Koch influence questioned at Faculty Senate, will be revisited


Courtesy photo – Koch Industries

Donations to universities by the Charles Koch Foundation sometimes come with strings attached. But university officials said a proposed Koch-funded “Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise” in the Barton School of Business won’t jeopardize academic freedom at Wichita State.

According to emails and documents provided to The Sunflower by an anonymous source in July, Anand Desai, dean of the Barton School, had been in contact with Brett Hinkley about creating the institute at WSU.

In a leaked document from 2014, Mother Jones — a nonprofit news organization — identified Hinkley as a “player” for Freedom Partners, which is a Koch-funded nonprofit organization that has given grants worth $236 million to conservative political organizations.

The email exchange includes emails sent between Desai and Provost and Senior Vice President Tony Vizzini discussing the proposal. It does not include any emails from anyone at the Koch Foundation.

The Koch Foundation has funded similar institutes at universities across the country, including Louisville, Florida State and, most recently, Western Carolina — where WSU President John Bardo previously served as chancellor.

At Florida State, a similar institute required an advisory committee appointed by the foundation to review job candidates and decide who would be considered.

Outside donations at Western Carolina also came under scrutiny recently when it was discovered that BB&T Bank donated money to the university, but came with strings attached. The donation agreement required third-year business students to read the Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged.” Western Carolina faculty didn’t know about that agreement until after Bardo signed it, David McCord, a WCU professor, told the Citizen-Times in April.

At the senate meeting, Wichita State Faculty Senate President Bayram Yildirim told faculty members he had been assured the Charles Koch Foundation would not affect academic freedom at Wichita State.

“Wichita State very much cherishes academic freedom,” Yildirim said. “And in this proposal there is nothing which relates to models at Louisville and Florida State.”

The meeting moved on quickly without a question-and-answer session from the faculty.

After discussing unrelated agenda items, discussion moved back to the Koch-funded institute.

“This one went by before I had a chance to comment on it this Koch Foundation proposal,” said George Dehner, a WSU history professor. “Before it goes anywhere down the pipe, is that something we’re going to have some sort of feedback on besides ‘It’s not going to be like Louisville and Florida State?’

“Is there some way the faculty senate can be involved in this process?” Dehner asked.

Yildirim deferred the question to Vizzini.

“I don’t know,” Vizzini said. “I mean, I have to pull it back up to revisit it. It’s been months ago. So, this is a proposal to the foundation to support, I believe, an institute. I would have to look at it again.”

Faculty didn’t seem satisfied with the answer, so Yildirim asked for further clarification.

“So, while you make your monthly update — next time — would you also provide some more information about this?”

“I will probably include that for next time,” Vizzini said. “Yes.”

‘Stewards for the Koch Foundation’ 

The emails between Vizzini and Desai implicate Vice President of Research and Tech-Transfer John Tomblin and John Bardo in discussion about showing the university has “skin in the game” to be more “attractive” to the foundation.

The proposal was not included in documents provided to The Sunflower, but discussions centered around how to fund the proposed institute.

“(Hinkley) requested that we send him some dollar numbers for each of the resources needed to ramp up this institute,” Desai wrote in the email.

“In conjunction with John Tomblin, I have created a 5-year funding plan, delineating an annual budget when fully ramped up, and a 3-year deployment plan,” Desai wrote.

Desai said the Charles Koch Foundation does not provide support for overhead or fringe benefits for their institutes.

Desai said he and Tomblin feel that by WSU having some “skin in the game,” including the business school dedicating nearly 20 percent of their annual budget to the institute, “the proposal would be more attractive to the foundation.”

“Since the foundation does not provide support for fringe benefits, I have indicated that WSU will pick that up,” Desai wrote. “I met with President Bardo today, and he is in agreement (in principle) with this plan.”

Vizzini responded to Desai by saying the proposal “looks good.” He questioned whether faculty would be required to be engaged year-round with the institute.

“To lead, the institute must add to the knowledge base not just embrace it,” Vizzini wrote. “That will serve our students and the (Charles Koch Foundation) best.”

“There should be a statement of expected leveraging,” Vizzini wrote. “(Charles Koch Foundation) is already leveraging WSU through our support of the benefits. Is there an expectation of this bringing in additional funding (corporate) after once established?”

Vizzini said the institute would be “transformative for the Barton School.”

By us being the stewards for the (Charles Koch Foundation) we assist them in their mission,” Vizzini said.
“They, in return, transform us, allowing us to advance in our mission (sic).”

“We’re pleased to announce new gifts when there are gifts to announce,” Trice Jacobson, a spokesperson for the Koch Foundation, wrote in a statement in response to the emails.