By Leah Johnson
Back in 2009, Western Kentucky University started the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism on campus with a $1 million grant from the BB&T Charitable Foundation.
Dr. Brain Strow, an economics professor at WKU, was hired to be the BB&T professor for the Center for the Study of Capitalism. The center has both a book club and a lecture series about capitalism.
“It’s an educational center,” Strow said. “So we’re trying to educate people about the benefits of voluntary exchange.”
Though the center itself is funded through BB&T, Strow said his budget from year to year is rather small. The $1 million is spread out over a 10-year period, so Strow has to find alternative sources of funding for the speaker series the center hosts. Most of the funding Strow gets for the speaker series is from the Charles G. Koch Foundation.
It’s no secret that Charles and David Koch are rather controversial given their history in the oil industry and their large donations to conservative political campaigns. Over the years, Charles Koch has done work in many different areas but has also turned his efforts to higher education. According to the Koch Foundation’s annual report, the amount of money donated to colleges and universities continues to increase. The Charles G. Koch Foundation’s funding reaches many colleges and universities across the United States, including WKU.
Koch approaches higher education
The Koch brothers are both known for donating to higher education, but Charles is more heavily involved in giving. The donations have been coming in for many years, but in the last five years alone the donations have increased significantly. In 2011, according to the Koch Foundation’s tax filings, Koch donated $16 million to higher education along with various think tanks. Then in 2012, $12.7 million was donated to 163 colleges and universities around the country. In 2013, that number increased to $19.3 million reaching 210 schools. The donations jumped to $23.4 million the next year and in 2015, reached $44 million.
“They just decided to give money away, specifically they like the idea of a free society,” Strow said. “This isn’t the political side of their stuff, I mean it’s charity. It’s the educational stuff. They’ve been focusing a lot on financial literacy and things like that.”
Koch faces scrutiny in higher education
Charles Koch told the Washington Post that he doesn’t think that universities are teaching the “full spectrum” well, and not just in the area of economics.
“And this is a problem with universities,” Koch said in his interview with the Washington Post. “It shouldn’t be a place of comfort. It should be a place of discomfort because you want to disabuse these kids of whatever prejudices or preconceptions they have when they come. You’re trying to get them to think and develop, not be a Johnny-one-note.”
Koch’s thoughts about universities not giving students the “full spectrum” in their teaching stand out as controversial to some because of what he has historically stood for, given his large donations to many conservative political campaigns. This year, the Koch brothers had an estimated budget of almost $900 million for their political contribution. Their goal was to influence campaigns in support of a Republican Congress. But, his ideas are still reaching campuses across the country, despite his clear support of Republicans. In some instances, the money the Koch Foundation donated came with strings attached including curriculum control or even gaining access to student information.
Strow said that the Koch Foundation doesn’t have any control over what speakers he decides to bring to campus. However, Strow also said that after each speaker comes to WKU, he has to file a report to the foundation explaining who came and how many students came out for the lecture.
“At no point in the grant process do I have to spell out who I’m bringing in with their money,” Strow said. “Only after the fact do I have to report to them.”
Universities fed up
Some schools no longer want to receive money from the Koch foundation, like Suffolk University in Massachusetts.
Kalin Jordan, a student at Suffolk University who helps lead the activist group, UnKoch My Campus, told TIME, that the universities that are no longer accepting Koch related money should “make other schools take pause and move them to be more transparent” about relationships they have with Koch foundations.
Other schools, like Western Carolina University in North Carolina, had faculty members speaking out against the school receiving funding from the Koch Foundation. The money would go toward creating a “center for free enterprise” and faculty members fought against it due to concerns that the academic control might not be in their hands and that the perspective of the teaching may be skewed. However, unlike Suffolk University, Western Carolina University went ahead and accepted the money and approved the center.
Koch influences at WKU
Each year Strow applies for more grant money from the Koch foundation which he uses to bring guest speakers to WKU. Since Strow started receiving funding from the Koch Foundation, the Center for the Study of Capitalism has received a total of $88,700.
All of the speakers that Strow brings to WKU are either people he knows, has heard speak previously, or were recommended to him by other faculty or students. Some of the bigger names include, Steven Moore, former member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board; Casey Mulligan, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago; Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes and Art Laffer, former economic adviser to Ronald Reagan.
Strow said that the Koch’s are focused on bringing good guest speakers to college campuses, but other faculty members from WKU disagree and said the speakers are not presenting both sides of an idea in their lectures.
Joe Glaser, former English professor at WKU, thinks it should be a little more obvious that the Koch brothers are involved with the Center for the Study of Capitalism and the Bluegrass Institute of Public Policy Solutions, a libertarian think tank in Bowling Green.
“It takes a bit of digging to discover the Koch ties to The Bluegrass Institute and The Center for the Study of Capitalism,” Glaser said in an email. “Though both sound like neutral entities, they are in fact one-sided disseminators of hard right economic and political viewpoints. It’s fine to argue for unregulated, whatever-we-can-get-away-with capitalism, but you ought to make it clear that’s what you’re doing, not give people the impression there’s anything unbiased about your arguments.”
Back in March, when Laffer came to campus, several faculty members expressed concerns about the message Laffer was sending to students.
“I’m all in favor of lectures on economics,” Glaser said. “My concern was that Brian gave the impression that Laffer was a highly respected economist, when in fact he’s a creature of the libertarian fringe, a dedicated supply-sider whose relevance has been spiraling downward since the Reagan presidency in the 1980’s.”
Other professors have issues with the Center for the Study of Capitalism lecture series in general. Dick Taylor, a broadcasting professor at WKU, said that he likes to attend the lectures from the Center for the Study of Capitalism because he likes to learn. What he finds disheartening, he said, was that he always hears the same side of the story, over and over again.
“Isn’t the purpose of education to give us all views?” Taylor said. “If we’re not doing that, are we being true to our goal as educators to bring up fully informed people into society to be able to grapple with the problems they’re going to be hit with?”
Strow said that a lot of the response he gets from other faculty members is mocking him for having another speaker who is pro-capitalism. But he said that that’s the explicit purpose of the center. He also said that he would invite guest speakers from any side of the political spectrum as long as he could find funding.
“No matter what idea it is, somebody doesn’t like it,” Strow said. “And so you also have to be careful on the other side of making sure you don’t shut down the discussion of other ideas, just because one side doesn’t like the other side’s opinion. You got to have a balance.”