The Montana Board of Regents is meeting in Butte. On its agenda for September 14th is approval of a proposal by Montana State University to create a “Center for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis.” The name sounds innocent enough but, under the surface, things are darker.
The impetus for the Center is a five-year $5.7 million grant to MSU by the Charles Koch Foundation. Oilmen Charles and David Koch are controversial figures in the political realm. They are well known for their funding of national conservative and libertarian causes and their antipathy toward government regulations.
It is no secret what the Koch Foundation is trying to do. In her book "Dark Money," Jane Mayer describes a 2015 report by one of the conservative non-profits as indicating that:
Private academic centers within colleges and universities were ideal devices by which rich conservatives could replace the faculties’ views with their own. “Money talks loudly on college campuses.”
Mayer describes this approach in “penetrating academia” and the growing emphasis on academia as a “delivery system” for their conservative ideology.
The matter of deregulation is of serious concern. For example, the EPA has been woefully inadequate in seeing to the cleanup of the Butte Hill. Politico Magazine states “when Trump named Pruitt head of the Environmental Protection Agency, he was picking one of the most ambitious and committed deregulators in the United States.” Pruitt has already taken drastic steps to water down this country’s clean air and clean water regulations. His appointment does not bode well for the environmental health of the people of Butte. Do we really need a new “center” at MSU to study the “economic effects” of regulations and dish up what Kochs really want — academic cover for their free-market/deregulation agenda?
The corrosive effect of the Koch funding is concerning. Can any would-be funder, if it is rich enough, cause the University to create a “center”? Isn’t the integrity of the Institution severely compromised when it puts its imprimatur on a “center” funded by Charles Koch, a well-known dark-money figure?
Some argue that “academic freedom” requires that these professors should be free to accept the grant. This is a red herring. MSU professors are free to teach and research as they think appropriate. The grant actually compromises academic freedom by providing a perverse incentive to skew academic research. The University is being seduced into becoming a “delivery system” for right-wing ideology.
The Koch grant reserves the right, over the five-year span of the grant to review the research results yearly and to terminate it solely in its discretion. Suppose the researchers review oil-field fracking regulation and conclude more regulation is appropriate because private wells are being contaminated. How long would it take Koch to terminate the grant?
It is troubling that Koch is using its initial money to leverage a future commitment of Montana taxpayer money because the grant requires the University to hire two new tenure-track professors and ensure that the faculty positions continue after the grant ends. The University argues such positions still remain subject to normal University hiring procedures. However, the usual hiring procedures are circumvented because the grant contains a provision that the directors of the Center must approve the new hires. In turn, the Koch Foundation retains the veto power over the appointment of the Center’s directors.
In fact, Koch money is already being spent at MSU. The first installment of the grant, over $700,000, was made in September of 2016 — without any apparent scrutiny by the Regents. It appears MSU thought it could start spending the Koch money and that the Regents approval of the “Center” is merely a rubber stamp.
At minimum the Regents should reject the proposal to establish a “Center.” But it should do more. It should scrutinize the Koch grant, and direct MSU to reject any future funding. The integrity of the University should not be for sale.