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New Center At WCU Has Faculty Cautious, Optimistic

The work of the center will be facilitated throughout WCU's College of Business. WCU is set to invest approximately $1.3 million of its own money for the center, the source of which comes from three faculty positions already funded.
Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University recently received a $1.8 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation, to fund the new Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. The funding will be given in installments over the next five years.

Members of Western Carolina University’s faculty senate are remaining “cautiously optimistic” about the acceptance of a nearly two million dollar “gift” from the Charles Koch Foundation--to establish a controversial new center for learning.

After making concessions to the school for more oversight of the center prior to its creation, Western faculty will now be able to monitor for any inappropriate donor influence over the school—something no college has achieved before, according to Ralph Wilson, senior researcher of corporate watchdog group UnKoch My Campus.

“What western faculty have been able to do is create a meaningful oversight body, by independent faculty, their actions have been serving as a model for faculty at other universities across the country.”

Over the years, Charles Koch, along with his brother David H., have given millions of dollars to conservative political groups, think tanks and super PACs. Over the last decade, approximately $70 million in Koch Foundation money has found its way onto roughly 300 college campuses across the United States—both public and private—and has become a growing point of contention. The foundation’s detractors call foul play, claiming that its money buys their brand of libertarian political philosophy influence over higher education, and ultimately their brand of economic policy.

“They use universities to create what they call intellectual raw materials, that get fed to think tanks, which get fed to 'astroturf' groups. These private donors fund it all three steps. It’s a process that they say the outcome of which will be the implementation of policy change.”

In essence, critics maintain that the Kochs have the ability to hire and fire professors, show favor to certain curriculum, and establish ‘educational centers’ which promote “free market capitalism” more favorably over other economic frameworks. Such centers are emerging at schools like Florida State, George Mason Universities, and Western Carolina University.

Asked how he would describe Koch Foundation activity on college campuses, Wilson thought for a moment, contemplating how intricate and sophisticated it operates. He finally replied: “It’s brilliant! It’s absolutely brilliant, and I mean that genuinely, as a scientist or somebody who’s studying it as a phenomenon. It’s absolutely brilliant. As a person on the earth, I think it’s… I think it’s terrifying. At the same time that I see it’s brilliance, I kind of have to not pay attention to how terrifying it is—in depth and in scale—because I got to get through the work day.”

The Koch contribution was accepted at the end of last month, after nearly a year of controversy when it was first proposed last fall. Members of Western’s faculty senate were the first to voice their opposition to the Foundation’s gift. In their official position statement, the faculty senate expressed its support the rights of all professors to “determine their own research and teaching agendas,” and they acknowledged that the economic perspectives of the center are “well within the mainstream of the discipline of economics”.

Faculty Senate member Bill Yang, who has taught engineering at the school for the last decade, said in a statement that his colleagues are remaining "cautiously optimistic" about the center, now that they have been granted more independent oversight of it, after months of concessions to the university. 

By December, Western’s board of trustees approved the center despite the faculty’s concerns. According to Darrell Parker, Dean of the College of Business, the school has been sensitive to the concerns of the faculty, and is confident the center will provide the school, as well as the surrounding mountain community, with a greater scope of economic analysis.

“In general, the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise will be active promoting the econonomic development of the region through the study of economics. The U.S. free enterprise system is essential to the work of a business school. The center has an interdisciplinary focus.”

Dr. Parker cited Western’s economic impact study of the region’s leaf season in relation to the government shutdown in 2013 as an example of how the work of the center might shed light on the state’s economy.

“The government shutdown was a good example of how you don’t know what the research is going to tell you. Someone who believes that the intent was specifically against government, might presume that a study of the government shutdown would say ‘yay, the government shut down.’ In fact, it was ‘here’s the cost to our businesses’. The right level of government activity is something that we need research to understand the cost and benefits.

Nevertheless, Dr. Parker maintains that the foundation’s relationship with the school won’t be as contentious as it has been with other schools.

"I think there's a fear that we've bought into the donor's mission, rather than a recognition that the donor has bought into our mission. We’re in the business of doing economic research that is of importance to the economy of Western North Carolina. That is the university mission and that’s what our center will do.”

Dr. Parker expects the center to be fully operational after it receives its funding in November.

Credit UnKoch My Campus
Ralph Wilson is a senior researcher for the Koch Foundation watchdog group UnKoch My Campus. Wilson lauds WCU's recent success in requisitioning more faculty oversight of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise.
Click the 'Listen' button to hear our full interview with UnKoch My Campus Senior Researcher Ralph Wilson.

Credit Western Carolina University
Darrell Parker, dean of Western's College of Business.
Click 'Listen' to hear our interview with WCU College of Business Dean Darrell Parker.