Free Market Centers: Academic or Political?


Over the past few years this blog has posted a number of items related to the work of the conservative North Carolina-based John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  In March, 2015, John Wilson reported that the center had praised the decision of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to eliminate the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC’s law school, a decision criticized by the AAUP.  In February 2015 the Center issued a report, “Renewal in the University: How Academic Centers Restore the Spirit of Inquiry,” which concluded that conservative-leaning academic centers on college and university campuses founded by wealthy donors “are not just surviving but thriving,” a development the report praised.  In response, I published a piece in which I argued at some length that it was difficult to take the report’s conclusions seriously.  The report was, I wrote,

not much more than a slick promotional piece thinly disguised as an objective “report.”  It’s filled with loaded language and unfounded and extreme political allegations.  It’s aim is not, as it tries (quite unsuccessfully) to suggest, to introduce objectively an important new development in academic life, but is instead simply a puff piece designed to promote, without even a shred of dispassion, privately funded conservative academic centers.  It does so, first, by making wild unsubstantiated claims that universities today are dominated by something the author calls “the left” (which in the eyes of this “report” is apparently far more powerful and united than any self-proclaimed leftists would ever recognize), that dominates the faculty, who hide behind the fig leaf of “academic freedom” to promote their own radical agendas.  Second, it tries to recount what it sees as the many virtues of these centers.  Third, it argues that university governance “should primarily support the rights of a donor” over the “‘academic freedom’ of the faculty.”  Fourth, it contrasts these conservative centers to so-called “liberal centers” that are “explicitly political.”

I think none of these claims is much supported . . .

It therefore came as something of a pleasant surprise to find that yesterday the Pope Center published on its website a critique of such centers written by Ralph Wilson of unKoch My Campus.  The post was the first of two; on Friday, the Center promises, Hillsdale College economics professor Gary Wolfram will argue the opposite—that wherever the funding comes from, the expansion of free market teaching is to the good.

Here are excerpts from Wilson’s presentation:

The purpose of free market centers and programs funded by the Charles Koch Foundation’s (CKF) network of donors is political rather than educational. The network erodes institutional integrity to leverage donor control.

Recordings and documents from the Koch network suffice to show why these programs, executed in bad faith, should be rejected outright.

The Foundation’s “integrated strategy” for implementing donor-funded policy change, called the “Structure of Social Change,” coordinates the funding of universities, think tanks, and “grassroots” (astroturf) groups.

Since 2003, this has been orchestrated in CKF’s highly secretive bi-annual donor summits, whose attendees now largely comprise the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.

At a 2014 summit, in a session entitled “Leveraging Science and Universities,” a CKF official explained:

students that graduate out of these higher education programs also populate the state-based think tanks and the national think-tanks…they become the major staffing for the state chapters on the grassroots innovation around the country….

So the network is fully integrated. So it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities, and integrating this talent pipeline. I hope that those of you [who] are excited about the electoral process, you’ll invest there. Those of you who are excited about universities, invest there.

Fundraising simultaneously for academic and political projects, he reminds donors of a 32-state strategy for a “culture of freedom that will not just change the policies of those states, but also have a significant impact on the federal government.” . . . .

“Leveraging” universities for “policy change” requires bypassing or violating university procedures, often sneaking or forcing agreements into place.

At Florida State University, the extent of donor influence has included the ability to veto tenure hires, or any programming, with as little as 15 days notice, aside from an annual donor review of curricular/extra-curricular programs and non-tenure track hires.  According to a faculty investigation, the Koch “gift” violated academic freedom and faculty governance. A “two-fold conflict of interest,” it was executed through “administrative dictate,” with the dean and department chair Bruce Benson (former APEE president) using “threats” to create an “atmosphere of intimidation.”

At Auburn University, a Koch center established under Dr. Robert Lawson (former APEE President, now at Southern Methodist University) was found to have been the result of a foregone hiring process that took place without faculty knowledge, largely outside of Auburn’s hiring procedures.

At Western Carolina University, Dr. Ed Lopez (former APEE president) misinformed faculty and administrators with his “campus version” of a Koch center’s proposal, omitting key deliverables shared with the Koch Foundation, including a student “pipeline.” Despite a faculty vote against it, administrators approved the center.

In May 2016, faculty governance at George Mason University was ignored after faculty voted to halt a $30 million Koch-backed deal under review.

In October 2016, administrators at the University of Kentucky disregarded two consecutive faculty votes to reject the governance proposal of a new Koch center.

At Texas Tech University, journalists found that the Free Market Institute, under Dr. Ben Powell (former APEE President), was established in the business college after being rejected by three departments. Economics faculty said Powell “didn’t satisfy the minimum criteria for a tenure position,” had a ”weak vita,” and an “Austrian bent” that “wasn’t consistent with the culture in our department. We are mainstream economists.”

At Troy University, Koch, BB&T, and Manley Johnson (2010 Koch summit attendee) founded the Johnson Center in 2010. The mission statement mirrors the summit, touting “the moral imperatives of free markets.”

Troy’s now infamous George Crowley remarked at APEE 2016 how “We had a big gift…that let us hire a whole bunch of people all at once, and we kind of were able to take over, for lack of a better term.”

At Montana State University, there are concerns that a Koch center “bypassed the standard public review process and public input,” as the center is operational without having received Board of Regents approval.

It’s no wonder that organizations funded by the Koch network are frantically trying to redefine academic freedom and faculty governance. . . .

In 1974, Charles Koch said universities “encourage extreme hostility to American business.” But free-market ideology is appropriately rare in academia because it has not withstood critical inquiry. Its resurgence is owed largely to self-interested corporate donors.

Calls for a “diversity of ideas” presume falsely that these programs are academic, rather than privately funded fodder to skew the “marketplace of ideas” in favor of the donors’ interests.

By allowing these programs on campus, universities aren’t promoting intellectual diversity; they’re inviting the fox into the henhouse.


2 thoughts on “Free Market Centers: Academic or Political?

  1. Are these centers academic or political? Why not both? Why should being “political” (that is, having a controversial point of view) be prohibited in academia? The key problem with these free market centers is when they violate norms of shared governance and academic freedom, not when they are “political.”

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