This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I am a Utah man, sir, so it was troubling to see my alma mater, the University of Utah, becoming the latest American university climbing into bed with the Koch Empire.
The Charles Koch Foundation joined the Eccles family last week to announce a combined $20 million donation to establish the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis. It was hailed by U. President David Pershing as a means to produce data-driven research and enhance opportunities for Utah students.
But it continues a disturbing trend that has seen the Koch foundations pump more than $33 million in 2015 the most recent tax documents available into universities to create an army of scholars that, not surprisingly, have pumped out volumes of research that support the Kochs' libertarian, pro-business philosophy.
Some welcome the new perspective to the U. A Deseret News editorial, for example, caricatured the school's economics department as being infested with Marxists who burrowed into tenure positions and spent a lifetime indoctrinating unsuspecting students with communist propaganda.
Maybe there's a little truth to that. I first read Marx in a political science class taught by a left-leaning professor with a beard and Birkenstock sandals who fit the role beautifully. But we also studied Adam Smith and David Hume and John Maynard Keynes and John Stuart Mill and a handful of others during the crash course in the masterworks of the field. It was one of the most challenging and informative classes I've ever taken.
The real problem with the Koch money isn't so much that it could warp what students learn although it certainly could do that. It's that it has been shown over and over again to undermine independence and warp the research that the departments produce.
And we don't have to look far to see examples.
For five years, Randy Simmons was the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy at Utah State University, a position that started with a relatively minor contribution. That relationship has definitely flourished, and in May the Kochs and Jon Huntsman the father of Paul Huntsman, who owns The Salt Lake Tribune and pays my salary combined to invest a whopping $50 million in the Utah State University's business school.
The Huntsman money is mostly slated for student scholarships. The Koch money will fund six new faculty positions.
Simply put, it appears Simmons had produced for the billionaire Kochs. In April 2016, academics from around the country, many funded by Koch donations, gathered in Las Vegas for The Association of Private Enterprise Education conference and, according to documents and transcripts obtained by the group UnKoch My Campus, the work of Simmons and his USU colleagues was prominently featured.
They discussed research papers by Simmons and others that, for example, contend Yellowstone National Park is horribly mismanaged, the Endangered Species Act is a failure, government policies cause wildfires, human life is overvalued in cost-benefit studies of proposed regulations and that renewable energy is inherently unreliable.
The common themes: Privatize it, deregulate it, and drill, mine or harvest it.
Attacks on renewable energy, it so happens, got Simmons in a bit of hot water in 2015 when he wrote a critique of wind power for Newsweek without disclosing his Koch financing or his role in the Property and Environment Research Center, which is funded by Koch and Exxon Mobil. Newsweek later added a disclosure to the piece.
In the USU case, contracts show the Kochs can pull funding if they don't approve of how the money is spent.
When they get information they like, they weaponize it, using the hundreds of millions of dollars in political contributions over the years in a bid to reshape public policy into their own "Atlas Shrugged" vision of America.
Ralph Wilson, a co-founder and research director with UnKoch My Campus, points to an example at Troy University in Alabama, his alma mater, where the Kochs created a center in 2010 and hired a number of researchers whose aim was to "take down" the state's public retirement system, according to comments by the center's original director.
At West Virginia University, the Kochs created a center that produced research decrying coal mine safety and clean water regulations that were hurting workers in the coal industry where the Kochs had a financial stake. And there are plenty more examples out there.
"As recordings of Koch foundation officials have revealed, these programs are engineered to help achieve the very specific state and federal policy change for the Koch network," Wilson said. "The Koch network, known for buying influence over the U.S. political system, is now doubling down their investments in universities to secure long-term political change."
Maybe I'm too hard on the Kochs. After all, a spokesman for the Koch foundation said the organization believes a diversity of ideas promotes critical thinking, and really that is something for which universities should strive.
But the Kochs have also spent an awful lot of money trying to undermine education systems around the country. They have backed organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council that has attacked professor tenure and the higher education system generally.
And assuming an initiative to raise taxes to better fund education in Utah gets on the ballot, you can bet the leading group opposing it will be Americans for Prosperity's Utah chapter which is, you guessed it, bankrolled by the Kochs.
I'm not arguing the U. should have rejected the Koch money. Corporate donations always come with conflicts. Half the U. campus wouldn't exist without money attached to the Huntsman and Eccles families who have their own set of business and political interests.
It's vital, though, that the U. be vigilant about protecting the independence of the institution and the academic freedom of its faculty. Because, in academia, reputation matters, and the University of Utah shouldn't blithely sell off its hard-earned prestige for $10 million or any price.