Iowa State University hopes to have a final agreement soon with the Charles Koch Foundation for a program studying Midwest economies, despite concern from some economics faculty members the right-leaning foundation would exert influence.
The $3.7 million ISU initially requested from the foundation and another donor would be a boon for a university that lost more than $10 million to state budget cuts earlier this year.
“I am reasonably confident that ISU won’t enter into an agreement that gives CKF too much leverage or influence on the scholarship,” Joshua Rosenbloom, chairman of the ISU Economics Department, wrote in a Dec. 2, 2016, email to economics professor Joydeep Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya had expressed anxiety in a Dec. 1 email to Rosenbloom about “getting on board a slippery slope with such an overtly political entity.”
The Gazette obtained through an open records request nearly 200 pages of emails between ISU and the Koch Foundation about sponsorship of an academic program of study in economics. The records, for which ISU charged The Gazette $300, were heavily redacted, with some emails completely blacked out except for the greeting.
What’s clear, nonetheless, is that ISU faculty were conflicted about courting funding from the Koch Foundation.
Charles Koch, a multibillionaire with vast business holdings in oil refining, logging, manufacturing and other areas, is probably best known for partnering with his brother, David Koch, to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican politics.
The Kochs also are generous philanthropists.
ISU is one of more than 300 colleges and universities to get financial support from the Charles Koch Foundation, said John Hardin, director of university relations for the foundation, in a phone interview Friday.
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“They’re all programs and opportunities where professors and students are pursuing their interests and questions about the institutions and ideas that enable people to prosper,” he said.
Critics say Charles Koch’s charitable giving to universities — $55 million between 2012 and 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity — is an attempt to influence academic research and connect with students who may adopt libertarian views.
In an audio recording included with a Center for Public Integrity investigation, Kevin Gentry, a Koch Foundation official, told a group about the organization’s strategy for reaching young people.
“The (Koch) 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,” Gentry said, according to the report. “So you can see how this is useful to each other over time. No one else has this infrastructure. We’re very excited about doing it.”
Hardin said the Koch Foundation doesn’t try to sway research or influence hiring decisions.
“We’re ensuring the university has the full authority to partner with, to hire, to work on whatever it is they believe is most important and most relevant to the vision they’ve laid out.”
ISU has received $127,000 since 2014 from the Koch Foundation, according to a Gazette investigation in April. The money is roughly split between ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication for annual free speech celebrations and the Department of Economics, mostly for undergraduate research.
Neither the University of Iowa nor University of Northern Iowa has financial support from the foundation.
Koch encouraged ISU Economics Professor Peter Orazem, a recipient of past Koch grants, to apply for a larger grant for a program on Midwest markets and entrepreneurship, Rosenbloom told The Gazette.
Orazem wrote a proposal for a program focusing on Midwestern “thin” markets, or areas with low access to venture capital, and how the Midwest can attract and retain people to grow the economy. Research also would focus on the role taxes and regulatory policies play in entrepreneurship and economic growth.
The Charles Koch Foundation has helped launch related programs or centers across the country.
Hardin said he’d just returned from Utah, where it was announced the Charles Koch Foundation was contributing $10 million to an economics institute at the University of Utah.
Other gifts include $5.7 million to Montana State University in August for a new center focusing on the impact of regulations and government policies on society and $3.5 million to Arizona State University in 2014 for its Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.
A November news release about increased private funding to a Koch-supported research center at Purdue University caused ISU’s Orazem to write to Rosenbloom Dec. 6: “We should have asked for more money.”
Emails between the Koch Foundation, Orazem, Rosenbloom and others were frequent last fall as they hammered out a job description for a new tenure-track associate professor to be paid in part with Koch money. Rosenbloom posted the job without having faculty review the position — which alarmed some professors who had just learned about the funding proposal.
“Please accept my apologies for the handling of the Koch Foundation issue,” Rosenbloom wrote to six economics professors Nov. 30. “I can only say that having been in the weeds so long I lost sight of the big picture issues.”
The job advertisement was taken down and reposted in March with revisions.
One revision, approved by the economics faculty, was to remove mention of the Koch Foundation as a funder.
“During the faculty meeting at which we discussed how the position was described, we agreed that the person in the position would contribute to studies within the scope of a Midwest economies program, but determined that it was not appropriate to include mention of potential support from the Charles Koch Foundation in the advertisement,” Rosenbloom told The Gazette.
Faculty response to the Koch proposal included indignation, excitement and acceptance.
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“Your apparent willingness to consider an enticing funding opportunity for the Econ Department offered by the notoriously secretive and politically driven Charles Koch raises serious concerns regarding possible adverse effects on the academic reputation of the Econ Department,” professor Leigh Tesfatsion wrote Rosenbloom Dec. 2. “Why do you think this funding is being offered to ISU?”
Research professor John Beghin wrote Rosenbloom Dec. 7: “The idea is great and safeguards are in place. No funding is apolitical ...”
Professor John Crespi was pragmatic in a Dec. 8 email. “I want you to know I have no intention of dying on this hill. I always felt the proposal itself was sound and I am not against the merits of this position.”
As ISU faculty continued working toward a Koch partnership this spring, faculty shared news of Koch challenges at other campuses.
“Well, it appears the Wake Forrest [sic] faculty are uncomfortable with the fact that the mission covers free enterprise and well-being,” Orazem wrote to Rosenbloom April 4. The email referenced a Chronicle of Higher Education story describing a Wake Forest faculty petition challenging the Charles Koch Foundation’s motives for giving $3.7 to the university’s Eudaimonia Institute.
Rosenbloom shared his hope ISU could avoid these problems.
“As I see it, we have the opportunity to get out ahead, by constituting the program now (before the funding) and establish some kind of oversight that helps to reassure the more dubious,” he wrote.
ISU is moving forward on hiring the tenure-track professor to work in the program for Midwest markets, with applications due at the end of August.
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