April 7 2017
Denizens of the ivory tower are rarely nuanced in their statements about Charles and David Koch. But the professorial ruminations published last month at Wake Forest University break new ground by showing that disdain for conservatives weighs more heavily on faculty minds than academic freedom.
About two years ago, Wake Forest professor James Otteson came to the administration with an idea: a new center devoted to the study of happiness. Such programs are all the rage in psychology departments, but Mr. Otteson, a scholar of classical philosophy who has written books on Adam Smith, offered a unique interdisciplinary approach. Planning began for a center that draws scholars from across the university to study the political, economic, moral and cultural institutions that encourage human happiness. It was named the Eudaimonia Institute, after Aristotle’s term for flourishing.
None of this elicited objections from the faculty until last September, when the university announced it had accepted $3.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to support the institute over five years. The faculty senate then formed two committees to investigate Eudaimonia: one to report on the institute itself and another to study Wake Forest’s policies related to Koch Foundation funding.
The first committee, in a report published last month, urged Wake Forest to “SEVER ALL CONNECTIONS TO THE CHARLES KOCH FOUNDATION.” The original text, which went on at some length, was also in boldface and underlined. Where, one wonders, were the exclamation points and angry emojis?
The other committee concluded that the foundation’s “parasitical” behavior threatened Wake Forest’s “academic integrity, financial autonomy, and institutional governance.” The faculty worrying about the Kochs’ fortune seem to have forgotten that their campus exists in large part thanks to donations from the family behind R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The situation was deemed so grave that the latter committee recommended canceling the Eudaimonia Institute’s April conference, freezing all hiring, and requiring that its publications and presentations be reviewed by another group of faculty ahead of time. Earlier this year the faculty announced they would not give credit to students taking a business class taught by Mr. Otteson—even though the course had nothing to do with Eudaimonia or the Koch Foundation. According to Daniel Hammond, a Wake Forest economics professor, the course would have earned students credit only if they remained business majors. If they changed their major, it would not count for graduation. Under pressure, the business school dropped the class as a prerequisite for majors.
Citing the New Yorker magazine writer Jane Mayer’s investigations into the Koch family, both committees concluded that Eudaimonia is really a way of sneaking capitalist ideas into the university. Never mind the ample evidence that the Koch brothers, who are open about their own ideas, are interested in exploring other points of view. The report even includes links to a public forum held by the Charles Koch Institute with guests from liberal organizations such as the Brookings Institution.
The controversies over Koch cash—stoked in many cases by the George Soros-funded campus organization UnKoch My Campus—are not new. Faculty at the Catholic University of America complained last year that a $10 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation would undermine the school’s religious teachings. The United Negro College Fund was roundly criticized after it took $25 million of Koch money in 2014.
But the professors at Wake Forest have hit a new low. On March 15 the faculty senate passed a nonbinding resolution against the Koch funding by a vote of 17-9. The provost offered only a lukewarm defense of Eudaimonia. “I have faith,” he wrote to me, “in our faculty and administrative practices that protect faculty research, creative work and teaching from any improper influence.”
Eudaimonia already has safeguards in place to ensure intellectual freedom. Even before the Koch money was pledged, it had published a “Declaration of Research Independence,” which states that the institute “maintains sole control over the selection of researchers, the composition of research teams, or the research design, methodology, analysis, or findings of EI research projects, as well as the content of EI-sponsored educational programs.”
Ana Iltis, a Wake Forest bioethicist and faculty adviser to Eudaimonia, told me this week that she was surprised by her colleagues’ “unwillingness to look at the work we’re doing and take it seriously.” She noted that the institute’s board includes people from a variety of religious, political, racial and academic backgrounds. Bill Leonard —another board member and a former dean of the Divinity School—led the fight for gays and lesbians to be admitted to the Baptist graduate school.
The controversy is even more ridiculous when considering the differences between the Eudaimonia Institute and other Wake Forest centers. Take the Pro Humanitate Institute, whose executive director, Melissa Harris-Perry, made a name for herself as a progressive activist on MSNBC. That institute does not pretend to ask life’s big, open-ended questions. Rather, its mission statement declares that its purpose is “connected to clear practices with meaningful social justice outcomes.”
No matter what these institutes focus on, the idea that other faculty might want to censor their work is worrying. Even more troubling is the notion that professors from one department could determine that courses taught in another department are not worthy of credit toward graduation.
Professors opposed to this madness are finally speaking up. A new petition has been circulating among the faculty objecting to the proposed censorship. Citing the recent statement regarding “truth-seeking” by Robert P. George and Cornel West, the signers note, “We stand in support of diversity and inclusion of all opinions and ideologies at Wake Forest University and celebrate such diversity as the character of our community.”
But if the faculty senate is representative, professors who want to restrict their colleagues’ intellectual pursuits are in the majority. “In the name of defending academic freedom,” Ms. Iltis told me, “they’re going to undermine it.”
Ms. Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.