Koch donation riles up U. academic senate, though supporters say professor safeguards are in place

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the University of Utah Academic Senate stand to approve an amendment, after discussing the $10 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.

When the Eccles family initially proposed teaming with the Charles Koch Foundation to fund a new University of Utah business institute, Taylor Randall was hesitant.

“Like many of you, we said, ‘Gee, we have heard a few things [about the Kochs],’ ” Randall, dean of the U.’s David Eccles School of Business, said Monday during a meeting of the U.’s Academic Senate.

But instead of declining the funding to start the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis, Randall said he and his colleagues made sure there were safeguards built into the $10 million gift agreement to ensure that academic freedom was preserved and that the Kochs did not have undue influence.

Randall outlined these safeguards — such as ensuring that the foundation did not have a say in faculty hiring — to senators Monday. But it wasn’t enough for many of them, who felt the institute deal was rushed, duplicative of other programs and set up in a way that allowed the foundation to push their conservative policy agenda on the school through the threat of withholding funds.

In reaction, Senate members approved a resolution Monday in which a committee to recommend changes to guidelines “regarding the establishment of centers, institutes and bureaus with ‘provision’ status,” like the institute.

The discussion Monday came as a slew of individuals — from faculty to an Eccles family member — protest the donation, announced last month as part of a joint effort with the Eccles family foundations. An Eccles foundation and a Koch organizations are donating $10 million each to establish the institute

The Eccles family has been donating money to the university for decades, and, Randall said, “It was clear from the onset that the Eccles foundations led this initiative.”

“We have confidence in the Eccles family foundations,” he said.

But some are concerned about their apparent alliance with the Kochs, given criticism from other parts of the country.

The Charles Koch Foundation has donated to at least 300 other universities, many of which have been met with criticism that Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are seeking to interject libertarian and conservative ideology into higher education, including skepticism over climate change.

Paul Cassell, a U. law professor, spoke in support of the institute Monday, saying he believes much of the concern is based on “false assumptions.”

Having a specific agenda “hardly sets the Kochs apart from many other foundations,” Cassell said, adding that foundations are supposed to have an agenda.

Officials with the Eccles family foundations ensured that such an ideological injection cannot happen, they said Friday, because the gift agreements “clearly provide that the university faculty has complete control over decisions.”

But Mark Button, chairman of the U.’s political science department, said in a letter to the senate that he believes there are ways the agreement still gives control to the Kochs. That letter received nearly 200 signatures from concerned faculty and staff members.

The gift agreement allows the Kochs to dole out funding in one-year increments until 2024, requiring the school to submit a request for the money each year. The Koch foundation “will consider the progress made in establishing this new program as part of its funding decisions,” the agreement states, but it “is under no obligation to contribute any funds to the institute or university” if it does not approve the institute’s request.

Though common at the U., Randall said there is always a risk with this type of gift agreement because it could lead to the Koch foundation exerting influence by withholding funds.

But the most critical piece of the funding pays the salary of the institute’s faculty, he added, and the business school can and will absorb that cost — between $300,000 and $500,000 — if the foundation attempts to endanger the institute’s academic freedom.

“We’re comfortable with this agreement,” he said.

Button and the other faculty members who signed his letter believe the U. should have negotiated to receive all of the funding up front, as does Marriner C. Eccles, grandson of the institute’s namesake. Eccles penned a letter last week asking the senate to “renounce” this conditional agreement from the Kochs.

Similar concerns about funding were raised last fall at the University of Kentucky. There, the Charles Koch Foundation teamed up with the founder of Papa John’s Pizza to bankroll the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise.

The terms of that gift agreement — like that at the U. — set up funding subject to annual review, according to Inside Higher Ed. UK’s Academic Senate did not endorse the terms of the agreement, but the school’s board of trustees signed off, according to the school’s website.

Kentucky’s funding arrangement is perhaps not as controversial as the original terms of a Koch foundation donation at Florida State University in 2008, which allowed for the veto of faculty candidates by a Koch-approved outside advisory board, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Cynthia Berg, dean of the U.’s college of social and behavioral science, said Monday that the institute deal was so rushed that she and others did not have time to examine and research the proposal, receiving it less than a week before a meeting was held on the matter.

She also is concerned that some of the programs within the institute are duplicative of others across campus, including in the business school itself.

“Duplication is problematic where there are scarce resources, and I think the scarce resources can be put to greater use,” Berg said.

The U. Senate on Monday opted not to vote on two more resolutions that would work to ensure duplication was not happening and require a Senate committee to conduct an annual review for all centers, institutes and bureaus during their provision period if an agreement exceeds $500,000 “to assess the extent to which the principles of academic freedom are being preserved.”

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