Proposed Koch-funded “free enterprise” center at UNC system school sparks controversy

By: - November 19, 2015 9:19 am
Koch brothers
Charles and David Koch – Image:

As multiple news outlets have reported of late, the controversial and conservative fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch have spurred a rising tide of controversy in recent years with dozens of gifts to universities around the nation. Moreover, as The Atlantic reported last month in “Spreading the Free-Market Gospel: What’s new and interesting about the Koch brothers’ approach to funding academics” there is clearly a method to their largess:

“Last year, a staffer for Charles and David Koch’s network of philanthropic institutions laid out the billionaire brothers’ strategy to spread their views on economic freedom.

Political success, Kevin Gentry told a crowd of elite supporters attending the annual Koch meeting in Dana Point, California, begins with reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power.

‘The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,’ he said.”

Click here to check out a database that demonstrates just how broadly their tentacles have already spread.

Edward Lopez
Prof. Edward Lopez

Now, comes word that the Kochs have offered to make a UNC system school — Western Carolina University in Cullowhee — one of their largest university gift recipients. Under a proposal currently under consideration by WCU administrators, the Charles Koch Foundation would give $2 million to the university to establish the WCU “Center for Study of Free Enterprise.” The faculty member driving the process appears to be Economics Department Professor Edward Lopez, who also boasts the title of “BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism.” Lopez, who gave the “Friedman Legacy Lecture” this summer at the John Locke Foundation, is a graduate of the Kochs’ largest university grantee, George Mason University, and an energetic proponent of “free market” economic theories.

While accepting one of the Kochs’ largest gifts in the country to promote conservative economic theory is, for some, controversial in and of itself, what has added extra impetus to the debate at WCU in recent weeks is the fact that the grant is contingent upon the university kicking in another $1.4 million of its own. Indeed, this issue is listed first among five concerns expressed in a position statement submitted by the WCU Faculty Senate:

“The budget associated with the proposal includes just over $2 million in a gift from the Koch Foundation, and just over $1.4 million contributed by the existing WCU budget. Although a substantial proportion of WCU’s share is in current faculty lines, substantial immediate costs would be incurred. After the expiration of the 5-­?year gift, without new grant/gift money, even if the Center were to close, WCU may still be obligated to some level of increased funding in future years.”

As other critics have noted, if WCU if going to consider providing such a generous match to a Koch Foundation grant, the least it can do is allow other faculty members who pursue outside funding to compete for those university dollars.

The Faculty Senate goes on to point out that the Koch proposal raises other potential problems as well — not the least of which are what the statement describes as “reputational costs.”

“Other institutions in recent years who have accepted gifts from the Koch Foundation have indeed struggled with academic freedom issues, with much negative publicity in higher educational outlets as well as general media. Even with the promise of no strings attached to the current gift, the legacy of such gifts carries a burden. As we enter a new phase of WCU’s history, with a necessary focus on inclusion and a more diverse faculty and student body, the negative reactions associated with the Koch Foundation may well outweigh the positive reactions also associated with it.”

In other words, especially in the current environment, universities that cozy up to the Kochs can make more trouble for themselves than the cash — what many rightfully view as blood money from a corporate behemoth that is gleefully plundering and endangering the planet and buying lackey politicians and mouthpieces at a prodigious rate — is really worth. Let’s hope WCU administrators see the light and say “thanks, but no thanks.”

Stay tuned — we’ll try to keep you apprised of news from Western as it become available.

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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.