$10M Koch donation to University of Utah raises concerns

August 2, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group from the University of Utah is raising “serious concerns” about a $10 million donation from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers to help establish an economics institute.

They say in a letter that Koch donations are aimed at funding academic work and student activities that support their views, so accepting the money could make the school into a vehicle for political goals like climate change skepticism. A total of 85 faculty members, students and alumni had signed a letter outlining the concerns as of Tuesday, political science professor Mark Button, who authored the letter, said in an email.

The Charles Koch Foundation says they support a wide variety of research and ideas at more than 300 colleges around the country, and dispute the idea they support climate change skepticism. Director of university relations John Hardin says the foundation is separate from the brothers’ political activities.

Charles and David Koch are known for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into backing conservative and libertarian causes. The brothers have built an elaborate network of political and social groups that have funneled tens of millions of dollars to groups like Americans for Prosperity, building one of the country’s most potent outside forces driving Republican politics and candidates.

The University of Utah says the school doesn’t judge donors’ political beliefs, and the Koch donation contract contains strict limitations to protect the school’s autonomy of hiring and research.

“If we felt that autonomy was threatened we would walk away from the gift,” spokesman Chris Nelson said in a statement.

Anti-Koch activists, though, point to provisions in the contract that require annual reviews and allow the foundation to withdraw its money with 30 days’ notice. Ralph Wilson with the group UnKoch My Campus said that gives the Charles Koch Foundation a “veto power” not usually seen in university donations. “This is not normal,” he said.

Hardin disagreed, saying it’s not unusual for donors to ask for reviews, and the Koch foundation doesn’t want to push a particular ideology at the school.

″“What’s so cool about education is it provides a place, a platform, an incubator, for human discovery because it’s a place where people can come with lots of different perspectives and questions and ideas,” he said.

The University of Utah approached the foundation with the idea for an economics and quantitative analysis institute, he said. The Charles Koch Foundation’s donation will be combined with a matching $10 million gift from Utah’s wealthy Eccles family to start the center named after Utah native Marriner Eccles.

It’s not the only Utah college that’s received money from the Koch brothers.

Utah State University’s business school also received $25 million earlier this year, on top of more than a million in donations dating back to 2008 to hire professors and pay for a student-enrichment program.

The USU gifts have been the subject of student and alumni protests, including one that projected a massive image of the brothers with the word “Sold!” above their heads.