U. faculty: Koch Foundation gift 'raises serious concerns' about academic freedom

U. faculty: Koch Foundation gift 'raises serious concerns' about academic freedom

(Jordan Allred, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A six-page letter to the University of Utah's Academic Senate signed by dozens of political science, economics and law faculty "raises serious concerns" that a new grant from the Charles Koch Foundation could impact intellectual independence and academic freedom.

Some 85 faculty members and doctoral candidates signed the letter to the Academic Senate's executive committee regarding the recent grant agreement between the university and foundation, which will benefit the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis.

The "statement of concern," which was released to Utah media outlets in draft form Tuesday morning, is expected to be shared with the university's Academic Senate executive committee in a closed-door meeting later this month. The letter has not yet been delivered to the president of the Academic Senate.

Last month, the Charles Koch Foundation contributed $10 million to match a like sum from Eccles' descendants who manage two family foundations to establish the institute named for Marriner S. Eccles, who served as Federal Reserve chairman from 1934 to 1948.

The letter says transcripts from a 2014 Charles Koch Foundation Donor Summit meeting "have made it clear that the aim of the Koch Foundation’s widespread investments in higher education is to 'leverage science and universities' for their specific public policy agenda."

"This document and the track record of the Koch Foundation’s funding in higher education provides 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."

The letter states that the statement was "motivated by our shared belief that the long-term viability and institutional integrity of the University of Utah will remain secure so long as students, faculty, staff and administrators are committed to protecting the vital principles of intellectual independence and academic freedom on our campus."


It goes on to say it is not in the long-term interest of the university "to allow its talented professors and students to be strategically 'leveraged' by any outside entity, irrespective of its philosophical or political views."

"Indeed, we believe that even the appearance that the University of Utah is willing to serve as a vehicle for the strategic political aims of any organization or donor will do serious damage to the academic reputation and scholarly integrity of our institution — as it arguably has with other academic institutions around the country," the letter states.

Mark Button, chairman of the Department of Political Science and one author of the letter, said "I will let the letter speak for itself, and given my other responsibilities at the university, I will not have time to respond to additional media requests."

The letter calls on the university to incorporate meaningful "independent faculty governance in this new institute, especially as this relates to future faculty hiring and the distribution of student scholarships and fellowships."

University spokesman Chris Nelson, in a statement, said the gift agreements for the new Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis "include strict limits that protect the autonomy of the institute’s operation, including hiring and research activities of faculty members. If we felt that autonomy was threatened we would walk away from the gift."

Nelson said the university's leadership team "is committed to making the U. a place where the broadest possible latitude is provided to explore innovative ideas and experiments. Our policies foster an environment where faculty members can seek knowledge and where the pursuit of truth is encouraged and safe guarded."

He noted that the Academic Senate does not typically weigh in on the university's acceptance of philanthropic gifts or establishing institutes.

"The university’s policies also do not give a particular group of faculty members the power to review or decide the appropriateness of a philanthropic donation to another group of faculty members," Nelson said.

As an institution, the university "neither reviews nor judges the personal or political viewpoints of its donors. University gift agreements are designed to protect academic freedom, intellectual integrity and independence of thought for all of our faculty and students," he said.

While the authors of the letter acknowledge they do not believe "it is any part of the university’s intention to align itself with the Koch Foundation’s ideological network and its specific public policy goals, by virtue of accepting funding from the Koch Foundation, the University of Utah will become another vehicle of the foundation’s broader political ambitions."

"The fact that these ambitions include the evisceration of public support for academic research — especially related to climate change — creates an institutional association that is at cross-purposes with the mission and values of our university and the important scholarship it seeks to advance for the wider public good," they said.

In response, Nelson said "I also want to affirm that the University of Utah is committed to rigorous, interdisciplinary research on the important concern of climate change. We have faculty across a wide range of disciplines who are actively involved in studying climate change and environmental issues. Areas of focus include: policy analysis; understanding climate process in the past and present; dynamics of greenhouse gases, air quality and convective weather; forest ecosystems, wildlife and plant responses to climate change; energy, natural resources, water and public lands use; and sustainable development."

John Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, in a recent meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards, said the foundation does not want to push an ideology at the U.

"I think what we all know is fundamentally important about higher education is that it is a space in which diverse ideas, diverse perspectives come to the table and have an environment in which they can interact, where they can challenge one another," Hardin said.

Charles Koch has supported educational initiatives in K-12 education and higher education for 50 years, the last 40 through his foundation, including giving to 300 colleges as diverse as large public universities, Ivy League schools such as Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, Notre Dame and small liberal arts colleges, Hardin said.

"What's the same about all of them, and what we see here, which is they have programs, they have faculty, they have students that are excited to engage in educational exploration around ideas and the institutions that enable people to be prosperous," he said.

"What we would hope is that people would take a look at this program and see the results, the results of the program. What’s it about? What are the students learning? What’s it been enabling them to do … and not get caught up in any of these other distractions that we unfortunately see are many times efforts, unfortunately, to stop students from learning, stop professors from doing research," he said.

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