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Every semester, 15 hand-picked Utah State University students gather on Wednesday evenings in a conference room at the Huntsman School of Business in Logan for a light meal and lively discussion about political economics. The group, called Koch Scholars, covers an exhaustive list of books, most extolling the virtues of free markets.

The food, books and a $1,000 stipend come courtesy of Charles Koch (pronounced coke), one of the nation's richest businessmen and a contributor to right-wing political causes. USU's financial relationship with a man who has such an obvious political agenda has raised questions about the growing influence of private and corporate money on campus, thanks in part to declining state support.

"Universities have to look to the private sector for support. One danger is that money comes with certain agendas and strings attached, so it's a balancing act to preserve the ideals of higher education," said philosophy professor Charlie Huenemann, an associate dean of the USU college of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Randy Simmons, the long-time political science professor and unabashed libertarian who leads the Koch Scholars, insists USU's Koch-supported programs do not take marching orders from the Koch family.

"We want people around the table having a clash of ideas. We have no agenda in terms of drawing conclusions," Simmons said.

A recent story in The New Yorker magazine describes how the Koch family's business and related foundations allegedly support "covert operations" against the Obama presidency by funding supposedly grass-roots anti-regulation movements, as well as tea party activists and groups dedicated to casting doubt on climate-change science. Charles' brother David, a 1980 Libertarian candidate for vice president, is likewise a big spender on such causes, but he also gives to cultural organizations, according to The New Yorker article by Jane Mayer.

Bankrolling the right • An MIT-trained engineer, Charles Koch is CEO and chairman of Koch Enterprises, a Wichita, Kan.-based company with $100 billion in annual revenue from assorted businesses including oil refining, lumber and paper products, and Lycra fabric. The company was founded by patriarch Fred Koch, an original leader of the John Birch Society who died in 1967. Over the years, the Koch brothers have become leading financiers of "hard-line libertarian politics," investing millions to quietly push for reductions in personal and corporate income tax, social services, regulation and other policy positions that mesh nicely with the Kochs' business interests, The New Yorker reported. Their money established and supports the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, two of the nation's most effective conservative think tanks in terms of shaping policy.

Millions in Koch money winds up on college campuses, funneled through the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. Utah State is one of 100 universities on the foundation website's list of schools receiving support, much of it for scholarships for grad students. No other Utah school appears on the list, which includes Montana State University, Duke and several branches of the University of Texas. These grants support programs "that analyze the impact of free societies, and in particular how they advance the well-being of mankind," according to the website.

Foundation general counsel Brian Menkes returned The Tribune's call Wednesday, and asked that any questions be submitted by e-mail. But no response had been received by Friday afternoon.

While left-leaning USU faculty welcome conservative ideas, some suspect more money is spent advancing free-market and other conservative principles than progressive and liberal ideas.

"I don't have a problem with a foundation or donor funding something of this type, but you would hope in the overall context of the university that it would be balanced by opportunities created by other donors for students who have a different ideological orientation," said USU's Michael Lyons, an associate professor of political science. "I wish we had a [progressive] counterpart to it, but I don't begrudge them having their program. That's their free-market right."

Courting Koch • Simmons taught in USU's political science department for 28 years before moving to the university's business school, which has been energized by a massive namesake gift from Jon M. Huntsman Sr. In 2008, Simmons and the school's associate dean, Chris Fawson, won a $650,000 grant to build up the school's department of economics and finance. This money, $125,000 awarded annually for five years, was used as salary supplements to recruit and hire five promising professors, according to Simmons, now USU's Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy.

"I have young colleagues who are going to make me look like a piker," he said, noting that one of the scholars, Ben Blau, published four articles last year in leading public finance journals. Koch had no say over who USU hired, but the foundation was "interested in supporting faculty that had a personal belief in human flourishing, prosperity and markets," said Simmons, also a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Property and Environment Research Center. Simmons also chairs the Utah Privatization Policy Board, which is exploring ways to put some state parks in private hands.

USU's Koch Scholars, which is growing in popularity, is supported by an annual $45,000 grant. Eighty-seven students applied for this fall's 15 spots. Simmons and his colleagues interview all the applicants and choose participants based on their commitment to open, civil and robust discussion, Simmons said. They also seek a diverse mix of students from across the academic spectrum.

Each participant is given a stack of books that rises to their chin and a $1,000 check. Each week, they are required to read one or more books and post a 250-word blog entry before the group convenes. These labors earn no grades or academic credit.

"The reason for the stipend is a lot of USU students are married and working their way through school. A lot can't do this and hold down a job. This is a serious reading list," Simmons said.

This fall's 18-book list starts with Aristotle and the classics in political economy, such as Adam Smith, Locke and Rousseau, and move through the giants of 20th century free-market thought, like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, and ending with Koch's own book, The Science of Success, which outlines his trademarked philosophy of "market-based management."

"We try to find books that carry a conversation, but some are so dogmatic that they don't do that," Simmons said. The Koch money is not used to compensate Simmons and Fawson for leading the program.

Slanted syllabus? • Student Grayson Weeks signed up for the program in the fall of 2008, the year before he went to Washington, D.C., to serve internships in the Obama White House and with Sen. Harry Reid. He soon discovered he was the reading group's token liberal. Students seemed more interested in validating their beliefs in unfettered markets than fully discussing their implications, he said.

"It was a good exercise in learning how to articulate my positions and argue effectively. However, my time in college would have been better spent if I would have been exposed to a broader selection," said Weeks, a 2010 valedictorian who double-majored in political science and philosophy. Discussions sometimes sounded like "tea party talking points" and rarely touched on the pitfalls of unregulated markets.

"Even if you believe in libertarian values, you're not doing yourself a favor by insulating yourself from ideas you don't agree with. It's ironic that in a marketplace of ideas, there was only one idea presented," said Weeks, who hopes to pursue a doctorate at Harvard.

Fellow political science major Chris Martin found his time as a Koch Scholar more rewarding, although he agreed the discussions were one-sided on economic issues.

"But the class was split on social issues. There was a lot of disagreement and good discourse on those topics," said Martin, who graduates this spring. He organized a reading club for Koch alumni to explore a broader view of political philosophy. About 10 students, including Weeks, and a few faculty met twice a month in the spring to discuss such scholars as John Rawls on the left and Robert Nozick on the right.