Koch Controversy Resurfaces At WCU Amid New Research

Mar 10, 2017

   Last fall, the conservative Charles Koch Foundation funded a controversial new center at Western Carolina University, to the tune of nearly $2 million.  Opponents are now releasing research they say sheds light on how Koch money influences public education.

The Hinds University Center at Western Carolina University was packed with students and faculty alike, for the screening of the new film “Starving the Beast”. The documentary explores how recent conservative policymaking is influencing public education.   

After it ended, English professor Laura Wright opened up a panel discussion with guest speakers from the film. But before that could even begin, this man this man took control of the microphone before anyone else, offering a diatribe of the film:

“I got this sort of reaction of like when I was reading an Ayn Rand novel. When I was reading Ayn Rand I was like 'where are the kids? There's no children in this novel!'. But the film had this sort of parallel to it. How much do they talk about the students?  I think they talked about saving tenure for the faculty more than they talked about the students."

Dr. Laura Wright (left) grows impatient with Dr. Edward Lopez (right) as he offers up a diatribe of the documentary film "Starving The Beast".
Credit Davin Eldridge

That’s Dr. Edward Lopez, director of the controversial new Center for the Study of Free Market Enterprise—a center funded by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation to the tune of some $1.8 million. He went on for several minutes, effectively icing the clock for others to speak.

[Wright: “Do you have a question?" Lopez: “No, I don’t have a question”. “Then let someone else speak!”]

Among the guest speakers in attendance was Ralph Wilson, senior researcher of the corporate watchdog group UnKoch My Campus. The group recently published research on the Koch Foundation’s activities at Florida State University. Wilson describes what the Kochs are doing on campuses like Western as “brilliant”, and “nefarious”.

“They have a very methodical approach to this. I have to acknowledge good work where I see it. But it’s also completely in the private interest. It also subverts the public interest, in order to accomplish its ends.”

Wilson wasn’t at all surprised by Dr. Lopez’s tactics that day at Western, saying they were indicative of what many Koch-funded professors do to protect the interests of their centers.

Professor Wright agrees:

“I kind of did see that coming because when we had an open forum about the establishment of the center the same thing happened. I felt like it was more just an attempt to disrupt the whole event.”

The controversial new Center for the Study of Free Market Enterprise, located in the Forsyth building on the campus of WCU, is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation.
Credit Davin Eldridge

Wilson describes Koch Foundation activities on college campuses as “academic crime”, something the Department of Justice catalogues as a white collar crime, on par with fraud—and this is the main thrust of his research, titled “A Case Study In Academic Crime”.

“The unfortunate part is that university policy is at best state administrative code. You’re not going to get hauled off and taken away for violating someone’s academic freedom, or destroying faculty governance. To me, these things are highly political, they violate written institutional policies. They are crimes to me. So I started speaking in these terms.”

While the research focuses on Koch’s activities at Florida State University, Wilson says it serves to show how the foundation’s actions as a private donor can exert undue influence on a public university.

For instance, the research shows how school administrators can give the foundation power over school curriculum, as well as hiring decisions, withholding money from recipients that don’t adhere to ideology, and even giving the foundation power over dissertation topics.

“What we were consistently seeing at FSU and at other campuses, is the creation of these Koch programs or these 'free market' programs' and centers, were consistently taking place in ways that violated university policy, when there was a policy to violate,” says Wilson.

Dr. Lopez defended his actions, saying that he was simply offering a critique of the film, but he was even more critical of Wilson’s work. “I think this is another area where there is factually incorrect material out there," he said.

Dr. Lopez said that by-in-large, Wilson’s research goes off of planning documents, rather than finalized documents. As such, he says the research can exert an undue air of impropriety on centers like his. 

“I think if people want to know what's influencing the Center, they should look at the charter that the board of trustees has approved," says Dr. Lopez.

Wilson stands by his research, saying that Western serves as a model for how public universities can have oversight of corporate donor influences on their campuses. Last year, its faculty senate successfully lobbied for an oversight committee of the Koch-funded Center. 

“The lessons learned here at Western Carolina are already being used by other campuses across the country,” says Wilson.

This, Dr. Lopez points out, contradicts research like Wilson's to some degree. "It can be this terrible center on one hand, and in the other the school has complete oversight of it," he says.

Wilson stands by his research, saying that it compiles internal documents in all stages of the planning process.

Dr. Lopez says that his center is now currently involved in several projects which will benefit students across the region, including seminars on the topic of free trade, a conference on criminology and incarceration rates, and research programs on accounting and entrepreneurship.