Koch Foundation scholarship program receives national attention

Recent accusations have been made that universities are relinquishing academic integrity by accepting money from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, including Utah State University.The accusations have come to light after Florida State University accepted over $1 million from the Koch Foundation on the condition the foundation would have a part in approving publications and hiring professors. The most poignant criticisms can be found in the St. Petersburg Times and Alternet.org.The Charles Koch Foundation has given nearly $700,000 to Utah State University to date, with the majority of the money going to the Huntsman School of Business. The money has been used to hire several faculty members as well as to establish the Koch Scholars program for undergraduates.Charles G. Koch is the chairman of the board and CEO of Koch Industries, Inc., a group of companies with more than $100 billion in revenues and 80,000 employees. The foundation, according to their website cgkfoundation.org, is a non-profit dedicated to advancing “social progress and well-being through the development, application and dissemination of the science of liberty.” Science of liberty is a Libertarian management theory by Koch that focuses on a free market and society as the most likely way to prosperity.In 2007, the foundation gave USU $32,500 to start the program. Each year, the foundation gives USU another approximately $45,000, according to the Huntsman News online.USU’s Randy Simmons, professor in the Huntsman School of Business and director of the program, said the money is used to buy books and meals for the students as well as to give those accepted a $750 stipend for the semester, like a scholarship.Simmons said that no student is required to participate in the program, and students must apply to become a Koch Scholar. Students do not receive university credit for the program. Also assisting with the program are Chris Fawson of the Huntsman School of Business and Roberta Hertzberg of the political science department.The students read eight different books over the course of the program and meet once a week to discuss the readings as a group. Critics say the foundation has too much control over the teachings and readings. However, Simmons said the Koch Foundation doesn’t dictate which students are to be accepted or which books are to be read. He said, “The idea is to talk about what makes for a free society. And faculty are just traffic directors; the students lead discussions.”The books chosen cover a variety of topics such as economics, politics and philosophy. The first book is a popular college read, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.” The list even includes the popular “Hunger Games,” a political economy fiction book. Critics of the program also assert that students chosen for the program are only those aligned with the ideals of the foundation and that having applicants provide information on their ideological interests is discriminating and inappropriate.Simmons said he strives to get a mix of students in both academic discipline and personal philosophy. This, he said, is why students are asked to provide in their application “a list of five books that have influenced your philosophical or ideological thinking about the role of government or liberty.””We do want to find people who are interested in economics and politics, but we ask the student this question not to be able to pick a group of students who agree on everything, but to be able to choose a mix of students who are thoughtful and who want to read and talk about ideas,” Simmons said.One such student chosen to be a Koch Scholar this last semester was Moudi Sbeity. In 2006, Sbeity evacuated his home country of Lebanon to escape the Israel and Lebanon war. He graduated from USU this year with a degree in economics.Sbeity said he learned about the program 2 years ago, and was at first unsure about applying because of his liberal philosophies and because he is gay.”When I heard it was funded by the Koch Foundation I thought I would not apply to a program like that because it goes against what I believe, but I learned they were reaching out and I thought it was a good way to include my viewpoint among the others,” Sbeity said.Simmons said Sbeity was really important to the conversation because he challenged the traditional Cache Valley perspective.Sbeity said, “I come from a different cultural background and to be in a program where I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I saw how we came together and it made me believe in the power to bring people together around an idea.”Sbeity said that generally the Koch Foundation is associated with conservative ideology, but he feels one of the points of the program is to expose other people to what a Libertarian point of view is.”It is a fallacy to associate the funding of this group with a right-wing agenda. They provide you with books and you form your own opinion. I thought we’d really clash as a group, but we agreed on a lot of things. We just tackled the issues a different way,” Sbeity said.Edna Berry, USU’s sociology assistant department head, said exposing students to a variety of viewpoints fits in with the university’s mission statement. The statement of mission, found on the president’s website, states, “The mission of Utah State University is to be one of the nation’s premier student-centered land-grant and space-grant universities by fostering the principle that academics come first, by cultivating diversity of thought and culture, and by serving the public through learning, discovery and engagement.”Berry said, “My interpretation is that you discuss all points of view at a university. The Koch Foundation can most certainly have their points of view available.”The program teaches students how to apply a wide base of literature, said Troy Oldham, a teacher of marketing classes for the school of business since 2009.Oldham said since his secretary provided support for the program he saw what the students were reading.”These books are not just teaching business, but hard work and integrity. I look at the students who have gone through this and they are leaders on campus and in the community and they don’t all look the same,” Oldham said. “The way the students debate the readings does not lead everyone away with the same conclusion, but it does bring them together.”That was the most defining part of the Koch Scholar program for Sbeity. He said having “a heart-to-heart” conversation with people who differed in viewpoints but agreed on principles was inspiring.”I felt a sense of community, of people trying to figure out how to create how they think a better society would be. That made me optimistic,” Sbeity said. The Koch scholars respond online to weekly questions based on the readings and can be found on the program’s blog, usu.kochscholars.org/. A complete list of books within the program can be found at http://huntsman.usu.edu/kochscholars/htm/how-do-students-apply/sample-reading-list.This two-part article will continue later this week, highlighting the controversy associated with the Koch Foundation having a hand in hiring professors at universities, including USU.

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