UK must ensure that no political strings attached

Ernie Yarnarella
Ernie Yarnarella

The Schnatter-Koch Foundation’s $12 million gift to the University of Kentucky College of Business and Economics should be seen for what it is: a subtle effort to further erode academic freedom and to strap corporate power and interests more tightly to academia.

Despite professions that the gift comes with no strings attached, anyone who has followed the strategies and designs of the Koch brothers and other big donors in national politics knows what their goals are.

Charles and David Koch have been joined by other so-called philanthropists in seeking to win congressional districts for right-wing candidates, support lobbying groups and political action organizations to pollute our electoral processes, and create a political environment favorable to corporate and big-money interests to help shape Supreme Court decisions.

Meanwhile, the UK College of Business and Economics continues its favored status with a major expansion and now a major donation to augment its faculty and programs.

Serious students of Eastern and Western Kentucky and Appalachia know that, despite the SOAR initiative, Kentucky’s economy remains in dire straits. Entrepreneurism is desperately needed to abet the transition to a post-coal economy.

But, it is doubtful that the Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise will contribute much to the needed transformation, given the long shadow of coal cast over this university and the intrusion into academic priorities by America’s leading plutocrats.

Issues like economic inequality, the untoward influence of corporate power on public policy, the place of economics and equity within a larger ecological framework affecting climate change, among others, will likely be treated as ideologically impermissible concerns, screened out by the hidden institutional filters embedded in mainstream economics.

How much chance is there that these issues will find favor if a leading member of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s right-wing free market policy institute, is named the director? Who will be selected (or imposed) to serve on the advisory board? Can we even imagine economists like Paul Krugman, Robert Reich or Philip Mirowski being invited to speak in the Schnatter free-enterprise lecture series?

How about a grant proposal analyzing the policy distortions stemming from the corporate-political crushing of the American labor movement and its implications for economic renewal of the working class? How likely is this institute to hire an ecological economist or labor economist working outside of the neo-liberal economic consensus? Or can we imagine funding for a study titled, “whither the middle class in the face of the economic and political power of the one percenters?”

Hope for challenging or modifying the terms of this grant resides in a mobilized faculty using its governance processes to require assurance that “no strings attached” means literally that.

The advisory board should be drawn from faculty researchers from across the colleges. The scope and approaches of grant funding should be open to economic and public policies that include studies of the worker cooperative and other innovative economic arrangements. Humanists and social scientists should be eligible for support for broadly policy-relevant issues and projects.

This gift is being offered as a form of “filthy lucre” in the biblical sense: wealth intended to teach wrongly for the sake of private profit. The Senate Council and University Senate should convert it into something of larger benefit and public gain. They must structure its organization, oversight and distribution of rewards to create a truer marketplace of ideas and policy recommendations for the wider faculty and students, the university, and the citizens of Kentucky.

Ernie Yanarella is professor of political science and former Senate Council chair and faculty trustee at the University of Kentucky.