The University of Utah will debut the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis this fall, but some students and faculty are concerned that one of the donations funding the endeavor threatens the independence of the Institute.
The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation gave a combined $10 million to establish the economics institute, which was matched by the Charles Koch Foundation. Mark Button, the chair of the U’s Political Science Department, wrote a letter to the Academic Senate detailing his concerns with the latter donation.
“The purpose of this letter is to explain why a funding agreement between the Koch Foundation and the University of Utah raises serious concerns about the principles and practice of intellectual independence and academic freedom at the University of Utah,” the petition reads.
More than 100 faculty, staff, students and alumni signed the letter. Button submitted the letter to the Academic Senate on Aug. 4.
The most politically active members of the Koch family, Charles and David, fund numerous conservative and libertarian organizations and candidates. In 1980, David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee. On its website, the Koch Foundation says it works to “help people improve their lives by advancing an understanding of the benefits of free societies.”
In the letter, however, Button emphasized that his concerns are centered around academic freedom rather than the political affiliations of the foundation’s founder.
Button cited transcripts from a Charles Koch Foundation Donor Summit Meeting in 2014, saying, “Leaders of the Koch Foundation…have made it clear that the aim of the Koch Foundation’s widespread investments in higher education is to ‘leverage science and universities’ for their specific public policy agenda.”
The foundation has donated to more than 300 universities throughout the country. Students and faculty at many of the schools have criticized the gifts, vocalizing concerns similar to Button’s. One such donation went to Utah State University, where protesters projected a “SOLD!” sign on the side of the business school building.
According to the letter, the agreement between the Koch Foundation and the U doesn’t have a provision protecting intellectual independence. It does stipulate, however, that the foundation will review the grant annually.
Rather than requesting the U turn down the donation, Button encourages administrators to put safeguards in place.
“We urge the University to incorporate meaningful forms of independent faculty governance in this new institute, especially as this relates to future faculty hiring and the distribution of student scholarships and fellowships,” the letter suggests.
The institute will instruct students in economics, game theory, econometric and quantitative analysis. With funding from the three benefactors, the U will hire seven economists as faculty and award $1.6 million in scholarships.
In a statement, U President David Pershing said, “This partnership with the Eccles and the Charles Koch Foundation will not only enable the University and the David Eccles School of Business to advance knowledge in economics but also to enhance the depth and breadth of opportunities for Utah’s students to become outstanding economists and leaders for the future.”
The Senate executive committee will hold a closed meeting Aug 14., which will be followed by an open full Senate meeting Aug. 28.
Button hopes the letter will bring changes to the way the U establishes institutes in the future and convince campus leaders to take intellectual independence into consideration when outlining how the school will oversee the new institute.
“This letter is motivated by our shared belief that the long-term viability and institutional integrity of the University of Utah will remain secure so long as students, faculty, staff and administrators are committed to protecting the vital principles of intellectual independence and academic freedom on our campus.”