WCU’s handling of Koch gift a model for others
Western Carolina University’s faculty has wrestled through months of both tedium and spirited debate in devising how best to manage a controversial gift from a politically charged foundation, and in doing so has apparently succeeded in doing a better job than any university in this country in protecting academic freedoms and its own integrity.
It’s a lofty achievement, one that deserves praise (and emulation from other institutions) and one that should make its faculty and this region proud.
But all that groundbreaking work is just the beginning. Now, the advisory boards charged with monitoring the activities of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise must remain vigilant and on-task, unlike the rubber stamp advisory boards that apparently exist at more than 50 other U.S. universities.
The backstory to the $1.8 million gift from the Koch Foundation is important. A year ago, in October 2015, the faculty senate of WCU voted overwhelmingly — 21 to 3 — to turn down the money and the free enterprise institute.
“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, at the time.
McCord is right, and he has been one of the faculty responsible for making sure this did not get rubber-stamped. The Koch Foundation is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. The Koch brothers give millions of dollars to conservative politicians, while the Koch Foundation supports libertarian leaning, free enterprise centers on more than 50 college campuses. The brand of economics espoused at these centers is one of less government and unfettered capitalism.
And it wants to move society in that direction, as the foundation’s executive director has made clear. While being surreptitiously taped by members of a group known as UnKoch My Campus, foundation director Charlie Ruger said this at a meeting 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 … it’s about, you know, helping wring every last drop of liberty-advancing value out of every single activity that happens at every singe one of these centers.”
It is well to remember that this is not about whether the Kochs are liberal or conservative. Affiliating WCU and its economics department — or any department, say political science — with any single theory or ideology would fly in the face of academic freedom and belittle the very atmosphere of unfettered and spirited debate that must be a cornerstone of a university education.
WCU is lucky for the leadership of Chancellor David Belcher as it steered through the formulation this accord with the Koch Foundation. Sometimes chancellors merely talk the talk, espousing meaningful faculty input but not really encouraging it. Not so with Belcher.
“I have appreciated the healthy, robust conversation that this proposal has generated,” Belcher wrote in an email to faculty last year. “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.”
He continued: “I think a hallmark of the healthiest relationship between faculty and administration is an environment where people feel free to disagree. I think the free flow of ideas and the opportunity to disagree in the context of civil discourse is a hallmark of American higher education done right.”
Now, a year later, WCU has accepted the Koch gift despite faculty senate concerns but only after creating a whole new level of oversight and after probably hundreds of hours of faculty debate and input. Ralph Wilson, a research analyst with UnKoch My Campus, has studied dozens of donor contracts with the Koch Foundation that spell out what expectations come with taking the gifts.
“(WCU) has perhaps the most thoughtfully constructed governance mechanism of any Koch center in the country,” he said of the agreement.
The whole point is not to let a foundation — or any entity who comes willing to to write big checks — take control of a public university’s academic integrity. Yes, this money will come with strings attached, but those strings should not make the free enterprise institute or the university a mere puppet of the Koch Foundation. That goal has been achieved.
In an age when universities are strapped for money and struggling to keep offering the liberal arts courses that best teach students to think critically, having a faculty and staff that place a high value on academic integrity in the face of such an enticing monetary gift is like a breath of fresh air. WCU has further cemented its reputation as a university on the rise, and all of us in this region will benefit as that word spreads.