Montana State University wild art

The Faculty Senate voted Wednesday against a proposed economic research center at Montana State University funded by a $5.7 million grant from the controversial Charles Koch Foundation.

The vote was close — 12 in favor to 13 against endorsing a Center for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis at MSU. There was one abstention.

After the vote, Provost Bob Mokwa was asked whether he’d recommend to President Waded Cruzado that, despite the Faculty Senate’s rejection, she should forward the proposal to the Montana Board of Regents, which must approve creation of all research centers. The MSU Deans Council and Research Council had previously endorsed the idea.

“President Cruzado has already indicated she’ll base her decision on whether to bring it forward on the Faculty Senate decision,” Mokwa said. “I stand by that.”

Wendy Stock, co-director of the Koch grant with fellow economics professor Vince Smith, didn’t attend Wednesday’s vote.

“Obviously, we are disappointed in the vote, but we respect the process and are grateful to our colleagues for their thoughtful consideration of the proposal,” Stock wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “We look forward to continuing to fund MSU faculty members who engage in high-quality, objective scientific research on the impacts of policy and regulation.”

Creating a center would give the research a higher profile, as well as the university’s endorsement, and would help attract more grants.

Even without that status, however, the economics professors have been using the grant money the past two years to support research by professors and students. This month they held a conference on health care economics, hosted by what they called the Initiative for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis.

Eric Belasco, a senator representing the economics department, said he was happy the Faculty Senate finally voted after debating the issue for months.

“I am disappointed” with the outcome, Belasco said. “I knew it was going to be pretty evenly split.”

Eric Austin, an associate professor of political science, said he voted no. He said he doesn’t have any concerns about his MSU colleagues doing quality research, but “it came down to whether or not the proposal and organization of the Koch Foundation is one we should endorse.”

“My concern is not their ideology but their behavior,” Austin said. “Unfortunately this organization operates in a way that is really inconsistent with the research and peer review values of MSU.

“The Koch Foundation has a well-documented history and philosophy and aim, going back almost 20 years, of seeking to produce research that supports their aims rather than testing whether it holds in reality. They seek to influence peer review and the tenure process (in ways) inconsistent with the values of the university.”

Critics have argued the billionaire oilmen Koch brothers have promoted academic research, professors and students who agree with their views opposing government regulations and issues like climate change.

Stock and Smith have argued that the research funded by the grant will be high quality and published in peer-reviewed journals. The grant already has supported research on a wide variety of topics, from agriculture to whether rape reports increase on Division I football game days.

Faculty Senate Chair Michael Babcock handed out paper ballots and asked senators to write their votes on one side and names on the other, instead of voting by a raise of hands as senators do on most issues. He said that wasn’t intended to make the voting secret but “allows us to document the vote better,” adding he didn’t want any doubt about the outcome. The Chronicle has asked to see the ballots.

“I honestly wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Babcock said. “The senators gave it very serious thought.”

“Without the ‘center’ designation, it’s just a grant,” he said. “The funding was awarded to the two faculty – they’ll continue to do that work.”

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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