Western: Koch is It

 In NC Trend

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Better known for their political passions, billionaires Charles and David Koch also make lots of money in North Carolina. Their Koch Industries owns Georgia-Pacific, Invista and other units with big plants in the state. Now, they are stepping up their giving to Tar Heel schools, pledging $1.8 million to Western Carolina University and $3.7 million to Wake Forest University to study economics and happiness.

The Western Carolina gift to create a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise overcame opposition from the university’s faculty senate, which voted 21-3 last year to oppose the gift. Professors questioned threats to academic freedom, given the Kochs’ well-documented history of funding libertarian, pro-business politicians and causes. The school is setting up a board to monitor the center’s work.

“I could have done a better job giving the campus more time for discussion,” says Darrell Parker, dean of Western Carolina’s business college. The money, spread over five years, will pay for research, outside speakers and “economic development,” which Parker defines as “studying ways to make the economy grow.”

Parker credits economics professor Edward Lopez for attracting the gift. Lopez came to the Cullowhee campus in 2012 to take a professorship endowed by BB&T, whose leadership has promoted libertarian views for decades.

“They are buying into our mission; we aren’t buying into theirs,” Parker says. “Nothing in this gift is used for political purposes.” The business school has about 2,500 students and more than 60 full-time faculty.

The Kochs are giving twice as much to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem for its new Eudaimonia Institute, which will study “human flourishing.” (The name reflects Aristotle’s term for “happiness.”) Wake Forest doesn’t discuss gifts or grants with its faculty senate, spokeswoman Katie Neal says. There are no strings attached to the Koch money because the university only accepts support that respects academic freedom and retains sole discretion over use of the funds, she says. It is among the largest research-oriented grants from the private sector that Wake Forest has ever received.

The institute’s executive director is James Otteson, an economics professor who came to Wake Forest in 2013 and is also executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism. The latter was set up in 2008 with a $2 million pledge from the Winston-Salem-based bank.

Calls seeking comment were not returned by the Charles Koch Foundation, which gave away more than $30 million to hundreds of universities and think tanks in 2014, according to its annual tax filing. That may be pocket change for the Kochs, who have a combined net worth of more than $100 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Photo provided by Western Carolina University


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