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

Western Carolina University faculty tasked with overseeing a $2 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation had their work cut out for them when they collectively rolled up their sleeves last February.

Their marching orders: prevent the mega donor from hijacking the marketplace of ideas on campus.

No other university had attempted this type of faculty oversight before. The Koch Foundation funds more than 50 centers like the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise being launched at WCU.

“It is extremely rare. I think it might be unique,” David McCord, a psychology professor and past chair of the faculty senate, said of the committee’s charge. “In most places it is a done deal, done in the dead of the night.”

Koch influence on college campuses has proliferated over the past decade. The centers serve as incubators for libertarian economic ideas — a worldview defined by limited government, unfettered free markets, nominal regulation and laissez-faire capitalism.

Of the 53 Koch-funded centers housed on university campuses across America, none face the level of scrutiny and oversight that the one at WCU will.

But to get there, faculty members realized they couldn’t wordsmith the operations and output of the center itself. Instead, they focused on laying the groundwork for a robust advisory board to provide real oversight of the free enterprise center once it got off the ground.

“It is quite important,” said Bill Yang, chair of the faculty senate who led the committee’s work. “What is the role of the ongoing advisory board? What is their role in terms of checks and balances? What should they be doing, how will they be appointed, how many, who should they be? Those were the deliverables.”

After meeting every other week for three months, the committee charged with crafting oversight mechanisms for the center reached the finish line last semester, putting out its final recommendations in April. 

Wes Stone, the engineering and technology program director at WCU, said the task force was cognizant of  underlying concerns among faculty that led to the formation of their committee in the first place.

“To ensure this center doesn’t become a mouthpiece for any particular group,” Stone said.

Coming up with a tangible way to accomplish that goal is another matter. 

The task force flirted with big philosophical questions and bantered over lofty ideals. But it was tough to translate those ethereal goals of academic freedom and scholastic integrity into tangible marching orders.

“Compromise is a part of the puzzle almost any time that faculty members come together to dissect and debate important academic matters,” said Brandon Schwabb, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, who served on the committee as well. “I think it would be fair to say that there was debate, discussion and compromise on just about every point in the process leading to the board’s recommendations.”

Schwabb said the task force “worked well together in the spirit of academic and professional collegiality.”

The visionary for the center, Edward J. Lopez, BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism in the economics department, has long-standing ties to the Koch academic network. Lopez’s career in ideas has positioned him as a well-known proponent of free enterprise ideology.

Most Koch-funded university centers act as a clearinghouse for speakers, seminars, policy papers and research that advance the free enterprise school of thought. And that’s exactly what the faculty committee didn’t want to see happen.

“You need to expose the students to a wide environment of theories, you have to have inclusiveness,” Yang said. “You cannot have one single mind in this thing and not have students exposed to the opposing view.”

When funding university centers, the Koch Foundation stipulates that a faculty member serve as the director. At WCU, that will be Lopez.

While Lopez will have wide discretion to operate the center, he’ll be required to share an annual report on the center’s activities. Theoretically, the oversight board could be triggered to lean on Lopez if things seem skewed.

“They could hammer on the director and say ‘Look, you got too many of this.’ It should be a balanced view,” Yang said. “The ongoing advisory board can look at the operations and say, ‘Are all these activities too narrowly focused.’”

The advisory board would stop short of directing research topics or conclusions. That would impede academic freedom — the one tenet held paramount by both sides in the Koch money debate.

“You have to ensure academic freedom for one thing,” Yang said. “We are all for it, we are all for academic freedom. Everybody is on the same page,” Yang said.

 

Academic freedom

Academic freedom cuts several ways, however.

“The students’ academic freedom is important, so they need to be exposed to the wide, full scale of this thing,” Yang said.

There’s also the academic freedom of individual professors, like Lopez, to consider. They should be free to pursue research topics of their choosing.

The committee talked extensively about requiring the center to present a diverse range of viewpoints. 

“Concerns about perspective and a narrow focus, or limited view, arose. Question was raised whether it is the Center’s obligation to invite speakers of different views,” according to minutes from one of the faculty committee meetings. 

The minutes reflect a consensus that, yes, a “diversity of viewpoints” was critical, not only in the name of “scholarly inquiry” but also “to address the dissent and concerns surrounding the proposed center.”

But the discussion was far from over. The issue recurred again and again in the meeting minutes.

“The exposure and examination of competing theories and viewpoints as necessary center activities were discussed at length,” according to the minutes from another meeting.

“The point on advocating for scholarly inquiry by inviting and encouraging diversity of viewpoints is discussed at length,” read the minutes from yet another meeting.

To ensure balance, however, would academic freedom for some be compromised in an attempt to preserve it for others?

“A concern is raised whether or not this would impede upon center faculty’s academic freedom in pursuing the research of their choice,” according to the minutes.

Still, the committee ultimately concluded the center’s oversight board should hold the center accountable for presenting multiple viewpoints, and not become a policy shop for one economic perspective.

 “I think everyone on the committee agreed it was a controversial issue and there were legitimately multiple sides of the issue. We all tried to make sure we were fair to a diverse set of viewpoints,” said Chris Cooper, director of the Political Science and Public Affairs Department.

There was one litmus test the task force kept coming back to: “Does this serve our unique mission?” Cooper said. “I think Western is unusually attuned to its mission. We are here to serve the people of Western North Carolina.”

 

A robust board

While the committee agreed oversight measures were needed to thwart the center from promoting a single school of thought, the question was how. At the end of the day, that job will fall to an advisory board, so its make-up would be critical.

“It was really about setting up the composition of the ongoing board and ensuring there was a broad constituency in place to maintain the integrity of the center,” Stone said.

Advisory boards are all too often a team of yes men, quick to rubber-stamp their director’s annual report and get on with the chicken salad croissant.

McCord hopes that won’t happen at WCU.

“It is necessary we maintain a vigilant and active engagement with the activities of the center,” McCord said.

To guard against a rubber-stamp advisory board, the faculty committee carefully crafted the board’s composition and how its members will be appointed.

Here’s how the 11-member advisory board will be composed, based on the structure laid out by the faculty task force:

• Five advisory members will come from off-campus, including “members from local and regional communities.”

• Six members must hold faculty rank. 

• Of those six, three will be elected by faculty at large through the faculty senate election process. 

• Of those six, no more than three can be from the same college.

It was a monumental move to set aside three seats on the advisory board for faculty to be elected at-large, and ensures at least some of the advisory board members can’t be hand-picked by the center’s director.

As for the other eight who are appointed, there are three layers of decision-making that will buffer the director’s influence over who’s on his own advisory board.

The process is laid out this way: the advisory board names a nominating committee, the nominating committee “seeks broad input from the university community” when crafting a list of possible contenders, the faculty senate must be “involved throughout the nomination process” and finally the provost makes the appointments based on the list from the nominating committee.

A year ago, Lopez likely couldn’t envision the co-opting of his advisory board with open faculty elections. As a goodwill gesture last fall, Lopez floated the idea of inviting a single faculty member from outside the College of Business to serve on his advisory board, according to an email from Darrell Parker, dean of the business college, to the provost.

But Parker pointed out the hypocrisy of putting faculty from outside the business school on the center’s advisory board.

“If similar treatment was included for other centers like the Cherokee Center, Ed (Lopez) would be open. If Senate’s posture was that only potential thought that is seen as conservative needs faculty governance involvement, that would be problematic,” Parker wrote.

At the end of the day, Lopez ended up with not just one but a minimum of three faculty members from outside the business school on his board, a separate caveat that was written into the advisory board structure.

Lopez is quite likely alone in this scenario — the only one out of 53 Koch-funded centers on American university campuses with so little control over who ends up on his advisory board.

When asked if he felt like his center is being subjected to a double standard, or whether his colleagues from across campus are unfairly meddling in his academic pursuits, Lopez didn’t offer a direct response.

Lopez went on record supporting the oversight recommendations that came out of the faculty committee.

“We ultimately agreed on a set of recommendations that fulfill the charge we were given. That charge was to ensure that the Center is in alignment with Western’s policies, mission, strategic directions and core values. We took that charge seriously, delivering a structure for the Center that is fundamentally sound,” Lopez said. 

Stone admits if he was Lopez, he would have “felt a little micromanaged” at first.

“But if I were him I would be more comfortable in the result, knowing there was a lot of scrutiny put into this,” Stone said. “If someone does have a question, there are protections in place to say, ‘Look, we have a structure to make sure a conflict of interest doesn’t take place.’”

“In the end I think the result was a very strong message that this is something that will stand the test of time,” Stone said.

The committee tried to divest the idea for a free enterprise center from the baggage of Koch money.

The idea was to create a model for an advisory board that could be applied to any center or institute that comes along.

“Whatever we come up with could be a good example for how we establish our centers,” Yang said. “If you are establishing a center, what things do you have to follow?”

 

Carrying water

The mandate for a robust advisory board, providing oversight and checks and balances rather than mere moral support, is not seen at other Koch-funded university centers.

According to minutes of the faculty committee meetings, Lopez questioned whether the phrase “checks and balances” should appear in the cover letter for the committee’s recommendations. The mere suggestion of “checks and balances” implies that checks and balances are in fact needed.

While it’s rare for a professor to have oversight foisted on them by colleagues from other departments, some believe it is justified.

“All scholarly products emanating from the center will have the brand of WCU, a brand that we all share,” said McCord.

An analysis of the advisory boards for Koch-funded university centers show a pattern of quid pro quo board appointments among a network of like-minded free enterprise scholars. The directors of Koch-funded university centers serve on each other’s advisory boards, host each other’s book talks, author papers together and go to the same conferences and seminars.

Following the trail of who serves on whose advisory boards is a circular exercise that eventually leads back to the starting point.

• Ben Powell, director of Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute, serves on the board for other Koch-funded centers at Troy University and the University of Louisville.  

• Josh Hall, director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at West Virginia University, sits on the board of other Koch-funded centers at Troy and Arizona State.

• Scott Beaulier, who’s directed two Koch-funded free enterprise centers of his own, including Troy in Alabama, serves on the advisory board for Koch-funded centers at Texas Tech, University of Louisville and Arizona State.

And so the pattern continues.

None of the 10 advisory board members for the Koch-funded center at Troy University in Alabama are from Troy. None of them are even from Alabama. 

All 10 are free enterprise economists with ties to the Koch academic network and affiliated with Koch-funded centers of their own at their home universities.

Incidentally, Troy’s Johnson Center for Political Economy is headed up by Steve Miller, who was on WCU’s economics faculty until two years ago.

Lopez queried his counterparts from other Koch-funded centers about how they structure their advisory boards during an Association for Private Enterprise Education conference in Las Vegas in April, an annual networking event for free enterprise economics professors. 

Students with UnKoch My Campus went to the conference and secretly recorded numerous panel discussions, including one called “Establishing a Successful Academic Center.” 

“I wonder if the panel or anybody else in the room could talk about, Steve, you mentioned you set up an advisory board,” Lopez asked from the audience, according to the audio recording. “I think that one thing about the advisory board is it could be the source of advocacy for the mission.”

Or, “it could go the way of being, the membership being, sort of, strategically selected, and the advisory and advocacy roles, you know, going towards the oversight and enforcement roles, and, you know, really having a governing structure that instead of supporting the center is limiting it,” Lopez said.

Panelist Steve Gohmann, the director of the Koch-funded Center for Free Enterprise at the University of Louisville, took the question. He said his strategy was to select and stack his own advisory board before it could be done for him.

“I’ve decided I’d better have an advisory board in place before I have a new dean who says, ‘Hey I’m going to put together an advisory board, here’s what we’re going to do,’” Gohmann replied. “You just want to have some people that are in your court, and you want to set it up. Don’t let somebody tell you to set it up, because if somebody tells you to set it up then it’s their choice of who’s on the board, not yours. And that’s, you don’t want to be there.”

Gohmann said he hand-picked two other free enterprise scholars from Koch-funded centers at other universities for his board.

“And really the advisory board, all they’re gonna do is look at the annual report and say, ‘Yeah, it looks good,’” Gohmann said. “So it’s really just a protection thing for me, and it’s not anything where they have to do any work, unless something comes up.”

 

Work cut out

Not everyone is convinced that the oversight board the faculty task force put in motion will cure the free enterprise center of Koch political influence. First and foremost, the advisory board is supposed to ensure “the activities of the center are aligned with the university’s mission.”

But the two could be mutually exclusive, postulated Dr. David McCord, a psychology professor.

“Our mission and strategic plan is built around the idea that our students will be broadly and deeply educated and will be much better critical thinkers when they leave than when they arrived here,” McCord said.

But the Koch political network is systematically using universities as a clearinghouse and recruitment ground to push libertarian economic policies out into society.

McCord’s theory seems to be supported by comments made by the Charles Koch Foundation’s director of university investments, Charlie Ruger, during the Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in Vegas this spring.

Ruger lamented that professors with “classical liberal sympathies are outnumbered” on university campuses. Professors who disagree with the free enterprise school of thought are “actively taking the opportunity to fight against liberty, against freedom,” Ruger said. The Koch Foundation hopes to counter that imbalance, Ruger said.

“So, when we go to build new academic institutions in partnership with the universities, we’re doing it because in order to, you know, make a dent, we’re gonna need to have a disproportionate impact,” Ruger said during a panel discussion at the conference.

McCord said it could be impossible to align their two missions, setting the stage for a constant push and pull.

“Our mission, what we are here for, is not the same as what the Kochs’ mission is,” McCord said. “We know from the outset that that they want to line the center up with their own mission. We want to ensure the alignment with our mission.”

 

What is the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise?

The center’s mission states: To provide economics research and thought leadership on issues pertaining to economic development in North Carolina, the region, and beyond, by conducting scholarly inquiry, policy analysis, educational activities and community outreach on the role of free enterprise in a flourishing society. 

A $2 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation spread over five years will support the center. It would become one of more than 50 such centers funded by the Koch Foundation on college campuses nationwide.

Dr. Edward J. Lopez,  the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism, would serve as the director.

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