“We have a Koch problem,” was one message projected onto Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business Monday night in response to the school’s acceptance of a $25 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation.
An independent group of USU students organized a demonstration to protest the school’s acceptance of the donation. The students projected anti-Koch images onto Jon M. Hunstman Hall. Along with, “We have a Koch problem,” another graphic declared the Huntsman school “SOLD,” with a sale price of $25 million.
A press release anonymously distributed Thursday said the donation “poses a serious concern for the reputation and academic integrity of Utah State University.”
The donation was part of a joint $50 million contribution from both the Koch foundation and The Huntsman Foundation. While the $25 million from The Huntsman Foundation will largely go toward expanding the Huntsman Scholar program, the Koch portion will help establish a new research entity, the Center for Growth and Opportunity. It will also allow the school to hire six additional professors to be employed at the Huntsman school and conduct research at the Center.
The $25 million from the Koch foundation will be distributed at a rate of $2.5 million per year for 10 years. The Koch foundation maintains the right to terminate the funding at any time, according to a donation agreement dated May 6. It’s this stipulation that student critics said is the biggest indicator the donation comes with “multiple strings attached.”
“As long as USU wants to take this money,” the press release states, “the Charles Koch Foundation will have influence over more teachers, more research and inadvertently, the culture of USU’s business college.”
The release’s distributors cited another element of the affiliation agreement as indicating that the Koch donation comes with “strings attached.” The agreement requires USU to inform the Koch Foundation of “any testimony to a legislative or other government body [the recipients] intend to make, whether in connection with [recipient’s] academic research or otherwise.”
Students who criticized the donation argued that, though the Koch foundation is technically barred by Internal Revenue Service regulations from attempting to influence legislation, it seemed the inclusion of the above stipulation in the affiliation agreement was not “void of political intentions.”
Other Koch-funded research institutions, including USU’s own Institute of Political Economy, have been accused of conducting research with ideological biases that favor the Koch foundation’s libertarian economic agenda.
According to the press release, USU professor Randy Simmons faced harsh criticism for his contributions to Koch-funded research that attempted to convince North Carolina voters to “abandon” that state’s renewable energy efforts, according to the press release.
Critics accused Simmons, researcher Ryan Yonk and his colleagues at Logan-based Strata Policy, a Koch-funded libertarian think tank, of using flawed statistical calculations “to blame the Great Recession on renewable energy.”
“I believe this has serious implications as well for students and faculty who are trying to secure funding or the support necessary in order to conduct legitimate science,” said Forrest Schoessow, a graduate student and researcher at USU. “We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history here, and we don’t want to destroy opportunities before they are ever created due to damaging publicity that criticizes USU’s transparency, institutional integrity and research credibility.”
The university maintains it will continue to uphold “rigorous” standards for research and academic oversight “that we’ve always had for our research,” said Time Vitale, USU’s executive director of public relations and marketing.
Vitale acknowledged that the university was aware research produced by other Koch-funded institutions was criticized for promoting an ideological agenda but said, “that is not the case here. We made sure that those mechanisms and oversight controls are clear and in place.”
“The rules from the start were transparency, transparency, transparency,” Vitale said.
USU student Anders Hart, who publicly opposed the most recent donation as well as a $1.54 million donation in 2015, said he thinks the expected outcomes of Koch-funded research will likely manifest for USU’s new research center the same way they have at other Koch-backed institutions.
“We know from the Koch people themselves that the purpose of their donations is to influence politics and advance a libertarian agenda,” Hart said. “I don’t want billionaires using my university for their political purposes while claiming to be charitable.”
In accepting the donation, USU surpassed Florida State University and Texas Tech University to become one of the top Koch-funded universities in the country — second only to George Mason University.
Photo by Katherine Taylor