Education

Center funded by Koch brothers proceeds at UK after symbolic vote of disapproval

The atrium in the the new University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics, at the intersection of South Limestone St. and Administration Dr. on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Friday, October 7, 2016.
The atrium in the the new University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics, at the intersection of South Limestone St. and Administration Dr. on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Friday, October 7, 2016. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The University of Kentucky’s University Senate voted Monday to approve the academic content but not the administrative structure of a proposed institute on free enterprise funded by $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and pizza magnate John Schnatter.

The split decision means the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise in the Gatton College of Business and Economics can proceed to the UK Board of Trustees for a final decision, but it sends a strong symbolic message to UK’s administration.

The academic content of the center comes under the Senate’s jurisdiction, but the faculty group has less power over administrative structures. In declining to endorse the center’s structure, the senate expressed numerous concerns over academic freedom, funding and autonomy.

“They affirmed the freedom of the Gatton faculty and the academic content, so that is really good,” said Gatton College Dean David Blackwell.

Blackwell said he does not take for granted that trustees will approve the program.

“We need to be careful to make sure trustees understand there will be no undue influence,” he said.

That fear stems from numerous other Koch gifts at universities where the funding was contingent on items such as Koch Foundation approval of faculty hiring. That happened at Florida State University, but was eventually changed after faculty outrage. UK faculty also expressed concern that the funding could be pulled with 30 days notice, although Blackwell said UK could make up the difference.

The gift will allow the business college to hire five new faculty, as well as fund research and graduate fellowships. Blackwell said all faculty will be hired through the normal process and promotion will depend on publication in prestigious journals. He said the provost has assured him that if the donors pull their money, the university could still pay for those faculty hires.

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 pipeline of libertarian-leaning students who will influence public policy.

“The design, control and agenda of this institute is unworthy of our highest academic ideals and principles and should be voted down,” said the institute’s most ardent foe, political science professor Ernest Yanarella.

While some faculty agreed with him, others defended the idea that UK could take Koch money without being influenced by their ideas. Blackwell has said that any hiring will occur through normal channels and promotion will depend on publication in prestigious journals.

“These people have no influence on the research and the hiring,” said Sean Peffer, an associate professor of accounting. “I trust the administration... I don’t see the influence coming from the Koch Brothers and changing our departments. The journals will decide who gets promoted in our department.”

About 22 percent of the Gatton faculty voted against the proposal. The institute will be headed by professor John Garen, who is also the chairman of the Bluegrass Institute’s Board of Scholars. The Bluegrass Institute is a libertarian-leaning think tank that promotes free market capitalism.

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