in how he handles things.”

The battle scars from the Koch fight may never fade completely, but David McCord is proud of WCU for the inclusive faculty process that came out of the controversy.

“At most universities there is nothing like this degree of openness,” said McCord, who was chair of the faculty senate last year when the Koch controversy blew up. “We have a chancellor who actually puts his actions where his words are and he was willing to be open and inclusive of faculty input, which is just not the norm.”

Faculty also deserves credit for speaking up when they feared the integrity of their university was at stake.

“We didn’t know how it was going to come out, but we knew it was big enough that faculty needed to tune in, pay attention and weigh in on what they thought about this,” McCord said. “It got a great deal of attention by faculty, and the chancellor listened.”

That sentiment was echoed on all sides of the aisle.

“WCU is and has always been an institution that values free speech and debate from its community,” said Bill Studenc, WCU’s director of communications and public relations.


Drafted for the team

To ensure faith in the process, the committees could not be stacked with faculty who support free enterprise ideology.

Provost Morrison-Shetlar, who crafted the list of committee members in concert with McCord, didn’t hold back. 

The committees were weighted with faculty seen as neutral at best, if not outright skeptical, when it came to the Koch money. 

Some committee members were reluctant to get dragged in to the process, however.

McCord was only half-joking when he said chosen members had to be cajoled and coerced into serving.

“My initial thought was probably similar to a lot of other people’s, which was a little bit of trepidation of the politically charged potential this one raised,” said Wes Stone, director of the Engineering and Technology program. “But I welcomed the opportunity openly. Here as faculty we don’t always get the easy choices to make, so we take on the challenge.”

Once the faculty committees were sanctioned, administration largely got out of the way.

“This is designed to be a rigorous, faculty-owned, faculty-driven process,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “But I believe that the steps our faculty are taking in the development of the center will ensure maximum faculty engagement, protect academic freedom and guard against any negative curricular impacts.”

John Marvel, a professor of management in the College of Business, said those on the committees took their roles seriously.

“What we are very clear on is we have a subset of the faculty evaluating this on behalf of the whole faculty. We are trying to be as open as possible,” Marvel said. “I think that reflects a very positive view of the administration and a very positive view of the faculty.”

Lopez, the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism in the economics department and the visionary for the center, was complimentary of the process as well.

According to those who participated in the process, Lopez was open and conciliatory throughout. Lopez could have thrown up his hands and walked away from his vision for a center given the oversight being foisted on it, but he didn’t.

Cooper, a task force member, said Lopez deserves credit for how he engaged in the process.

Lopez said the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise will be better for it. It has been “a very positive experience for the University and for the Center as well.”

“We had many discussions over the span of three months. These were honest and thorough discussions,” Lopez said in a written statement when asked to reflect on the process for this article.

Lopez said he was proud of the work the task force did and has “tremendous respect” for its members.

Yang, current chair of the faculty senate, led both task forces by virtue of his faculty senate leadership role. 

Diligent, thorough, analytical and polite, Yang was well-suited to shepherd the committees’ work. He’s a big fan of policy, not in the stickler sense, but rather as a beacon to keep the work on course.

 “We were following university policy — not only WCU policy but also the state university system policy. What we really looked at is to follow these established university policies,” he said.

Yang points to university policies on the books that triggered some of the faculty oversight. Several years ago, faculty witnessed big money from an outside donor cross the line of academic integrity, and crafted a policy to keep it from happening again. Specifically, the BB&T Foundation wanted to dictate the ideological bent of the professor hired with its $1 million gift and stipulate course readings.

WCU faculty objected vigorously to allowing an outside donor to influence what and how students were taught. The condition was dropped from the terms of the gift, and faculty meanwhile got to work on a policy for gifts with curriculum impacts.

The Koch gift marks the first time the policy has actually been triggered, despite several big gifts since then. None apparently met the litmus test of having potential curriculum impacts that would trigger the policy.

A third faculty task force is working on the periphery of the two main task forces to refine the university’s gift policy. Its goal: to shore up a loophole that became apparent during this process. The gift oversight policy is triggered only when a gift has curricular impacts, but what constitutes curriculum impacts and who decides if a gift rises to that level?


Any port in a storm

To opponents of the Koch funding, the faculty task forces are simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. Their fears of WCU becoming a pawn in Koch’s political empire aren’t merely a conspiracy theory. 

That strategy has been repeatedly documented: to push libertarian policies into the marketplace of ideas via a network of academic scholars. The Koch Foundation has pledged $170 million to universities over the next five years for various free enterprise endeavors on their campuses, from underwriting professorships to buying pizza for student free enterprise clubs. That’s on top of $130 million in university spending over the past decade.

Charlie Ruger, the director of university investments for the Charles Koch Foundation, spelled out the strategy behind university-based think tanks at an April conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education.

“The idea behind these centers is to bring the ideas out of the academy and apply them across social institutions to achieve this cultural change,” Ruger said in a panel discussion.

“It’s not just bringing together groups of professors although that’s a critical piece of what we do. It’s about, you know, helping wring every last drop of liberty-advancing value out of every single activity that happens at every single one of these centers.”

Ruger didn’t realize his comments would end up in print. Student activists with an organization called UnKoch My Campus slid into the conference, an annual networking event for free enterprise economics professors, most with Koch ties and underwriting. The students secretly recorded numerous panel discussions, which they posted to the internet under the hashtag #kochileaks.

The Koch Foundation funds academic centers on 53 campuses, which were described as the front line of the larger Koch political network aimed at reshaping national political policy.

“When we think about a university center, there’s all this intellectual activity happening and there’s an opportunity to leverage it over and over and over again,” Ruger said. “We’ve got a constellation of network organizations that are focused on applying what comes out of universities to change the world, and so that’s sort of the core of the partnership: money plus the network.”

McCord said this is the reality that the faculty task forces were up against. 

“The Koch network has their own strategic plan that they have clearly articulated and implemented brilliantly, which is to convert people to their vision of society,” McCord said. “It is not to broadly educate people, it is not to prepare critical thinkers, it is to prepare like-minded thinkers to fit their mold. They have a lot of money and they are paying us to do it for them.”

Nonetheless, faculty has taken the measure of oversight they were given, embraced their chancellor’s olive branch and run with it.

Faculty says Belcher is sincere in his desire to give faculty a voice. It’s a pattern he’s shown repeatedly, not just with the Koch money blow up.

“This reflects very highly of Western’s administration. There has been a very concentrated effort to make sure that shared governance is practiced here,” Stone said. “By ensuring that faculty have a seat at the table, it was a further testament to shared governance.”

With the faculty review process now wrapping up, Lopez can finally get on with the mission of opening the center.

“As I’ve said before, everyone involved wants this to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Ultimately the work of the Center will speak for itself, and I look forward to getting to work creating research and outreach opportunities for Western’s students and faculty,” Lopez said.

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