Koch Brothers

Charles Koch (left) and David Koch

Koch Industries/Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Montana State University’s Faculty Senate has reopened debate on establishing an economic research center funded by a $5.7 million grant from the controversial Charles Koch Foundation.

Senators, who tabled the proposal last November, voted 18-10 Wednesday to resume debate on whether to endorse the Center for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis.

That step, which MSU President Waded Cruzado urged the faculty to take last month, opens the door to a vote in two weeks to approve or reject the center.

About 50 faculty members, several top administrators and a few members of the public crowded into a classroom in the Animal Bioscience Building for the Faculty Senate discussion.

Wendy Stock, co-director of the grant with fellow economics professor Vince Smith, said after the vote, “I’m happy they’re able to talk about and debate it.”

Stock reviewed all the work the grant is funding – supporting professors, grad students and undergraduates, who are doing research on topics ranging from poverty to health care and agriculture. One professor’s project found evidence that rape reports increase dramatically during Division I football games.

Stock emphasized that the research is being done without any censorship or influence by the Koch Foundation and without being aligned with any political leanings.

Critics of the billionaire Koch brothers contend they are giving millions of dollars to universities to pay for research that supports their anti-government, anti-regulation views and to train students in their philosophy.

One member of the public, Robert Diggs, a retired business teacher, held up the book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” and declared, “This is the way you’re going to end up, as slaves, if you let the Kochs have their way.”

Jessi Smith, psychology professor and faculty senator, said she moved to table the center in November in part to make sure there was enough time to research it.

“Debate is really great,” Smith said. But she remains opposed to creating the center.

Smith stressed that the faculty isn’t discussing turning away $5 million, because the economics professors are already receiving the money and launching research. That work can continue without creating a “center,” which becomes part of MSU’s history and legacy, she argued.

“A center implicates all of us and must pass a higher bar,” Smith told fellow faculty senators.

Creating a center gives a research program a home base, chances for collaboration and increases chances of attracting more grants, said Renee Reijo Pera, MSU vice president for research.

Eric Belasco, faculty senator representing the agriculture and agricultural economics department, said the research has followed all MSU’s normal guidelines for hiring and awarding grants. He read letters from students who were able to do research, thanks to the grant. One said it had opened up opportunities and MSU would be foolish to turn down the proposal.

Student Gerrit Egnew, a bioengineering senior, argued the center would support the Kochs’ libertarian agenda and pose a clear threat to academic freedom.

“Is the faculty really willing to sell students for the Kochs’ ideology?” Egnew said.

Ralph Wilson, a former math grad student from Florida State University and co-founder of the nonprofit UnKoch My Campus, said Stock’s presentation sounded wonderful, but that a clause in the Koch Foundation’s contract with MSU allows it to pull out its funding on 15 days notice. Wilson said that clause gives it implicit veto power over the work of the faculty. He spoke Tuesday to about 50 people at the Procrastinator Theater, arguing that a growing number of universities are dropping Koch-funded grants because of concerns about interference with academic freedom.

Stock responded that such clauses are not unusual in research grants.

One faculty senator said she’d like to use secret ballots if a vote is held in two weeks because the issue is so political. However, Michael Babcock, Senate chair, said after the meeting that would not be possible.

The final decision on creating research centers is up to the Montana Board of Regents. MSU’s Deans Council and Research Council have already sent Cruzado their endorsements of the proposed center.

The annual report on the grant’s accomplishments at MSU last year is posted on the Faculty Senate’s website (http://www.montana.edu/facultysenate/documents/academic_affairs_updates/2016-17%20Annual%20Report.pdf).

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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