Koch gift will help create WSU institute to study economic growth

The Charles Koch Foundation is donating $3.6 million to Wichita State University to create an Institute for the Study of Economic Growth.
The Charles Koch Foundation is donating $3.6 million to Wichita State University to create an Institute for the Study of Economic Growth.

Wichita State University will create an Institute for the Study of Economic Growth with a $3.6 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

University officials say the institute will foster economic and business research and increase the value of an economics or business degree at WSU.

“It’s a big day for the Barton School and Wichita State University,” said Anand Desai, dean of the Barton School of Business that will house the institute. “We’re very grateful to the Charles Koch Foundation for supporting this.”

The nonprofit’s support and creation of economics research centers at universities across the county has generated concerns that the conservative, free-market politics of the billionaire Koch Industries CEO could affect academic research.

But Desai said WSU cherishes its academic freedom and would preserve it with the new institute.

“That is key to making this institute a success,” Desai said.

‘A broad range of ideas’

Discussions with faculty and university leadership about an institute stretch back to last spring, Desai said. The Eagle has previously reported that the foundation and WSU had talked about an Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at the Barton School of Business.

“We sort of collectively came up with this idea of creating this institute to help drive economic growth and study what are the drivers,” Desai said. “How do we, in particular, engage our students in … critical thinking about some of these issues that are so important for our country?”

“Our goal is to provide the region a talent pool that is well-versed in the economics of value creation, growth and economic well-being,” he said in a separate news release.

Desai said the institute will have an educational mission to “advance this thinking about entrepreneurial activities and what role they play in a free-enterprise economy.”

“Many students will have an opportunity to engage in research along these dimensions,” he said.

The institute will help spread that research to a wider audience through things like symposiums, debates, panel discussions and journal publications, Desai said.

The university says the institute’s vision is distinct from other entities like the Center for Economic Development and Business Research, which is also in the Barton School.

Desai said they want to prepare graduates who will stay in south-central Kansas “in a world of constrained resources (and) heightened competition.”

“The goal is to expose our students to a broad range of ideas and methodologies so that they will ultimately decide,” Desai said. “We’re not forcing them to think in any particular manner. It’s their choice.”

‘Principles of free societies’

The Charles Koch Foundation has supported hundreds of colleges and universities through “programs that engage students with the principles of free societies.” It donated more than $44 million in 2015 for research, speaker series, conferences, educational programs and other initiatives.

For example, Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina opened a new center last week to study economic mobility with money from an initiative supported by the Charles Koch Foundation.

But such support has created unease at some universities among faculty and students who worry about the foundation’s influence on academic research.

A Koch-backed institute at the University of Utah has raised questions from faculty about whether it is designed to compete with the existing economics department, according to an Inside Higher Ed article.

A letter signed by 194 Utah faculty members raised concerns about intellectual independence, contending that the Koch Foundation’s investment in higher education is meant to forward a “specific public policy agenda,” according to a Salt Lake City newspaper.

Trustees at Western Carolina University, current WSU President John Bardo’s former school, approved a Koch-funded center on free enterprise over initial faculty opposition in 2015.

‘We preserve those things’

Asked about concerns on other campuses, Desai said it was “very clear” in discussions with the Koch Foundation that they respect academic freedom.

“I want to stay focused on the mission and the vision of the institute,” he added.

Desai said they will follow typical WSU processes when they hire faculty and put together symposiums and classwork. He said there were no stipulations involving programming or classwork.

“Preserving academic freedom and following normal university processes… Those two principles were paramount in our decision to move forward,” he said. “It was important that we preserve those things at Wichita State.”

He said an executive director for the institute should be hired by next August. The institute plans to employ three faculty members, two who do teaching and research and one whose primary responsibility will be teaching.

They also have funding for two institute research fellows, two graduate assistants and some support staff. The $3.64 million grant is the primary source of the institute’s funding.

The new institute will be housed in Clinton Hall until a new Barton School building is constructed on the Innovation Campus.

Charles Koch Foundation Director of University Relations John Hardin said in a news release that WSU scholars have “a bold vision to tackle critical questions about growing inequality.”

“We're thankful for the opportunity to support them,” Hardin said.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar