MSU Wild

Montana Hall is framed by tree branches, heavy with snow, recently on the Montana State University campus.

The Faculty Senate at Montana State University voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to table a controversial proposal to create a new economics research center funded by a $5.7 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Professors voted 24-5 to table the proposal, after Jessi Smith, psychology professor and faculty senator, argued that more time was needed to collect data on Koch-funded research centers elsewhere in the nation.

“We need more time to fully understand what we’re getting into,” Smith said. MSU’s Faculty Senate has only had one hour-long debate, she said, and that “is simply not enough.”

Tabling the proposal means it’s set aside — possibly for a few weeks, or possibly forever. At a future meeting, a faculty senator could make a new motion to take the proposed center off the table for discussion and a vote on its merits, said Michael Babcock, psychology professor and Faculty Senate chair.

Babcock said MSU’s Deans Council was originally going to consider the proposed center at the same time as the faculty, but the deans have decided to wait and see what the Faculty Senate does before taking a position on the proposed MSU Center for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis.

Two weeks ago, the Faculty Senate and members of the public debated whether MSU should create the new research center.

Opponents argued then that the billionaire oilmen Koch brothers are using academic grants to promote an anti-government, anti-regulation agenda, to co-opt universities and convert students to an ideology that’s opposed to government programs like climate change action, the Affordable Care Act and public education. The “tainted” grant would compromise the integrity of MSU, critics charged.

Supporters argued that there are plenty of safeguards to ensure no ideological interference by the Koch Foundation in MSU’s research or the hiring of two new faculty members, made possible by the grant. They argued that research funded by the grant would have to meet the standards of independent, peer-reviewed journals, and that MSU professors should trust their colleagues.

The Koch Foundation grant is already being used to fund economics research by MSU professors and students and that work can continue, even without a center, said Wendy Stock, professor of agricultural economics and economics. She is co-director of the grant, with fellow economics professor Vince Smith.

After the vote, Stock said she hopes the Faculty Senate will reconsider the center at a later date.

“We respect the process,” she said. “Open discussion of ideas matters. That’s how academic freedom works.”

“We are perfectly happy to allow the process to continue,” Vince Smith said.

Asked for her reaction, Renee Reijo Pera, MSU vice president for research, said, “Creating centers is a process. We want the process to play out.”

Jessi Smith started to propose that the Faculty Senate form a committee to look further into Koch-funded centers, but Babcock stopped her, saying that was a new proposal and so would have to be put in writing before the senators could consider it at a future meeting.

After the vote, Jessi Smith said she feels there are “more questions than answers” about the proposed center. “If we’re going to designate something as an MSU center, we need a much better understanding.”

Babcock was asked afterward if the vote to table meant faculty senators are opposed to the Koch funding, or simply wanted more information or wanted to avoid controversy. He said he didn’t know, and it might be all three.

The center is listed with several other academic proposals on this week’s Montana Board of Regents agenda, however, it’s there only as an informational item and not for a vote, Reijo Pera said.

Babcock said two weeks ago that if the Faculty Senate were to oppose the Koch center, it would be “very, very, very unlikely” that MSU President Waded Cruzado would forward it to the regents for approval. Only the Board of Regents has authority to create centers at the universities. Creating a center would help attract attention to an area of faculty expertise, raise the profile of their research and help attract more research grants.

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

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.