Those Who Pay the Piper Call the Tune

The Charles Koch Foundation has offered Western Carolina University a gift of $2 million in order to establish a Center of Free Enterprise.  Mark Jamison, the retired postmaster of Webster, North Carolina, has an excellent op-ed piece in the Smoky Mountain News opposing the donation.  He writes:

The proposed $2 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation to Western Carolina University to establish a Center of Free Enterprise raises several questions.

• Are gifts like these from private donors appropriate at public institutions?

• Do they entail a quid pro quo regardless of protocols to ensure transparency?

• Are gifts within certain academic disciplines different in their impact on the mission and perception of the university?

In an era when we have seen the highest concentrations of wealth in more than a hundred years and when there exists a growing concern about the impact of money on the accountability and accessibility of political institutions, do these sorts of gifts further a trend away from democratic institutions and public goods? Is this trend healthy?

In 1971 Lewis Powell — a corporate lawyer, member of 11 corporate boards, and future Supreme Court Justice — wrote a memo to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo was essentially a diatribe against American liberalism, a call for action from American corporate and business interests. It recommended a concerted effort to develop an intellectual infrastructure that would support the interests of American corporatism.

The Powell memo has often been credited as the birthing document of the web of think tanks, associations, and groups that advance conservative thought in this country.  Another consequence of the memo was a renewed focus on capturing government and making it work directly for the interests of corporate elites.

Over the last generation we have seen the effects of Powell’s advice in action, especially as economic gains have concentrated in the upper .01 percent, creating a class of billionaires able to buy an outsized voice and presence in politics and policy making.

The ubiquity of private think tanks and foundations assures that there is more than sufficient opportunity for the dissemination of political and ideological opinion. Here in North Carolina we suffer no lack of presence with Art Pope’s John Locke Society and Civitas.

Why then is it necessary to extend the reach of these essentially political organizations into the publicly funded university system? Even if one concedes that accepting donations from wealthy benefactors can be beneficial to a publicly funded university, does a difference arise with respect to what the benefactor chooses to fund? Leaving the question of agenda setting aside, it seems a fundamental distinction exists between funding a Center for Bio-research and funding a Center for Free Enterprise. One is largely a pursuit of empirically constrained hard science while the other is a study and promotion of ideology. This becomes particularly evident when looking at the specialty of the proposed CFE director, WCU Professor Edward J. Lopez. Dr. Lopez focuses on a branch of economics that comes under the rubric of “Public Choice Theory.”

The remainder of the piece examines in some detail Lopez’s intellectually vacuous views on economics, public choice, and democracy, concluding that he is “adept at telling ‘just so’ stories leading us in the direction of his conclusions.”  But, Jamison concludes,

the question here is more than what Dr. Lopez teaches or how he teaches it. At issue is not the legitimacy of one professor’s views. The issue is whether a publicly funded institution ought to take a gift to establish a program with the clear mission to teach a particular ideology, an ideology that is broadly contested. This is especially true in a discipline like economics and especially when the proposed center and its leader mix economics, political philosophy, and political science. Maybe the discussion ends up being framed differently if we were talking about a hard science, or medical research, or a purely technical discipline. Even then there might still be questions about billionaires dictating an agenda, but in a discipline that is entirely empirical there are fewer and different problems. The search for facts and the search for truth are two different endeavors; that distinction is both critical and germane to this specific proposal. . . .

The land grant colleges and public university systems were built to serve as great equalizers. These public institutions were built to give average folks the opportunity to acquire knowledge and pursue intellectual inquiry. Sadly, as our world has graduated from a market economy to a market society, much of the mission of our public institutions has been lost. In a world where billionaires and corporate sponsors face few constraints in their ability to dictate public policy and control public discourse, we ought not blithely encourage yet another venue for indoctrination, no matter how much the enticement. . . .

Let Dr. Lopez teach what he wants, but let WCU retain its integrity as a public institution, something it cannot do if it accepts this gift.

2 thoughts on “Those Who Pay the Piper Call the Tune

  1. While this was certainly a well written op-ed, I’m a bit confused about something. It mentions in the op-ed that it is wrong to have private donors open centers on campuses but I though Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was pretty much the same thing (albeit more grass roots oriented). Although I do think it was wrong for the Center of Poverty to be shut down, what makes that and this new center different?

    • You raise an excellent and important question: how can we distinguish between the actions of donors who simply support those programs they favor — from dramatic productions, to medical research, to the football team — from those whose donations aim to advance a predetermined ideological agenda with respect to curriculum or research and thereby meddle in educational decision-making best conducted by the faculty? Because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to draw a clear bright line of principle between the two, a full treatment of the matter is well beyond the scope of these comments. But in the two specific cases you compare here, I would suggest the following distinctions between the two are relevant:

      First, the budget of the UNC Center was just a bit over $100,000, not $2 million; in these things I do think scale matters.

      Second, despite its lower budget the UNC Center was funded by multiple small- and medium-sized donors, both individuals and foundations. The Western Carolina proposal involves a single donor.

      Third, and most important, none of the UNC donors, to my knowledge at least, placed ideological conditions on their donations nor did they demand a specific research agenda. To be sure, their sympathies were undoubtedly with the Center’s approach and its leadership, but that is not the same as mandating that the funds be spent to advance a specific point of view, especially one that is highly controversial, as seems to be the case with the Koch donation.

      Fourth, and finally, insofar as it provided direct legal assistance to those in poverty, the UNC Center was similar to many clinical programs at law schools across the country and as such its program was governed by the standards of the bar. It did not, to my knowledge, seek to prejudge its clients by some predetermined ideological or political standard, but simply to provide assistance and to employ their experience in conducting legal research on the causes of and potential remedies for poverty. By contrast, the goals of the Koch donation and similar ones nationwide are clearly aimed more at advancing a specific political agenda.

      That said, let me repeat that this is not always an easy question. The growing dependence of many public institutions (and, for that matter, private ones too) on donations from the moneyed classes is fraught with peril even as it can help address the chronic (and in my mind almost criminal) underfunding of higher education. Sometimes colleges and universities face difficult choices. In those cases it should be the faculty and not the outside donors, trustees, legislators, or administrators, who make the decisions.

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