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Royce Van Tassell: Grappling with and evaluating the unfamiliar, including from those supported by the Koch Foundation

Royce van Tassell editorial mug

Robert Gehrke is a friend. At least, we're as friendly as a columnist at Utah's liberal daily and a denizen of the libertarian wing of the Republican party can be. Straining our friendship even further, I'm a scum-sucking bottom-feeder lobbyist.

Robert is honest, funny and warm. He is well aware of and sympathetic to both the brokenness and goodness inherent in the humanity of the politicians he covers. That's what makes his recent criticism of the Koch Foundation's gifts to the University of Utah and USU surprising and disappointing.

Over the past couple of years, it has become fashionable among a certain set to portray the Koch Foundation and the professors, policy outfits and advocates it supports as cartoon characters out to destroy all that is good. Think Snidely Whiplash or Boris and Natasha. Implicit in these caricatures is the assumption that those in the Koch circle couldn't reach their conclusions absent an all-encompassing thirst for power.

That assumption fails in two critical ways. First, it eliminates the humanity of the Koch brothers, as well as the humanity of the researchers and advocates they support. Gehrke doesn't go quite as far as Nancy McLean, who seems to believe the Koch Foundation and its allies have lost the taste for the milk of human kindness. But he does seem uncharacteristically willing to believe that the Koch Foundation's support inevitably "warps" research and "undermines" otherwise reputable institutions.

Second, that assumption rules out the possibility that the scholars within the orbit of the Koch Foundation have no meaningful insights into the human condition. Given my libertarian bent, I'm thrilled the Koch Foundation is investing in Utah universities and professors. But in this regard, I would be equally pleased were George Soros or Tom Steyer to invest in Utah's universities and professors.

My bookshelf is full of books by Sowell and Hayek, Rawls and Sunstein. I am a better, smarter person and a more effective advocate for having tried to grapple with all of their ideas. (I don't think anyone, Keynes included, understands The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.) By the same token, the students at USU and the U will better understand the world around them because the Koch Foundation supports serious research.

Finally, it's unfortunate that Gehrke seems to fall at least a little bit prey to the notion that "safe spaces" should exist in higher education. To the contrary, college campuses are supposed to stretch students' minds by exposing them to ideas they have never contemplated, and equipping them with tools to evaluate those ideas. If Gehrke is right about the inherently corrosive nature of the Koch Foundation – and he's not – USU and the U will have failed if their students are unable to answer that question on their own.

Before closing, a disclaimer: I count Randy Simmons a personal friend, a serious scholar whose research the Koch Foundation has supported and whom Gehrke personally called out. Randy was one of my graduate professors at USU. I got my first job out of grad school because of his recommendation, and we have worked together on a variety of efforts over the years.

I hope Randy's students also engage work supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. My libertarian friends, including those supported by the Koch Foundation, have no monopoly on truth. The interplay between competing philosophies helps students and faculty understand the world, challenge their own biases and expose the limits of their prescriptions.

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