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Blue-ribbon committee seeks balance in push-and-pull over Koch-funded center at WCU

WCUFears that a controversial economics policy center coming to Western Carolina University will be a vehicle to advance conservative, laissez-faire market theories have been partially quelled with the creation of a rigorous and robust faculty oversight board.

The advisory board will provide checks and balances for the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at WCU to ensure it doesn’t stray into the realm of one-sided political advocacy. The level of scrutiny to be imposed by the board — to include critics and skeptics of the center’s stated mission — is unprecedented for a university research center. 

But WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar said that it was called for in this case given widespread concerns among faculty. Morrison-Shetlar shared her plans for the faculty oversight process at a WCU faculty senate meeting two weeks ago.

“The idea behind this was to ensure we had the right people thinking about the forward movement of the center and that there was complete transparency and good representation,” Morrison-Shetlar said.

Dr. David McCord, chair of the faculty senate, commended the advisory board plan.

“This is making the best of a bad situation here,” McCord said.

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The proposed Center for the Study of Free Enterprise would be funded with a $2 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation. The source of funding was met with suspicion from many faculty, given the Koch brothers’ vast network of political advocacy arms and think tanks aimed at moving American society in a conservative, Libertarian direction.

McCord and Morrison-Shetlar met over the Christmas break in a downtown Sylva coffee shop to discuss plans for what the advisory board overseeing the center would look like. 

“This is a plan she came to the table with and it is a really good one. I was really pleased with it,” McCord said at a faculty senate meeting two weeks ago.

That says a lot coming from McCord, who has become the de facto spokesperson for conveying faculty concerns over the free enterprise center. 

“I looked at it with a jaded eye to find any loopholes, but it was a fine plan,” McCord said.


No chicken lunches

The charter for the free enterprise center had always called for an advisory board of some sort. But it left much to the imagination.

“It was completely unelaborated,” McCord said. “So we are in the process of articulating exactly what that is.”

Who would serve on it, how would they be chosen, how much input and control would they have?

“These are the critical questions that will ultimately determine whether the advisory board is a mere rubber stamp or a genuine check-and-balance,” McCord said. “A lot of advisory boards just meet twice a year for a chicken lunch and the director tells you all the wonderful things they have been doing.”

But there was too much at stake for that sort of advisory board when it comes to the Koch-funded free enterprise center, McCord said.

“It needs to be an active, heavily-involved board that represents all faculty in the business of this center. They need to be on the job,” McCord said.

It became clear the only way to decide what the advisory board will look like is to convene a preliminary advisory board tasked with developing the structure for the ultimate advisory board.

“This will not be the final advisory board for the center but will help implement the structure for the advisory board,” Morrison-Shetlar said as she laid out the first step of the two-pronged advisory board implementation plan for the faculty senate.

The irony of convening an advisory panel to decide the composition of another advisory panel could be the making of a Saturday Night Live skit on stereotypical academic bureaucracy. But in this case, it’s really needed, McCord said.

“First we need to decide how board oversight will actually be implemented in the governance of this center,” McCord said. “You can’t really do that right from the beginning.”

To prevent the free enterprise center from heralding a particular political economic school of thought at the expense of others, the final advisory board needs to be objective and empowered, McCord said. 

McCord hopes the advisory board will vet job descriptions for new professors hired under the banner of the free enterprise center and take part in the search committee to ensure the pool isn’t being limited to applicants in the Koch’s pocket.

The advisory board should also ensure there is adequate peer review of the policy white papers and op-eds being pushed out by the center — which is one of the deliverables its backers hope to see, according to email correspondence with the Koch Foundation. 

Hosting conferences, seminars and panels aimed at influencing economic and political thought is another deliverable of the free enterprise center, according to email exchanges. But if the faculty oversight board has its way, it will ensure guest speakers brought in are representative of multiple perspectives.

The blue-ribbon task force charged with charting the course for the ultimate advisory board convened for the first time last week. It has a faculty representative from each college on campus. Morrison-Shetlar crafted a short list of candidates for the interim task force, which McCord seconded as representing a range of faculty voices and minds.

Dr. Ed Lopez, the economics professor driving the creation of the center, did not wish to comment on the concept of the advisory board for this article.

“The process continues to be in the hands of the administration and a broad base of faculty, as it should be,” Lopez said in response to a request for comment.

Lopez acknowledged as early as last fall that the subject was one that had to be addressed, according to an email he wrote to the Dean of the College of Business, Darrell Parker.

“I don’t know the answer to a good question that has been raised: what are the procedures for establishing the Advisory Board, and can it be made representative by appointing a Faculty Senator? Before accepting that suggestion, I would want to follow established practice for convening other similar boards on campus,” Lopez wrote to Parker in an email in late October.

Parker later wrote in an email to the Provost that oversight of the free enterprise center should not be any more or less rigorous than that of other centers on campus. Parker was responding to a call from some quarters of the faculty senate that the advisory board should not be self-appointed wholly from within the College of Business, but should include elected faculty.

“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 in an email to Morrison-Shetlar in late October.

But a robust advisory board could provide exactly the type of transparency the center needs to prove to skeptical faculty in other departments on campus that it won’t pursue research with a foregone advocacy outcome.

Parker said this week he welcomes a rigorous advisory board that involves faculty across a variety of disciplines and perspectives.

“It will guide the development of the center in precisely the direction we intended — a multidisciplinary effort to examine the strengths and weaknesses of our system of free enterprise, toward the goal of improving economic development for Western North Carolina,” Parker said.


Work cut out

Chancellor David Belcher has also pledged to involve a faculty task force in vetting and wordsmithing the gift agreement between the Koch Foundation and the university before it is inked.

These measures are aimed at tempering faculty concerns about possible ulterior motives behind the Koch-funded center.

An overwhelming majority of WCU’s faculty senate voted against the idea of the free enterprise center last fall, but it was approved by university administration anyway. To quash it would be leading down the slippery slope of censoring the academic freedom of professors to freely pursue the lines of study that interest them, Belcher said at the time.

“One of the great advantages that we have as university faculty and as professionals in our respective disciplines is the ability to distinguish zealotry and advocacy on the one hand from inquiry and research on the other. Let us do that,” Lopez said in an address to the faculty senate last fall. “Propaganda is not what I am about, and that is not the slightest bit what the proposed center is about.”

However, Lopez has longstanding ties to the Koch network of conservative and Libertarian think tanks — of both the academic and advocacy variety.

Lopez has made dueling statements about the mission of the free enterprise center. In the publicly shared vision for the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, Lopez describes its mission as this: “to provide sound policy analysis and thought leadership pertaining to economic development,” a mission that squares with WCU’s own mission to advance economic development in the region.

But in private communications with the Koch Foundation, Lopez has portrayed the center as a medium to advance free enterprise policies in society and recruit students to the free enterprise school of thought.

In an email to the Koch Foundation in late September, Lopez laid out a blueprint for the free enterprise center that differed from the one he was simultaneously sharing with WCU administration.

“I’m attaching a proposal outline as we’ve discussed,” Lopez wrote in an email to Andrew Gillen, the program officer for university investments at the Koch Foundation. “The campus version of this proposal is now working its way through the channels here at WCU.”

Missing from the on-campus version were detailed examples of so-called “deliverables” being promised to the Koch Foundation in exchange for $2 million in funding.

• The list of deliverables sent to the Koch Foundation highlighted the cultivation of students into the free enterprise discipline, including developing a “pipeline of students” exposed to free enterprise teachings and “cultivating students’ long-term interest and participation in the larger community of free enterprise scholars, implementers, activists and related professions.”

That language was left out of an otherwise largely identical on-campus version. 

• The on-campus version included a generic description of outreach by the center: “to host research seminars, workshops and other events to support the development of sound research reports.”

The version submitted to the Koch Foundation, however, went on to elaborate on an underlying goal in that outreach: “To establish WCU as a hub of free enterprise idea entrepreneurs.” The deliverables cited in the Koch version also pledged to work with other colleges in North and South Carolina that receive Koch funding to “form a regional cluster.”

• Yet another difference in the two lists of deliverables involved the type of conferences that would be hosted. The on-campus version generically referred to hosting conferences, but specific examples were proffered in the Koch version — offering WCU as a site to host conferences for the Liberty Fund and Institute for Humane Studies, two Libertarian think tanks with close ties to the Koch network. 

Ralph Wilson, a researcher with the national organization Un-Koch My Campus, said the advisory board would have its work cut out to counter-balance inherent goals of any Koch-funded center embedded on a campus.

“Whether a well-structured, well functioning advisory board could do the trick, I think implicit control is still a threat that would be hard for an advisory board to monitor,” Wilson said. 

There has been a steep rise in conservative-backed research and policy centers on college campuses nationally in recent years. These academic versions of research-based think tanks are needed on university campuses to balance out the inherently liberal leanings of the rest of the professors on campus, according to Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a Raleigh-based conservative think tank with ties to the Koch network.

“To say that the left had conquered academia seemed an understatement — the institution of higher education has long been moving incrementally away from the spirit of objective inquiry to dogmatic left-wing uniformity, chasing all non-conforming ideas from campuses,” Schalin wrote in a report last year.

He calculated there were around 150 centers and institutes on university and college campuses, giving fair time to conservative and libertarian views on free market economics, capitalism and limited government that have otherwise been vanquished from academia. 

“Often academics on the left assume that because the original funding of such centers comes from donors who are identified with the political right, they must have political motives for the funding and that center directors have political marching orders,” Schalin wrote.

In some cases, proposed centers have seen a “failure to launch” or are “co-opted due to faculty opposition,” according to Schalin.

“In a few cases, their opposition has reached enough intensity to prevent centers from opening, to drive them off campus, to change their leadership, or to accept overly strict governance measures,” Schalin wrote.

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