A $50 million donation to Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business will fund a new research entity, the Center for Growth and Opportunity.
The donation is a joint effort between The Huntsman Foundation and The Charles Koch Foundation. Each organization contributed $25 million.
The Huntsman Foundation stipulated that its money will go toward expanding the school’s Huntsman Scholar program, which aims to bring together “outstanding students with incredible teachers for a rigorous, one-of-a-kind undergraduate business education program,” according to the university’s website.
That donation will allow enrollment in the program to increase “four-fold to 400 students receiving annual support,” according to an email from Tim Vitale, USU’s executive director of public relations and marketing. The donation will also provide funding for an academic and executive director for the program.
The $25 million contribution from the Koch Foundation will be aimed at funding the Center for Growth and Opportunity, a new research institution with interests geared toward “(t)he search for efficient and responsible solutions to pressing socio-economic problems.”
Financial choice and security, health, education and environment, innovation and entrepreneurship, and the roles of business and government in society are identified as those socio-economic problems which take priority.
The relationship between Utah State and the Center was outlined in an affiliation agreement dated May 6. The agreement stipulates that the Center is affiliated with the university but is not an entity of the university.
Frank Caliendo, head of the Huntsman school’s Economics and Finance Department, was selected by university President Noelle Cockett and Huntsman school dean Douglas Anderson as the Center’s academic director. In addition to his role as academic director, he will continue to head the business school’s Department of Economics and Finance.
“Frank is the university’s oversight mechanism to ensure that research from the Center reflects our longstanding academic and research standards,” Vitale said.
As the academic director, Caliendo is tasked with “guiding the research and education programs of the Center,” according to the agreement. Caliendo will also approve any university faculty to “hold positions with, be affiliated with, or receive research or education opportunities related to the Center.”
“The ultimate goal of economic research is to build theories to explain and understand the world around us, and to use this understanding to improve the well-being of individuals and society,” Caliendo said in an email. “At the Center we will carry on this rich tradition by producing rigorous scientific research that helps to explain and improve the economic outcomes of the world in which we live.”
The donation will also fund the hiring of six new professors to “teach in the department (of economics and finance) and conduct research with the center,” Caliendo said.
Previous donations from the Koch Foundation included $1.54 million in 2015, an act which raised questions among the student body about possible university ties to the foundation and whether a political agenda might come into play in determining Huntsman school faculty hired as a result of the donation.
Student-led protests called for then-President Stan Albrecht to make public documents detailing the university’s commitment to the Koch Foundation as a result of the donation.
At the time, protesters accused the Koch Foundation and the university of aiming to hire faculty whose political views would conform with those of the Koch Foundation, which Anders Hart, a student in USU’s college of natural resources, said has “supported organizations disseminating misinformation regarding climate change.”
Hart participated in the student-led protest of the 2015 Koch donation. His major concern with the most recent donation is that it “may be meant to advance a single political philosophy through hiring professors of a certain ideological stripe,” he said in a Facebook message.
Hart said he expects the university to maintain rigorous research standards and to maintain control over all hiring decisions.
The role of maintaining strict research standards will fall to Caliendo as he oversees research conducted through and sponsored by the Center.
Where hiring is concerned, the affiliation agreement stipulates that university faculty may be appointed as faculty affiliated with the Center but that the university has “sole and absolute discretion” with regard to all hiring decisions of its employees.
The university had less control, however, in the selection of the Center’s executive director, Blake Dursteler, and its board of directors, all of which, according to the agreement, were approved but not necessarily nominated by Cockett and Anderson.
Dursteler, a Utah State alumnus, also works as chief operating officer of Logan-based real estate development firm Interstate Commercial Properties.
The Center’s board of directors includes Derek Johnson, the director of education at the Charles Koch Institute, as well as Timothy Barney, Brian Broadbent and Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning economics professor who is also a fellow at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Smith’s past research includes additional studies conducted through the Koch-funded Cato Institute, including one titled “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands.” He has also contributed articles to news publications, including “ObamaCare’s Flawed Economic Foundations” for The Wall Street Journal in 2012 and “Please, No More Government Spending!” for The Daily Beast in 2010.
Both the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center have been accused of conducting research with political and economic biases that favor Koch economic interests. Similar accusations have been levied at Logan’s own Strata, a Koch-funded public policy research center which relies on research conducted through USU’s Institute of Political Economy, fellows of which also receive funding from the Koch foundation.
“A 1.54 million dollar donation a couple of years ago was concerning, but the implications of a 50 million dollar ‘donation’ is staggering,” Diego Mendiola, a USU student who led the protest of the Koch foundation’s 2015 donation, said in a Facebook message, “so it’s not possible to assume that there are simply no strings attached.”
Mendiola said he worried the Koch foundation would be able to exert pressure over the university as a result of the USU’s acceptance of such a large donation and that this could damage the university’s reputation as “a respected scientific research institution.”
The fact that “someone has researched a different angle of an issue than what another might address,” Vitale said, “does not mean they aren’t equally an expert on the subject matter and don’t take the same rigorous standards of approach.”
Vitale said the university will maintain the “same high, rigorous standards for academic oversight that we’ve always had for our research.”
More information about the Center for Growth and Opportunity can be found at growthopportunity.org.
Photo by Matt Halton