Center funded by Koch brothers, pizza magnate splits UK council

The large atrium in the newly renovated Gatton College of Business at the University of Kentucky.
The large atrium in the newly renovated Gatton College of Business at the University of Kentucky.

The University of Kentucky’s Senate Council split its votes over approval of a proposed free enterprise center funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and pizza magnate John Schnatter, but the matter will still move to the full university senate.

The Senate Council is the executive body of the university senate, which must approve all new academic programs. The Koch/Schnatter gift included $10 million for a free enterprise institute in the Gatton College of Business and Economics and $2 million toward the $65 million Gatton expansion and renovation.

The council voted unanimously to approve the academic content of the proposed program, but then voted 4-3 not to endorse its academic structure, including the donation agreement.

Several Senate Council members said they were concerned about the agreement, which allowed the donors to take back the money with 30 days notice. They also said they were worried about whether the donors would be able to exert undue influence over the programming or hires.

“My concerns are not on the basis of the political leanings of the Koch brothers or what’s going on in the institute, and I am not calling into question the integrity of the faculty,” said Connie Wood, a statistics professor. “But what I am concerned about is the concept of external control over university activities.”

Numerous faculty have raised concerns about the political aims of Charles and David Koch, who have donated millions of dollars to universities with the stated aim of building a talent pipeline of libertarian-leaning students who will influence public policy.

Previous Koch Foundation gifts to higher education — which often focus on the benefits of capitalism — have ignited controversy because of concerns over academic autonomy. For example, the contract for a similar gift at Florida State University had to be rewritten after faculty and students expressed outrage that the foundation could influence hiring and programming.

John Schnatter, founder of Papa John’s Pizza, is also an ardent free-marketer, who at the time of the donation said: “The free-enterprise system is the greatest mechanism mankind has ever created to eliminate poverty, enhance prosperity and enable the pursuit of happiness.”

Political science professor Ernie Yanarella addressed the council Monday with his concerns, saying “to my mind this is a politically veiled ‘gift’ with many strings attached ... that I believe will insinuate itself through the forces of big money corporate influence into this institution’s academic structure and curriculum.”

The funding will allow Gatton to hire five new faculty, as well as funding research and graduate fellowships. Dean David Blackwell said all faculty will be hired through the normal process, and the provost has assured him that if the donors pulled the money, the university could still pay for those faculty hires.

“We have an academic reputation to protect,” Blackwell said. “We’re not going to sell out to anyone.”

About 22 percent of the Gatton faculty voted against taking the money, including almost half of the economics faculty. Economics chairman William Hoyt said that many of the concerns were “reputational.”

“I heard less concern about how this would affect our research per se, but perceptions, that seemed to be a major concern,” he said.

The university senate will meet on Oct. 10.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford