In addition to the $2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, Western Carolina University plans to seek funding for its free-enterprise center from another controversial group, the Templeton Foundation, according to public documents reviewed by The Herald.
Templeton Foundation describes itself as focused on “the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.” Some critics charge that in addition to funding legitimate research, the group encourages pseudoscientific study with distinct religious overtones.
Chairman John Templeton Jr., the founder’s son, ran the organization for two decades and personally supported anti-gay initiatives. He died at age 75 seven months ago; the family is expected to continue overseeing the foundation. Templeton served on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal power behind the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision that extended religious rights to corporations. In 2008, he donated $1.1 million to the Proposition 8 campaign that barred same-sex marriage in California, according to national media reports.
Friday, the WCU Board of Trustees voted unanimously to create the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, prompting Faculty Senate Chairman David McCord to warn board members that “the battle is not over.” After the meeting, he said Faculty Senate, which last month crafted a resolution opposing the Center, believes trustees and the university’s administration might have disregarded requirements for additional review.
Chancellor David Belcher, Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar and Board of Trustees Chairman Ed Broadwell maintain that correct procedures were followed.
As envisioned by Ed Lopez, BB&T distinguished professor of capitalism, the Center will provide research and leadership on economic development in North Carolina, with an emphasis on Western North Carolina. WCU will provide $1.3 million in matching funds using existing faculty positions, Lopez said.
The Center and its likely reliance on Koch is drawing statewide attention; fueled, in part, by the UNC Board of Governors’ action this year in shuttering three centers associated with social reform. Instructional programs at WCU’s Center will provide opportunities for students “to explore all points of view on various issues and to understand the perspectives of others,” according to information provided Oct. 1 to WCU’s Provost Council.
WCU’s plan calls for the Center to become “self sustaining” from the university, “with the variable costs of its activities supported by external funds,” according to public documents through the provost’s office. The proposal for the Center notes the need to “establish and strengthen partnerships” with grant-making organizations.
Research seminars and public events will take place in Asheville using existing WCU offices in Biltmore Park, with “short-term programs” occurring in Cullowhee. By developing these programs at Biltmore Park, WCU will position itself “as a key provider of graduate and professional programs in the greater Asheville-Hendersonville area and along the I-26 growth corridor,” public documents say.
“A response (from Koch) to the Foundation proposal is expected in the Spring of 2016 following the commitment by WCU to establish a Center if funded,” according to the documents.
In opposing the Center, Faculty Senate cited concerns about potential cost, lack of peer review and threats to academic freedom and the university’s reputation. “The Charles Koch Foundation has previously set forth explicit expectations in line with their political views in exchange for monetary gifts to universities, thereby constraining academic freedom by influencing and interfering with the development of new knowledge,” a Faculty Senate statement says.
Koch Foundation representatives visited the campus last fall. Belcher said he told them “no strings attached.”
In a prepared statement, Chairman Broadwell said: “The Board of Trustees believes that an essential role of a university is to create a forum for exploration of diverse schools of thought. To do anything less undermines a core value of WCU as stated in its strategic plan: to provide a learning environment committed to the free and open interchange of ideas.”
Koch Foundation funding would flow through an independent, already existing WCU Foundation that operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Belcher is president of the organization.
Controversy over the Center could damage WCU’s ability to capitalize on a major fundraising blitz, its first comprehensive campaign since 2009, when $52 million was raised or pledged. This time, university administrators discussed trying to capture $75 million to $100 million from alumni, corporations and other targeted sources. Campaigns such as these typically involve a two-year “quiet” phase (WCU calls it a “leadership” phase) used to line up top donors and secure a portion of the fundraising goal. About one-quarter of the goal amount is typical, according to The Council for Advancement and Support of Education. A public phase will start about a year-and-a-half from now, Belcher said.
“I’ve received comments from people that are both pro and con,” he said. “But even the 'con' was more along the line of, ‘Here are my concerns; I trust you, but I want you to be aware.’ I think in the long run, it doesn’t hurt us, but I’d be disingenuous if I said there were not people out there who have concerns.”
University employees are alert to the potential for negative public fallout from Koch funding. Some faculty members have suggested administrators simply disregard any backlash, however.
“It would be grossly irresponsible and completely counterproductive to the mission of both the college of business and the entire university to sacrifice the opportunities that the Center will bring for student engagement and economic research simply because some onlookers are concerned with the political stances of the donors,” Zachary Gochenour, an assistant professor in the college of business, wrote in an email.
Marsha Lee Baker, an associate professor in the Department of English, warned administrators and university leaders against the action they’ve now taken. “Western cannot afford to ignore the potential damage that would result from further expanding its association with the Koch Foundation, widely recognized for wielding political power and influence on behalf of some of America’s richest and most socially oppressive citizens and corporations,” she wrote.
Koch funding is not an entirely new to WCU. Conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s foundation has provided money in the past for smaller university projects, according to Lopez.