Commentary: No need for a competing Koch-funded institute

The creation of the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis at the University of Utah raises many concerns.

According to the official press release, the new institute aims to support faculty research, learning opportunities for students and the development of quantitative skills with a business economics perspective. The institute’s funding will not support and will operate outside the current economics degree programs provided at the U.

A recent editorial in The Deseret News has characterized the economics education provided at the U. as biased and non-quantitative. We wholly reject such claims. The Economics Department offers undergraduate students with a highly quantitative curriculum with a wide-ranging list of elective courses to broaden their economics education. Our fellow graduates have been very competitive in the job market and obtained employment in both the private and public sector.

As graduate students of the Economics Department, we are in the unique position to examine the existing department programs. We find that all of the stated aims of the new institute are already fulfilled by existing university programs and departments and therefore question how a separate institution constructed outside the current Economics Department will serve the student body. If the current Economics Department is fulfilling the stated mission of the new institute, why, then, is there a need for a separate institute? This leads to our main concern about the Eccles institute — its funding. Half of the funding is provided by the Koch foundation.

The recent editorial in The Deseret News addresses this. “There will undoubtedly be some who claim that the new institute is now ideologically beholden to the well-known conservative brothers … But, that ignores the commitment to education and gifts to 300 institutions, including Stanford, Harvard and Brown, that the Koch Foundation has provided.”

Rationalizing corporate interest in educational funding as widespread and abundant does little to refute that there may indeed be strings attached. As was the case in 2014 when Florida State University’s economics department entered into a “memorandum of understanding” with the Koch Foundation that stipulated final approval of new hires within the economics department as part of its donor agreement.

If anything, acknowledging the clear ideological ties of a major donor should fuel a desire to understand to what extent the Koch Foundation is promoting the curriculum, hiring decisions and research to support their own corporate interests. In addition, it is rare that the Koch Foundation has contributed an amount substantive enough to create an institute (only the top 10 educational gifts amount to more than $1 million). This puts the University of Utah, in particular, at risk of benefactor influence.

We are not the first to be weary of partnership between academic centers and the Koch Foundation. Past contributions from the Koch Foundation to higher education have been conditional on influence over hiring decisions, curriculum and even access to student’s personal data. Such agreements damage the credibility, reputation and tarnish the scholarship of the university. Legitimacy and value of scientific research must be judged by the academic community through peer review, not the preferences of donors.

We understand the need for new sources of funding in academia. However, attention and care must be taken to maintain academic integrity. It is of paramount importance that the University’s administration work to maintain the integrity of the economics education at the U for its students.

Given the controversial history of the Koch Foundation’s partnership with academic institutions, we ask for the immediate formation of an oversight committee consisting of faculty from each college at the U. to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of the Marriner S. Eccles Institute.

From Kevin Conner, Ali Jalali, CK Miller and Jacqueline Strenio, graduate students in the University of Utah Department of Economics.

from The Salt Lake Tribune


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