ThinkProgress

New center stokes fears that Utah university is becoming ‘Koch U’ of the West

Charles Koch's foundation donated $25 million to Utah State University in 2017 to create the Center for Growth and Opportunity. CREDIT: Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Images

One of the nation’s top Koch-funded think tanks appears to be a shell of its former self. Strata Policy, well known for its research reports attacking renewable energy subsidies and promoting the privatization of public lands, hasn’t released a report in almost four months. Several top officials and staff members have left the organization.

But even though Strata Policy has dropped off the radar, its ideologically driven research is still being promoted in other ways — primarily through nearby Utah State University. And one expert on the Koch family network says the mission hasn’t changed, it’s just being rebranded.

According to a ThinkProgress investigation, individuals who previously worked at the off-campus Strata Policy think tank have shifted their work to a newly formed center on the Utah State campus, also funded by Charles Koch. Professors and students who were previously affiliated with Strata Policy have moved to the on-campus Center for Growth and Opportunity (CGO), a new Koch-funded nonprofit research group housed in the university’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. In May 2017, the CGO received a $25 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Faculty members expressed concern to ThinkProgress that the integration of former Strata Policy employees with the CGO will further strengthen the university’s ties to the Koch family. They fear Koch influence will lead to questions about the integrity of all university-produced research, not only the papers coming out of the center. Utah State University business school students also will be forced to take economics courses taught primarily through the lens of the Kochs’ conservative ideology.

A university spokesperson stressed that Strata Policy is and always has been a separate entity, and that nothing in the agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation requires the university to compromise its core values.

“Research is governed by strict rules of academic integrity, and all of our researchers in every college follow research methodology that is time-tested, peer-reviewed and academically sound,” Tim Vitale, executive director of public relations and marketing, said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Although an independent entity, Strata Policy was always closely associated with Utah State due to the overlap of faculty and students. Both the think tank and the university have received large donations from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Charles Koch is a billionaire industrialist who is a prominent backer of conservative political causes and a major donor to universities. Professors at Utah State and other campuses across the nation have raised concerns about whether the grant-giving of the Charles Koch Foundation constrains academic freedom and is producing a generation of students fed one-sided views on economics and politics.

UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS PROJECT a MESSAGE ON the SIDE OF the Jon Huntsman School of BUSINESS building at Utah State University in June 2017. CREDIT: UNKOCH MY CAMPUS/GREENPEACE

In interviews with ThinkProgress, faculty members and Koch watchdog groups expressed fear that the Center for Growth and Opportunity is positioning itself to become the next Mercatus Center, a nonprofit conservative think tank based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The Mercatus Center also conducts research that promotes the Koch family’s ideological brand.

George Mason University is well-known for bringing right-leaning academic centers into its fold. The university has received $95.5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation since 2005, the most of any university in the nation, earning it the title of “Koch U.” When Utah State University announced the $25 million Koch donation in the May 2017, it climbed into second place on the list of Koch-funded universities.

Utah State University faculty members told ThinkProgress they are concerned that the arrival of former officials from Strata Policy — the recipient of $2.4 million from Koch-related groups since 2011 — at the CGO will mean the center will carry on Strata Policy’s style of research.

Strata Policy still maintains a website, with its most recent research report dated January 2018. But staffers appear to have vacated the think tank’s offices in downtown Logan, with many of them moving to the CGO’s office on Utah State University’s campus.

According to a search by ThinkProgress on LinkedIn and other social media sites, several Strata staff members recently joined the CGO in directorship and board member positions.

The Charles Koch professor

Randy Simmons, founder of Strata Policy and a longtime political science professor at Utah State, has become a lightning rod for criticism.

In 2015, Newsweek ran an opinion piece by Simmons titled, “What’s the True Cost of Wind Power?,” in which Simmons concluded that “the high costs of federal subsidies and state mandates for wind power have not paid off for the American public.”

However, the magazine faced a barrage of criticism for failing to identify Simmons’ ties to Koch money; he was only described as “a professor of political economy at Utah State University.” In response to the criticism, the magazine ran an editor’s note, highlighting his connections to the Kochs and ExxonMobil.

Simmons was described as the director of external relations for the CGO, according to a brochure for an April conference on public lands issues in Las Vegas at which he was scheduled to speak. He is not listed as a staff member on the center’s website. In emails to ThinkProgress, Simmons said the conference brochure was a “mistake” and that he has “no title nor role at CGO beyond being an affiliated faculty member.” He also said he remains head of Strata Policy and that the think tank is still operating in the same downtown office.

Alison Cook, a professor of business management in the Huntsman School of Business who serves on a faculty task force investigating the Koch gift to the university, told ThinkProgress she visited Strata Policy’s office on April 20 to find it empty except for a student working on a computer.

In a discussion with an employee of a separate company in an adjacent office space, Cook learned that Strata Policy’s office was largely vacated in January.

University spokesperson Vitale stressed that Strata Policy has always been an independent, off-campus organization, completely unaffiliated with Utah State University. “The university never has had a relationship with Strata, and the Center for Growth and Opportunity has no relationship with Strata,” he said.

According to Ralph Wilson, research director and co-founder of UnKochMyCampus, a nonprofit watchdog group that studies how the Koch brothers are using their wealth to spread a conservative ideology, he believes the CGO decided not to include Simmons’ name on its website presumably to diminish claims of the center becoming the new Strata Policy.

Old Main, the first building built on the campus of Utah State University, sits top of Old Main Hill, overlooking the city of Logan, Utah. Old Main houses university administration and academic offices. CREDIT: Pixabay

“The idea that they would secretly keep Randy Simmons around reflects the fact that this is an overt attempt to hide what they’ve been doing and continue doing it,” Wilson said.

While Utah State University has attempted to separate Strata Policy from the new center, some faculty and staff members view them as one in the same. “Make no mistake here — the CGO is the same old, same old,” a staff member at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business told ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity.

The people behind the CGO, overseen by Utah State University, “will continue the same anti-climate, anti-environmental research alongside others which will almost certainly be whatever Koch wants,” the staff member said.

About a year ago, the Huntsman Foundation teamed up with the Charles Koch Foundation to provide a $50 million gift — $25 million each — to the Huntsman School of Business. The Huntsman Foundation money was allocated to the Huntsman Scholar Program and the Koch money was used to launch the Center for Growth and Opportunity.

The university has stressed that there were no strings attached to the $25 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. Under the agreement, the Charles Koch Foundation will provide $2.5 million to the CGO on an annual basis over the next 10 years. Each year, the university has the right to terminate the funding and can back out of the agreement before the end of the 10-year period.

Some faculty members told ThinkProgress they believe this funding will ensure the CGO produces research that aligns with the Koch family’s worldview out of fear of losing funding. “Of course the center is going to do what the Kochs want them to do because they have $2.5 million coming every year,” Cook said. “I was hoping that would not be the case.”

It was hard to “disentangle” Simmons’ think tank from Utah State University, Cook said. Professors from Utah State, a publicly funded university, would work at the independent Strata Policy, even though they were receiving a salary from Utah taxpayers. At the same time, they would receive funds from the Koch foundation and other right-wing groups to conduct research into energy and public lands issues.

Cook said she believes Strata Policy is a “propaganda machine” that “clearly does not do rigorous research” due to its pro-Koch agenda.

Others on campus also viewed Strata Policy’s research as lacking integrity. They claim the research did not go through a rigorous peer view process. Strata Policy’s research often was “held up to be a joke — it’s looked at more as a lobbying organization,” Arthur Caplan, a professor of economics at Utah State University, told ThinkProgress.

With the university awash in Koch money, Caplan said he is considering adding an acknowledgement to his research papers, letting readers know that it is not funded by a Koch brothers entity. A few of his colleagues have already taken that step.

“The fact that these are issues that we contend with now is really bad,” he said.

Although concerned by the potential influence of former Strata Policy employees, Cook applauded the selection of Frank Caliendo to be the CGO’s academic director. “Frank had said we’re going to be researching more varied topics than anyone would expect and I’m sure we’ll have more unpredictable findings than anyone would expect,” Cook said.

As part of the agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation, only Utah State University can hire faculty, according to Vitale. Even though the CGO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that receives funding from foundations, grants, corporations, and individuals, the center will not hire its own faculty, he said.

“USU makes hiring decisions according to its own well-established and well-vetted policies and procedures that govern every departmental hire across the entire campus,” Vitale added.

At George Mason University in Virginia, however, it was recently revealed that the Charles Koch Foundation did have a say in the hiring and firing of professors despite years of denials by the university that the funding had an influence on its academic freedom.

Rebranding Koch-funded groups

Utah State professors aren’t alone in their desire to be separated from the Koch name.

Florida State University has also received substantial donations from the Charles Koch Foundation; a professor told UnKochMyCampus’ Ralph Wilson that he turns his name tag backwards when he attends academic conferences because of it. Mainstream economists often perceive economists at Florida State as fringe due to the Koch money’s potential influence on its academic research, Wilson said.

Florida State made a similar move to fend off criticism of its Koch connections in 2016 after it received a new donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. A year earlier, under pressure from students and faculty, administrators decided to discontinue a previous Koch agreement that gave the foundation influence over the university’s academic activities and administration in its economics department.

Nearly all of the programs and professorships affiliated with the previous Koch agreement, however, were reassembled in 2016 under the newly created L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center for the Study of Economic Prosperity and Individual Opportunity, Wilson explained. The bulk of an $800,000 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation went to the center.

At Utah State University, critics of the Koch donation also raised alarm bells in early April when the CGO announced it had hired Christopher Koopman, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, to serve as its senior director of strategy and research. Aside from his position at the Mercatus Center, Koopman worked as an adjunct professor at the Scalia Law School at George Mason University, named after the ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice who died in 2016.

Blake Dursteler, the former CEO and executive director of Strata Policy, now works as executive director of the CGO. Derek Johnson, the former chair of Strata Policy’s board of trustees, now serves on the board of the CGO. He also is vice president of education at the Charles Koch Institute, a right-wing public policy research, programming, grant-making, and fellowship-funding organization.

A search through social media sites showed multiple former Strata Policy staff members made the move over to the CGO in the past several months after the Charles Koch Foundation gift was announced. Former Strata Policy staffer Erica Darley, for example, now works as human resources director at the CGO. Samantha Wright, the former director of operations at Strata Policy, joined the CGO last August as chief operating officer, according to her LinkedIn page.

Spreading right-wing policies

The CGO is focusing on nine research areas, three of them related to public lands issues. Strata Policy’s research also focused on public lands issues, along with energy economics. Undergraduates and graduates at the center are doing much of the same research in public lands and energy economics as they were doing at Strata Policy. Josh Smith and Brian Isom, former Strata Policy graduate research students, predominately work in these areas and now train other students at the CGO to do the same.

“I have known many students who have doubted the integrity of their research, desire not to have their name listed on publications, question the benefit of being in this organization, and are often afraid to present results contrary to the research aims of the Strata Policy/CGO,” the Huntsman School of Business staff member said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Research managers are taught to instruct students that “free market” and Austrian economics are the proper lens through which to conduct research. Charles and David Koch were particularly influenced by the work of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who argued that centralized government planning led, inexorably, to totalitarianism, Jane Mayer, an expert on the Koch brothers’ influence and role of “dark money” in politics, wrote in a New Yorker profile.

In 2007, Utah State University’s College of Business became the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business after a $26 million donation by the Huntsman Foundation. Huntsman, who died in February, was a longtime contributor to conservative political candidates and causes. He made his fortune as a chemicals manufacturer.

Around the same time, the university received one of its first donations from the Charles Koch Foundation. The $690,000 donation included $625,000 to the newly named Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, $50,000 dollars to the Koch Scholars program, and $15,000 to the College of Humanities Arts, and Social Science’s Department of Political Science.

“It is an honor to have the Charles G. Koch foundation supporting USU students,” Simmons, who was named the Charles G. Koch professor of economics at the time, said in a statement.

Under the 2008 agreement, the Koch Foundation was granted significant influence to ensure professors followed the Kochs’ political agenda. Under the new agreement, the foundation does not oversee the curriculum or have veto power over professors. However, if the foundation does not like the research produced by the CGO, it can withhold its annual funding.

Alison Cook, the Utah State professor, is sympathetic with professors at the university who worry the Koch connections could lead to academics viewing their research with suspicion. But her bigger concern is the Koch money’s impact on students.

“As professors, we can protect ourselves. I’m actually much more concerned about our students and the curriculum they are receiving,” she said. “Economics is one of the largest majors on campus and if they are going in there and being brainwashed from the get-go, that concerns me.”