A University of Utah department head fears the Charles Koch Foundation will insert its conservative public policy agenda into a new U. institute it has partly bankrolled.
“We are deeply concerned about an agreement with a donor whose stated purpose is to promote a specific ideological and political agenda,” wrote Mark Button, chairman of the U.’s Department of Political Science, in an as-yet undated letter to the Academic Senate’s executive committee.
But John Hardin, director of university relations for the Virginia-based foundation, said its “core principle is academic freedom.”
Last month, four members of the Eccles family who manage two Eccles family foundations announced the donation of $10 million — a contribution being matched by the Koch Foundation — to establish the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis on the Salt Lake City campus.
Button is collecting signatures on the letter from faculty, staff and students. He had 85 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon but plans to continue the gathering effort until he must submit the statement Aug. 4 to the Academic Senate.
The Senate executive committee is already scheduled to hold a closed meeting Aug. 14, followed by an open meeting of the full Senate Aug. 28, according to U. officials.
Chris Nelson, U. spokesman, said the Academic Senate doesn’t usually weigh in on decisions about the U. accepting gifts, adding that its members do not have ”the power to review or decide the appropriateness of a philanthropic donation to another group of faculty members.”
They can, however, “influence the administration and propose new guidelines, policies or processes they want to see,” Nelson added.
In the letter, Button points to several examples of why the Koch brothers’ involvement in academia raises concerns. Three years ago, he notes, foundation leaders raised the possibility of leveraging science and universities for their public policy agenda.
There’s “clear evidence that the foundation’s explicit, strategic purpose is to build a ‘network’ of professors who will produce research that serves the ideological and policy aims of the Koch Foundation and to build a ‘talent pipeline’ of students supported by Koch-funded professors, institutes and research centers who will help advance the foundation’s public policy and electoral goals,” Button wrote.
But Hardin said the foundation supports a wide swath of programs — from criminal justice to political science to philosophy — at the hundreds of colleges it donates to nationwide.
“We‘re supporting a lot of different types of research on a lot of different questions that are all geared toward helping people to build and develop more prosperous lives,” Hardin said.”
The U. donation isn’t the first by the foundation to a Utah university. In May, the foundation teamed up with the Huntsmans, another prominent Utah family, on a $50 million donation to Utah State University’s business school.
The foundation has donated money to at least 300 other universities nationwide, many of which have been met with criticism that the brothers are trying to interject libertarian and conservative ideology into higher education.
Button said his concerns center not on the Kochs’ political view but the notion of academic independence.
“We do not believe that it is in the long-term best interest of our University to allow its talented professors and students to be strategically ‘leveraged’ by any outside entity, irrespective of its philosophical or political views,” he wrote.
Button added that he does not feel the grant agreement between the U. and the foundation sufficiently guarantees “intellectual independence and academic freedom for faculty and students” of the institute. Instead of allowing the foundation to control its financial obligations — and that of the Eccles — Button said the U. should have ensured the entire amount was received up front.
But Hardin said the grant format “could not be a more common practice in supporting education.”
Button ended his draft letter urging “the university to incorporate meaningful forms of independent faculty governance in this new institute, especially as this relates to future faculty hiring and distribution of student scholarships and fellowships.”