A recent student protest of a donation from the Charles Koch Foundation has brought national media attention to Utah State University.
The university's recently completed business building is a tall, modern structure, one of the most visible buildings on the campus. But one night in early June, it became a canvas for the protest.
Using a projector, a group of students displayed images on the building. On a repeating loop, two images were projected: one titled “We have a Koch problem,” using the spelling of the Koch brothers’ name, and an image reading “Sold: Utah State University, respected research institution: $25 million dollars” with a picture of the brothers.
USU students are not the only ones expressing concern about Koch donations. Earlier this year, students at George Mason University, the only university to receive more Koch funding than Utah State, sued for access to records related to the money the school has received.
The Atlantic’s David Levinthal wrote that “A review of hundreds of private documents, emails, and audio recordings—along with interviews with more than 75 college officials, professors, students, and others—indicate the Koch brothers’ spending on higher education is now a critical part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.”
Beth Shirley is a presidential doctoral research fellow and PhD student at Utah State. She’s part of the group that organized the protest.
“We’re hoping to just raise awareness to anybody on campus and off campus that this research money is tainted,” she said.
The donation from the Koch brothers is $25 million, matched by the Huntsman Foundation for a combined donation of $50 million. The money will create six faculty positions at the Huntsman School of Business and support research.
For students like Shirley, one of their most important concerns is the fact that the donation will be given in yearly installments.
“So for example, it’s $25 million over 10 years,” Shirley said. “So if at the end of a year, a professor or a student took the money and did research with it that the Koch brothers just don’t like, because it doesn’t line up with their political ideology, they could just stop giving money to the school. So the string attached is that you have to do research that they agree with, that they like.”
Tim Vitale, executive director of public relations at Utah State University, said that while the size of the donation is exceptional, its format isn’t.
“The format of the gifts is not out of the ordinary. A number of our donors like to piecemeal the gift over a number of years to maximize its use,” he said.
Vitale said, yes, the Charles Koch Foundation can pull out at any time, but the contract is drawn so that Utah State University could also pull out at any time, if the university felt any undue pressure from the foundation.
He said university officials aren’t naive enough to think that the Koch brothers have no agenda.
If you Google the Koch brothers, the results are, in order: an advertisement for their website, their Wikipedia page, then headlines like, “Inside the Koch Brother’s Toxic Empire,” “The Koch Brothers & Trump: The Men Who Sold the World,” and “Koch Brothers Exposed: Why We Must Act.”
But the gift the Charles Koch Foundation has given to students of the business program is enough, according to Vitale, to make it worth the backlash it has created.
“The gifts, both of them, are directed almost exclusively toward students, so the Huntsman school will find it transformational,” he said.
According to Vitale, it will provide full scholarships for hundreds of students, along with increased travel opportunities, and stipends for graduate students. As for the Koch brother’s historically controversial influence, Vitale said university officials have included safeguards in the donation contract to try to avoid any undue influence, which, up to this point, hasn’t appeared.
“We have safeguards in place,” Vitale said. “One, we have our own institutional policies and procedures, which we will of course adhere to, and which the foundation, in writing, says we can adhere to with no problem from their end.”
Vitale said a university-appointed academic director over the Center for Growth and Opportunity will serve as an additional safeguard. Frank Caliendo was appointed by the president and dean of the Huntsman School of Business to oversee the center.
“He will have oversight over all the research that comes from the center, so there’s a yay-or-nay process,” he said.
He adds that university officials don’t expect it to come to that because they expect scholarly research from the institution.
John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, said academic freedom is important to the foundation, which supports over 300 academic institutions.
“We understand, we know, that the way knowledge moves forward is by providing scholars, providing students, the freedom to pursue their interests. They’ve got to be the ones to decide, what are the right questions, what’s the right data, what are the solutions that should be proposed and considered,” Hardin said. “So we’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to provide funding, to provide resources, to scholars, to students as they pursue their interests.”
Koch donations to academia continue to attract national attention. Amid student protests and national press coverage, USU officials hope to maintain the institution’s academic independence.
Vitale says that in the earliest conversations about the donation, transparency was one of the university’s top priorities, and that they’ve released the contracts to anyone who has asked.
“We don’t have anything to hide. We do know there are protests, we’re not naive, we’ve seen that. This is what universities do,” Vitale said. “We have conversations about things that often have two sides.”