The Koch Brothers-funded invasion of NC universities continues as Wake Forest joins the network

By: - June 23, 2016 5:00 am


[This commentary has been updated — see below.]

Love them or hate them, there’s one thing that most everyone can agree on when it comes to the nation’s most visible and ambitious billionaire plutocrats: the Koch brothers know what they want and make no bones about pursuing it. Simply put, they want to control public policy making at the national, state and local levels in the United States and are prepared to do whatever it takes and spend whatever is necessary to make their dream a reality.

Whether they’re buying politicians and lobbyists by the bushel, flooding the airwaves and the Internet with anti-science/pro-pollution propaganda, funding a national network of private “think tanks” and advocacy groups or, increasingly, effecting a gradual infiltration/takeover of academia, the Kochs are ambitious, direct and unapologetic.

The push in academia

The Kochs’ move to reshape academia is not an especially new or secret development. As the good people at Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, have documented, the Kochs have spread millions of dollars amongst dozens of universities over the past decade-plus.

That said, there are signs that the push is gaining speed and strength. The following is from a news story that appeared just last week in the Muncie, Indiana Star Press:

“The agreement that Ball State University signed with the Charles Koch Foundation and ‘Papa John’ Schnatter requires the university to promote understanding of the virtues of free enterprise, aka limited government.

In March, the foundation and the founder of Papa John’s donated $3,250,000 to Ball State for the creation of the John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise.

Its mission, according to the grant agreement, is to ‘become a national model for values- and ethics-based entrepreneurship, developing research and talent to help solve contemporary problems and promote understanding of the characteristics and virtues of free enterprise in helping people improve their lives.’”

The Ball State initiative is just the latest in a mushrooming array of Koch-inspired “academic centers” taking root at colleges and universities around the country. The following excerpt from an article penned earlier this year for the New Yorker magazine by journalist Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” (wherein she discusses a 2014 Koch-organized California retreat at which the brothers and their minions plotted their next moves) explains some of the objectives and methods being employed:

“At another panel that weekend, James Otteson, a professor of political economy at Wake Forest University’s business school, argued that using the term ‘well-being’ would be ‘a game changer.’ He added that he was setting up an institute devoted to well-being at Wake Forest. To illustrate the power of framing free-market theories in this way, he shared an anecdote. A colleague, whom he described as a ‘left-wing political scientist’ who ‘railed’ against Republicans and capitalism, had been so fully persuaded by Otteson’s description of factors contributing to human well-being—‘peace and security,’ ‘health,’ ‘environment’—that he had said, ‘You know, even I’d be willing to take Koch money for that.’ The donors laughed. ‘Who can be against well-being?’ Otteson exclaimed. ‘The framing is absolutely critical.’

Days after the Southern California summit, the Charles Koch Institute—which arranges fellowships for those interested in “advancing free societies”—hosted what it called its Inaugural Well-Being Forum, at the Newseum, in Washington. Among the panelists was Otteson. Arthur Brooks served on the initiative’s five-member advisory board. Although the forum’s name suggested New Age spirituality, it promoted the Kochs’ free-market message. As Brooks had concluded in an earlier speech on well-being, standing beside a sign reading, ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s,’ ‘The earned-success system that brings you happiness is the system of free enterprise that lifts people out of poverty.’

The term ‘well-being’ also cropped up in an initiative launched by Americans for Prosperity’s charitable foundation. (David Koch sits on the foundation’s board.) The initiative, which was named the Bridge to Wellbeing, incorporates such charitable events as Tapas and Topics, where snacks are dispensed along with advice on ‘how you can advance economic freedom in your community.’”

The Kochs in North Carolina

Here in North Carolina, where the Kochs’ home-grown junior partner Art Pope has played the role of right-wing financier and kingmaker for years, direct Koch tentacles have been somewhat less visible. Recently, however, this has started to change. Last fall, we reported on the establishment of a new Koch-funded propaganda shop at Western Carolina University to be dubbed the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise.

Meanwhile, as is noted in the Mayer piece, another Koch network shop has sprouted and is taking shape 200 miles to the east at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. The Wake Forest operation is called the “Eudaimonia Project” and it is headed by James Otteson – the head of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake (where the project is based) and the same fellow who outlined the Koch plan at the California retreat in the above excerpt.

Check out the mission of the project and see if it sounds familiar:

“This is a new initiative of the Center, and forms the core of the research we encourage and support. We investigate the institutions—including the economic, political, moral, and cultural institutions—that enable eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Our questions include:

  1. What exactly is eudaimonia? How can it be measured or assessed?
  2. How does capitalism affect eudaimonia? How do other systems of political economy affect eudaimonia?
  3. What effect does business have on eudaimonia—on its proprietors and employees, on its customers, and on the larger culture in which it operates?
  4. What policies should we recommend, or recommend against, in light of their effect on eudaimonia?

We view the pursuit of eudaimonia as perhaps the most important pursuit in which human beings can engage, and since systems of political economy have a profound effect on people’s ability to achieve and experience it, we believe this is perhaps the most important cluster of questions we can examine. Indeed, we believe we are morally required to do so.”

As with all of the academic centers in the growing (some would say “metastasizing”) Koch Empire, the Eudaimonia Project and its parent organization do little to disguise what they are all about. The goal is clearly to advance hard right market fundamentalist ideology by cloaking it in warm and fuzzy language and to thereby grace it with the veneer of academic legitimacy.

Despite the talk of high flown philosophical concepts, the rather limited output of the Center appears to be confined mostly to restating and repackaging the same hoary right-wing platitudes that one might find on the websites of, say, the John Locke Foundation. The “commentary” section of the website of Otteson’s center, for instance, features multiple links to articles by Otteson and others (including a YouTube video produced at – surprise! – Ball State) extolling the virtues of unfettered capitalism and attacking “socialism” and the “socialist inclination.” In another article, Otteson purports to explain “Why raising the minimum wage isn’t always the best answer.” Not surprisingly, Otteson is listed on the website of the Raleigh-based Pope Center for Higher Education as a “Pope Center Author.”

Going forward

There are a lot of other issues that arise from a first blush look at the Wake Forest center:

  • Will what appears to be an essentially one person operation remain such or will it grow?
  • Will the Kochs be contributing significant resources going forward? (The Polluter Watch site says the Kochs gave Wake Forest $87,000 in 2014.)
  • Will the center be connected to the new operation at Western Carolina and other Koch-affiliated outfits?
  • Will it serve principally as a source of genuine academic research and teaching or an “ideological framing” operation? (According to a source at Wake Forest, Otteson currently teaches only one course – a “Why Capitalism” class.)
  • Will the Wake Forest business school and the broader university faculty be provided an opportunity to weigh in on the matter?
  • How did Otteson, someone who appears to have little connection to the academic community in the field of business ethics secure an endowed chair with the grand title of “Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics”?

At this point, however, the near term bottom line seems pretty clear: The Koch Brothers’ effort to reshape American academia continues apace and their foothold in North Carolina is growing stronger.

Update: After this story was published, James Otteson contacted me and asked that two specific changes be made.

First, he pointed out that he is not a “contributing author” at the Pope Center for Higher Education as the story originally stated. The reference was based on the fact that the Pope Center specifically lists Otteson on the “Pope Center Authors” section of its website (click here to view it). We have updated the story to clarify this reference.

Second, Otteson asked for the removal of a clause that appeared in the final bullet point of the “Going forward” section of the story (which we obliged) that read “and who left a previous university position under suspicious ethical circumstances.” The clause was based upon (and linked to) a lengthy 2008 article from the publication Inside Higher Ed that explored Otteson’s departure from Yeshiva University after sexist comments were published on a controversial blog with which he was connected. Otteson, however, told me that he disputes the substance of the Inside Higher Ed story, that he did not write the offensive comments himself and that he left Yeshiva on good terms. 

-Rob Schofield

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.