A “Controversial” Koch-Funded Speaker Finds Open Minds at Wake Tech

By now you have heard the story. It plays out like a script. A “controversial” speaker—almost always a conservative or libertarian—is invited to a campus. Protests, and in some cases riots, ensue. The speech is canceled or the speaker shouted down. The free exchange of ideas gives way to authoritarianism.

But consider what happened recently at Wake Technical Community College, where I teach. We threw out that script, and free speech prevailed. Students were able to listen to and learn from James Otteson, a “controversial” Wake Forest University (WFU) economics professor, who gave a talk titled “Adam Smith on Justice and Social Justice.”

WFU, on the other hand, hasn’t been so welcoming to Otteson, especially after he established the Eudaimonia Institute on his campus. The goal of the Institute, says Otteson, is to bring “perspectives from philosophy, psychology, political science, and more” to “help us understand how to encourage genuinely flourishing human lives of meaning and prosperity.” (“Eudaimonia” is Aristotle’s term for human flourishing.)

The initial funding for the Institute came from a planning grant from the university. Its faculty advisory board is comprised of 14 tenured professors from 10 different departments. None of this has been controversial. But what is controversial, at least to many WFU faculty, is that Otteson recently accepted roughly $3.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) to help support the institute over five years.

CKF is dedicated to helping individuals “improve their lives by advancing an understanding of the benefits of free societies.” That means an understanding of the benefits of capitalism, economic freedom, and free markets—and it helps to explain why the Foundation’s money is controversial at many universities, including Wake Forest.

In late March, around the same time Otteson spoke at my school, the Martin Center reported that Wake Forest’s faculty senate had “recommended freezing current hiring, canceling internal and external presentations, and even restricting the publication of any material to do with the [Eudaimonia] Institute.”

Furthermore, as Naomi Schaefer Riley explained in this Wall Street Journal article, “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…the Koch Foundation.”

Such backlash is extreme, but perhaps not surprising considering that many university faculty seem to find education about economic freedom to be dangerous, and often have a negative knee-jerk reaction anytime the Koch name is mentioned.

At my school, however, Professor Otteson received a warmer response. That’s partly because most if not all of those in attendance at the Wake Tech event were unaware that Otteson was being censured at WFU, and went in without any pre-conceived ideas. There were no protests nor rioting for this Koch-funded speaker. Students attended with an open mind. The result? Otteson hit a home run.

In his talk, Otteson explored how Adam Smith, a founding father of market economies, understood justice, and how he might have responded to social justice concerns. Otteson asked a series of thought-provoking questions, such as “Do we have a moral obligation to save a child drowning in a shallow pool?” Most of us would say yes, but do we want the government to enforce this moral obligation? Whether one answers “yes” or “no” to this question, we must recognize that this would be difficult for the government to oversee.

Otteson also brought up issues of income inequality. Should we feel sorry for a person who has 100 times less wealth than another person? What if that person is Michael Jordan, who has 100 times less wealth than Bill Gates? Where would (or should) the lines of egalitarianism be drawn?

Throughout his speech, Otteson didn’t answer these questions. Instead, he focused on getting his audience to think critically about these issues. Students responded favorably.

Afterward, students lined up to politely ask Otteson follow-up questions. And of the 76 students who filled out a survey after his talk (overall, 118 people attended—93 students and 25 faculty/staff), roughly 75 percent strongly agreed that “the presenter was engaging and interesting.” Another 24 percent agreed. None disagreed.

In the survey, students revealed their desire to be exposed to a diversity of ideas while in college, including ideas they don’t agree with. Responses to the question “What did you like about today’s session?” included: “different viewpoints than mine” and “The speaker made me think philosophically, which made me see things from a different perspective.”

Faculty members who attended responded favorably as well. Nevertheless, even at Wake Tech, some faculty members are not supportive of Charles Koch Foundation grants and speakers. They maintain they would like grants to support a diversity of views, not speeches focusing solely on the benefits of limited government and free markets.

My response? Wake Tech students, just like students at four-year colleges and universities across the country, have had much more exposure to the big government viewpoint, not only from faculty lectures but also from guest speakers. For example, Wake Tech hosted Hillary Clinton at the height of the presidential campaign. I doubt these colleagues were concerned enough about diversity of thought to ask that Donald Trump speak as well.

Besides, it’s healthy for people to have different opinions on what the government can and should do. In his talk, for instance, Otteson respected that values are subjective. And instead of telling his audience what to think, his comments and questions engaged the audience and encouraged them to think critically about ideas of justice and social justice. The students, in turn, listened and learned something.

Wake Forest faculty, by undermining Otteson and the Eudaimonia Institute, also would be undermining their university’s academic mission and their students’ ability to listen to and learn from different points of view. They instead should support the free exchange of ideas, and thereby foster greater intellectual diversity. That kind of diversity was on display at my college when Otteson spoke, and it was truly gratifying to watch.

  • Kudos to your students, Kelly! They are a credit to Wake Tech.

  • DrOfnothing

    Given that the U.S. is a capitalist society, and that Hilary Clinton is a millionaire with deep ties to business and finance, why does a speaker who promotes the values of capitalism represent a “different point of view?”

    • PeterTx52

      except that HRC doesn’t represent business and finance. what business has she founded, as for finance the only thing i’m aware of was her ability to turn a $5,000 investment in cattle futures into $100,000 while being a rank amateur.

      • DrOfnothing

        “Representing business and finance” and “supporting capitalism” are hardly equivalent. In any case, both Clintons, and Bill especially, had a pro-business economic platform (banking deregulation was his policy, for example). The only politician in recent memory that didn’t was Bernie Sanders.

    • 48574

      In another post you wrote:
      Most students don’t even know what capitalism is, or thing one about its historical origins.

      In this one you equate being a millionaire with deep ties to business and finance with being a capitalism. It sounds like it might be you who doesn’t know what capitalism is. The Clintons became millionaires by selling access to government power to skew the market in favor the pay to play actors.

      How exactly in your mind does that reconcile with what capitalism is and its historical origins?

      • DrOfnothing

        Hilary Rodham’s father was a successful textile businessman, and she made her initial wealth as a lawyer at a high-level firm. That is also where Bill Clinton’s wealth came from. His father was grocer, and he was a scholarship kid, but he also went into well-paid legal work after Yale, where they met. By the time he was running for national office, they were already quite wealthy.

        The wealth they have accumulated since, beyond Bill Clinton’s income as president and hers as Secy of State, has largely been from book sales, speaking engagements, and consultancies. This is absolutely common among high govt. officials, both Republican and Democrat.

        So what, in all of this, fails to fit the definition of capitalism?

  • George Leef

    This article conveys the optimistic idea that most college students (especially those at non-elite institutions) still default to a willingness to listen to speakers who present “controversial” arguments (such as that laissez-faire capitalism is not immoral) and it’s only when they are programmed to protest and shout speakers down (as at Middlebury and elsewhere) that they go into that “We won’t listen because whatever you say is hate speech” mode.

    • DrOfnothing

      Please indicate which recent campus speaker on laissez-faire capitalism was shouted down by students.

      In a society that is, in fact, capitalist, encouraging students to critically engage with it as an economic system is exactly what higher education dealing with appropriate topics (e.g. the rise of capitalist societies) should be discussing.

      Most students don’t even know what capitalism is, or thing one about its historical origins. And starting with the premise “it’s totally awesome and invariably leads to human fulfilment” is hardly the “balanced” view that the JMC advocates (or claims to advocate) about every other subject under the sun.

      • 48574

        You first say:
        In a society that is, in fact, capitalist, encouraging students to
        critically engage with it as an economic system is exactly what higher
        education dealing with appropriate topics (e.g. the rise of capitalist
        societies) should be discussing.

        Then say:
        Most students don’t even know what capitalism is, or thing one about its
        historical origins. And starting with the premise “it’s totally
        awesome and invariably leads to human fulfilment” is hardly the
        “balanced” view that the JMC advocates (or claims to advocate) about
        every other subject under the sun.

        Doesn’t that show in fact the teaching is needs to change. Before you can critically engage an idea don’t they need to understand it? The problem with the modern university is they more often then not skip that part. In both my undergraduate work (in the ’80s) and my graduate work (early ’90s) I was never once assigned say to read Adam Smith. I had to do that on my own. On the other hand I was assign to read just about all of Marx’s writing and many modern Marxist writers. By all accounts that bias has gotten worse not better. So in fact they aren’t teaching critical thought but simply attempting to indoctrinate a single point of view.

        • DrOfnothing

          That’s not a bad point. And I agree absolutely that students need to be taught that capitalism is an ideology with its own distinct historical origins, defining itself against mercantilism, and, in turn, being challenged (or, at least, critiqued) by socialism.

          But that is not what is being advocated here, or promoted by the James Martin Center. They do not support a critical engagement with these ideas, but rather argue that capitalism is an objective good and must only be _defended_ from perceived attack, rather than assessed in its proper historical context.

          • 48574

            but rather argue that capitalism is an objective good and must only be
            _defended_ from perceived attack, rather than assessed in its proper
            historical context.

            That is simply not true. These people are making their defense of Capitalism but they aren’t against critics making their case. On the other hand it appears that at WFU they do only want one voice heard and it isn’t the capitalist voice that are getting the monopoly.

  • Bruce Arnold

    Part of all of this seems to be rooted in the concept that it’s “cool” to “challenge the norm.” While that’s certainly true, there has to be some room in here to actually affirm the norm and to explain how norms can be virtues. I think academic culture has lost sight of itself thanks, at least in part, to the anti-establishment trend that values change at all costs.

  • tdaly29

    Dr Markson is evasive, the Wake Forest faculty is objecting to secret conditions in the gifts from the Koch Foundation. Wake forest has on its faculty the past president of the extreme right Cato Institute, and a board member who head of Crossroads GPS. It welcomes many speakers, and has many points of view on its faculty. For those who really would like to know what objections the WFU faculty has to the gifts (not Dr Otteson) they can read it for themselves at http://wfuogb.com letters to the editor. (which contains letters with a variety of views.)
    Dr Markson should have also pointed out her ties to the Koch funded John Locke Foundation,

    • PeterTx52

      sounds to me like you suffer from Koch derangement syndrome. would you be equally opposed to a large grant from say George Soros or Tom Steyer pushing their point of view?
      as for secret conditions what secret conditions? if they are secret how did you find out about them? don’t all grants come with certain conditions?

      • tdaly29

        Since you will not follow the link I provided here is one of the letters to the editor you missed

        We write as Co-Chairs of the Concerned Faculty group.

        After the August 2016 announcement of the$3.69 million pledge by the Charles G. Koch Foundation (CGKF) to support the Eudaimonia Institute (EI), we read with alarm media reports
        of the Kochs’ initiatives in higher education. We asked several times to see the donor agreement between Wake Forest and the Foundation, because agreements with other universities have included secrecy clauses, as well as the right to name the director of Koch funded centers and institutes, and the right to rescind, on short notice, the pledge and flow of funds, if the Foundation’s goals are not met. When the administration denied those requests, 189 colleagues signed a petition, asking the Faculty Senate and the Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility (CAFR) to review the process of the approval of the EI and the donor agreement with the CGKF. On March 15, 2017 the Faculty Senate approved a motion of the Ad Hoc Senate Committee calling on the Wake Forest administration to stop accepting CGKF money for any institute or center.

        The Committee documented that the Koch network of funding for centers and institutes ultimately aims to influence political legislation by (1) fostering a network of scholars whose research will serve as the “raw material” for Think Tanks, which raises clear conflict of interest issues; and (2) endeavoring to convert students to their particular ideology in the hope that those students will then go on to fill their “talent pipeline” into think tanks and grass root political organizations.

        It is likely that the stipulations of the Koch Foundation puts the EI Director in a conflict of interest by either pursuing results that meets the goals of the CGKF or risk losing funding for faculty and staff. We note that the Humanities Institute and Pro Humanitate Institute have not been funded by one major donor for faculty lines and curricular development. (Two other institutes at WFU)

        Provost Kersh has observed that Wake Forest has and can put corporate money earned in “unsavory” ways to “good” use, citing foundations linked to RJ Reynolds, Mellon and Luce as examples. However, this money is actually gifted to the university for “good” purposes as defined by the university. The Koch Foundation’s pledge is not a “gift.” The Foundation wants to dictate the academic purpose of the money for its own financial ends. This violates the academic integrity of Wake Forest by substituting its name and reputation for that of the Kochs. Accepting this money with these kinds of stipulations would undermine the public trust in Wake Forest. We have confidence that the administration, working with the faculty, will reject the Koch Foundation’s money and adopt improved policies that make it clear that Wake Forest cannot be bought.

        —Professor Gale Sigal, department of English

        —Professor Steve Boyd, Easley Professor of Religion

        All the Koch goals are documented in Dark Money by Jane Mayers

        See also
        References on the Koch Foundation in Higher Ed:

        The Faculty Senate Report on the Koch Foundation at Wake Forest:

      • tdaly29

        No, almost all grants do not come with secret conditions, or, as in this case the whole grant document is secret. Usually they make the grant as a one time donation and do not require certain benchmarks be met to obtain later portions of the grant.

        If you really want to know about it, with a variety of views follow the link.

        And yes, the faculty would object to secret conditions on grants by anyone, as you would have found out if you followed the link.

    • 48574

      “secret conditions”?

      Listen to yourself for a little bit. You sounding like a conspiracy theory nut job.

      If the conditions are so secret how do you and the faculty at WF know about them?

      if they are so well known they are they really secret?

      You don’t actually give us any clue how they are objectionable you merely assert they exist and then engage in a bunch of guilty by association charges. What you never give is a single fact to support the idea the the Koch Foundation did anything wrong.

      • tdaly29

        The whole contract is secret, and cannot be shared with the faculty or others in the WFU community. This is, apparently, standard procedure for Koch donations. When they donate to public institutions their contracts have been made public under FOI requests, They include hiring specific instructors, course material requirements, and other benchmarks to access funding past the first year. If you had followed the link sited above you would have read all about the secrecy, and the objections. Guess it is too much to ask for some people to read the detail.

        • 48574

          Your links above you tell us are to a letters to the editor section of a WFU paper. It isn’t a link to any evidence that proves you point. They make comments about how various magazines or newspapers say the Koch are trying to influence. But they don’t give links to any of it. They then tell us the faculty voted against the idea of taking the money.

          You other link just tells us what I said it does. It is nothing but guilty by association. The John Locke Foundation took money from the Koch foundation therefore they are guilty.

          I guess it is too much to ask some people to actually give evidence instead of their conspiracy theories.

          You still can’t prove there are any so called secret provisions in an agreement that require the person taking the donation to produce work with a predetermined outcome.

          • tdaly29

            Sorry you can not read – again – the whole agreement for the Koch “gift” is secret. Why? Why can it not be shared with the WFU community? As we have learned from other agreements that have been made public through FOI requests at public universities these agreements contains requirements wholly unlike most gifts, requiring certain instructors, curriculum, and other goals, going against academic freedom. The whole controversy can disappear If the Koch brothers remove the secrecy from the agreement. If the Institute is important to them and they want the controversy to go away, just allow the agreement to be made public. Why not?
            If your point is I can not prove what is in a secret agreement, then that is a tautology. What Is known from past secret agreements that have been reviled is they contain a gross violation of academic freedom, prostituting Wake’s good reputation for for thirty silver coins.

          • James Otteson

            The reason the grant agreement is not public is because it is Wake Forest University’s longstanding policy not to make any grant agreements public. It is not a requirement of the Koch Foundation. As a private University, it is Wake Forest’s right to decide whether to make its grant agreements public. It has not made any of its hundreds of grant agreements public.

            That said, neither Wake Forest University nor the Eudaimonia Institute accept grant agreements that require the hiring of certain instructors or that determine or specify curricula. Wake Forest University’s grant agreement with the Koch Foundation contains no such stipulations–“secret” or otherwise. All hiring, curriculum, and programming decisions are at the sole discretion of the Institute and its Faculty Advisory Board, which report to the Office of the Provost.

            The Eudaimonia Institute’s policy of independence is contained in its “Declaration of Research Independence,” which it approved over a year before it received any donor gifts and which has been publicly available on its website since the creation of the website: http://eudaimonia.wfu.edu/dri/. We believe our “Declaration” is in fact a model of academic freedom, which we hope others adopt.

          • tdaly29

            Dr. Otteson you can stop this debate that has been going on for over 6 months. You can ask the Koch Foundation to make the agreement public. It certainly would help your institute to get rid of this issue. Would the provost object if the Foundation asked the agreement be made public Why not make it public? It would fulfill your “Declaration of Research Independence,”

          • 48574

            Your entire argument can be summarized as follows:

            1) The money comes from the Koch Foundation.
            2) That means the grant is guilty of not being worthy of being taken until proven otherwise.

            You “why not make it public?” question is just a version of “if you aren’t guilty then why don’t you let the police search your house?” type of questions. The answer is always the same one doesn’t have to prove your innocent.

            There is no reason why the same stanadard ought to apply here. It is you making the claim there is something wrong with the grant. Why aren’t people like you have the burden showing you are right? You don’t even challenge Dr. Otteson’s statements that it is WF policy to reject such restrictions. If such polices exist why isn’t that good enough to know? Why do they have to release anything else until you offer real evidence they have violated WF policy? So far all you have offered is versions of guilty until proven innocent questions.

            That says more about your anti-Koch bias then anything about the grants or the institute in question.

            Since we are just going around in circles feel free to offer any further comments you wish but until you offer any real evidence I don’t see why any rational person wouldn’t ignore people like you.

          • tdaly29

            Astonishingly this issue has been debated for over 6 months and this is the first time I have seen Dr Otteson’s claim that it is the WFU policy and not the Koch Foundation, that is keeping the agreement secret. Non the less, if the Koch Foundation wishes to end the debate and give the Institute and Dr Ottenson a boost it can make the agreement public. If I were involved in an issue like this and all I had to do was make a contract public I would do so. This is not equivalent to a police search. The Foundation has given grants to about 200 colleges, I hardly think the contract has proprietary information.

            As for me showing what is wrong with the agreement, well It is secret!. But history proves that the Foundation has agreements which attack academic freedom. If it was not for this history there would be no objection to the grant. Can you prove it does not have objectionable requirements? Of course not it is secret – and that is the problem.
            Tell me 4857, why do you care so much? Belong to an organization that has received Koch funding? Or Art Pope funding?

          • James Otteson

            I’m not sure why you’re calling the grant agreement “secret.” It was reviewed by the president of the university; the provost reviewed it; advancement reviewed it; the general counsel of the university reviewed it; the dean of the School of Business reviewed it; the dean of the College reviewed it; the Board of Trustees reviewed it; I reviewed it. All of them approved it–freely and voluntarily. The fact that it is not a public document is nothing special about this grant; as I said earlier, none of WFU’s grant agreements are public. The fact that you, personally, have not seen it does not make it “secret”; it just means it’s like every other grant agreement.

            It is not up to me whether to make the agreement public. I have asked the administration to make it public, but they declined based on their general policy. In any case, I have attested to you (as I and members of the administration have multiple times to faculty, investigating committees, etc.) that it contains no provision like what you say you’re worried about, and I have indicated to you (as I and members of the administration have multiple times to faculty, investigating committees, etc.) that WFU’s policies that do not allow grant agreements with provisions restricting our academic freedom. So, why do you feel that a special exception needs to be made in this case to allow you to see the agreement? Is it because you assume that the administration, the Board, and I are all lying?

            That makes it seem that these requests are in bad faith. Have you demanded to see the grant agreements of the Pro Humanitate Institute? Its budget is several times larger than that of the Eudaimonia Institute, and it (unlike the Eudaimonia Institute) has no Faculty Advisory Board overseeing its programs. It also has no “Declaration of Research Independence.” The fact that there have been no questions raised about it, no inquiries into it, and no faculty committees convened to investigate how it is funded makes it seem that the concern is selective, targeted only to this one grant, to only this one funder, to only this one Institute.

            Mr. Daly, I understand that you have been on something of a campaign to harass us about this. But I would submit to you that we should be judged by what we do, not by the politics of one of our funders. This is a university, not a seminary; different perspectives are not only protected but welcomed into our marketplace of ideas. Our work and programs, like those of every other part of the university, should be judged on their merits.

          • tdaly29

            Dr Otteson – According to the Wake Forest University Gift Acceptance Policy. “Gifts..are divulged to others with the authorization of the Vice President of the University Advancement. End this debate and ask the Vice President for the ability to make the agreement public; if, as you say , it is only the WFU policy that keeps the agreement secret.

    • DrOfnothing

      So, we have someone who is sponsored by the Kochs via the JLF writing an article in praise of another Koch-funded scholar. Which is fine.

      What is not fine, and you are absolutely right, is neither the author nor the JMC indicating this association at any point. But really, the JMC and the Koch-funded enterprises are hand-in-glove anyway, so it would be naive to assume they would be anything but mutually supportive.

      So much for balance and objectivity!

    • Dr. Markson is listed on the John Locke Foundation’s website because she has written articles for Carolina Journal, the Foundation’s newspaper. She is not an employee of JLF.

      • tdaly29

        I said she has ties, I did not say she was an employee.
        Are articles on the CJ paid for? Or are they simply pro bono in support of the Koch supported JLF? Nice to hear from the president of the Martin Center, and previously the E.A. Morris Fellowship Assistant at the John Locke Foundation.

    • I Love Libertarians

      If you think CATO is extreme right, you’re already making stuff up. Full stop.

  • I Love Libertarians

    The far-left totalitarians in the colleges and media will never forgive the Kochs for no longer funding them.