Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Charles Koch Foundation, the Pope Center, Western Carolina University, and my email

“Thanks.  I can see the OneDrive.  Quick question: I haven’t looked at these yet, but is there any reason why I can’t or shouldn’t just go ahead and publish this material myself?”

-- Laura Wright to Shea Browning, Legal Counsel, Western Carolina University (2/9/16), about the email that she was to turn over to the The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.


The letter ordering me to turn over my email.

On Thursday, January 21, 2016, along with another colleague in the English Department, the Chair of the Faculty Senate, and the Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, I received an email from Western Carolina University’s Legal Counsel office notifying me that a public records request had been made for my email by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  The request was made by Jay Schalin, a guy who holds a BS in Computer Science and an MA in Economics, and who writes for the Pope Center on such topics as “The Decline of the English Department,” a report that “examines a troubled discipline.” But more on Schalin and the Pope Center in a bit.  First, back to the public records request for my email.

The players: This is our boy Jay.

I was informed that Schalin’s request asked for “…all emails concerned with or mentioning the following:  the Center for Study of Free Enterprise, Dr. Ed Lopez, the name 'Koch,' 'BB&T,' and Ayn Rand.  The time period is from July 1, 2015 to the present.”  The reason for this request, as far as I can tell, is the fact that I have been somewhat outspokenly opposed to a $2 million gift offered to WCU by the Charles Koch Foundation for the establishment of a center for the study of free enterprise.  The reasons for my opposition are numerous and grounded in extensive research about the Koch Foundation’s gifts to institutions of higher education as well as research into the ways that the Koch brothers have bought huge influence in my state’s political machinery,  which has led to the dismantling of environmental policy, higher education funding, and public school curriculum.

The players: Dr. Ed Lopez, WCU's BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism 

Here's Dave Levinthal in the Atlantic on the subject of the Kochs' higher ed donations: It is well-known that the Kochs’ network has invested hundreds of millions of hard-to-track dollars in conservative political nonprofits that influence elections. The brothers, who earned their billions leading private oil, chemical, and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., were dominant forces in recent election cycles. They’re now poised to rank among the most influential Americans shaping next year’s presidential and congressional vote. Much less well-known are their activities on college campuses.

The Kochs’ giving . . . focuses on an ideological approach to free-market economics in a way that’s distinctive among political mega-donors. Koch officials routinely cultivate relationships with professors and deans and fund specific courses of economic study pitched by them.

 Tax returns, as well as emails and private documents exchanged among Charles Koch Foundation officers and various college and university officials, indicate the foundation’s commitment to funding academics is deep and growing. Koch education funding, which is almost singularly focused on economics, also sometimes comes with certain strings attached.

At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit—and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.

It sought, for one, the names and email addresses—“preferably not ending in .edu”—of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship. The stated purpose: “to notify students of opportunities” through both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. 

The players: Dave Levinthal reports for The Center for Public Integrity

In October of 2015, WCU held an open forum on the proposed center, which was moderated by Dr. Brian Kloeppel, Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Research. Dr. Ed Lopez, the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism, told those of us in the audience that he had been approached by the Charles Koch Foundation about establishing the center, and then he tried (rather unsuccessfully) to answer questions about why WCU would want such a center when it already has a Public Policy Institute, when numerous other centers had been recently eliminated within theUNC system, and when the cost to the institution would be about $1.4 million in funds allocated for faculty lines to support the center (I should note that “a job posting for a WCU economics professor openingappeared in early October — two months before the free enterprise center wouldcome before the board of trustees for a vote.” Language in the ad also specified that this person would be part of the center, but that language was later removed from the ad after faculty cried foul). 

And then the forum devolved into what I can only call an attack led by Lopez and his colleagues against Dr. John Whitmire, the head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion for a carefully crafted and thoughtful statement against establishment that he had presented to the Faculty Senate prior to the forum. The whole thing was surreal and unsettling – and you can read about it in my email.

The series of events that followed went something like this:

1. Responses from faculty who attended the forum were collected by Dr. Kloeppel and forwarded to the administration for information. 

2. I contacted the media. The people with whom I was in contact over the course of several weeks include David Levinthal whose Atlantic article cited above provides a comprehensive examination of the ways that Koch donations function to undermine academic freedom, genuine scholarship, and higher education more broadly. I also contacted Jane Stancil at the Raleigh News and Observer (the state’s newspaper of record) and convinced her that despite the fact that WCU is way out in the western reaches of the state (an area not generally covered by the N&O), that that was, in my estimation precisely why WCU had been chosen for this gift: no one would notice.  I asked that she please notice, and she did.  I contacted reporters at the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Sylva Herald, and the Smoky Mountain News, all of whom covered the story.

3. Shortly after the open forum, the faculty senate voted overwhelmingly against the center (21 against, 3 in favor).

4. At the beginning of December, “despite faculty opposition, Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees approved the creation of a center on free enterprise likely to be funded by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation.

The board voted unanimously Friday to approve the WCU Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. The center, to be led by an economics professor, was previously endorsed by the university’s provost and Chancellor David Belcher." See this story.

5. Dr. Whitmire made the faculty senate aware of the existence of Policy 104, which states, “If a proposed gift has curricular implications, that is, if it contains any restrictions, conditions, implications, and/or suggestions with regard to academic content, the Chancellor, or his/her designee, will immediately be informed and will inform Legal Counsel. The Chancellor, or his/her designee, will then appoint an ad hoc committee of five faculty members to review the curricular implications of the gift and to make specific recommendations regarding the acceptability of such implications. One member of this committee should be drawn from the curriculum committee of the affected department, one should come from the curriculum committee of the affected college, and two should come from curriculum committees from other academic units. The committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Faculty, or his/her designee, providing that the committee chair is not a member of the potentially affected academic unit. The chair will serve as a voting member of the committee. This ad hoc gift review committee will act with consideration of the need for confidentiality and speed in the negotiation process. It will make recommendations to the Chancellor concerning the implications of the gift on the curriculum as well as the need for any further review or modification of any proposed agreement.” 

The Simpsons' Ayn Rand School for Tots

This policy was instituted after the 2008 hiring of Dr. Lopez, as a stipulation of his position (funded by BB&T) was that he teach the works of Ayn Rand, which faculty felt was overreach and compromised academic freedom. Here’s more from the Smoky Mountain News:

“The criteria initially imposed by the BB&T Foundation in exchange for its $1 million gift in 2008 was ultimately rewritten as a result of faculty pushback.

It initially required WCU to make Atlas Shrugged — considered a Bible of libertarian economic philosophy — required reading in College of Business courses and required a copy of Atlas Shrugged to be given out to every business major their junior year.

That criteria was tempered as a result of faculty pushback that maintained outside donors should not be permitted to dictate what professors teach, or force professors to teach a particular viewpoint to students.”

The policy had been utterly ignored with regard to the establishment of the current center.

6. On December 8, Interim Dean Kloeppel notified everyone who had submitted feedback after the forum that “documents pertaining to the Authorization to Plan and the Authorization to Establish the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise have been the subject of multiple Public Records Act requests. Documents, including your emailed feedback to me during the comment period, have been released to the requesters as required by the North Carolina Public Records Act.” 

A colleague asked who had submitted these requests and was told by legal counsel that “We have received public records requests from the Sylva Herald, the Smoky Mountain News, and the Charles Koch Foundation.”

7. December 10: WCU's Provost, Alison Morrison-Shetlar, sent an email to faculty senate asserting "I write to share with you my sincere concern about what I read in one of our local newspapers. The article, I can assure you, does not represent my beliefs about the role of Faculty Senate and its role in representing the faculty. " This statement came in response to an article in the Smoky Mountain News, which indicated that the Provost "questioned whether McCord’s views reflect those of the faculty at large and whether his comments should be extrapolated as applying to all faculty. Morrison-Shetlar even questioned whether the faculty senate vote was indicative of faculty sentiment. Casting doubt on the clout of faculty senate could have made it easier for the chancellor and board of trustees to justify their own decision that ran counter to that of the faculty senate."

8. December 11: John Hardin, Director of University Relations for the Koch Foundation, writes an op-ed in the Citizen-Times called “Why we Partner with Western Carolina University.”  In it he says, “our work is sometimes mischaracterized and singled out, frequently by activists with a partisan agenda, leading to genuine concerns from well-intentioned people. Events often follow a familiar path. Instead of engaging with the ideas and professors directly, a Freedom of Information Act request is filed with the school, seeking correspondence with school administrators and faculty along with any other documents that might bear on the academic center. ... FOIA requests are a favorite tool of special interests who already have a pre-determined idea of a story to tell. They then go on a fishing expedition to validate their original narrative. It doesn’t matter what’s actually transpired.”  He adds, “When this happens on a college campus, a professor or administrator’s private correspondence can be weaponized against them and the school.” (all emphasis is mine) 

The players: John Hardin

9. January 19: Journalist Jane Mayer published Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Mayer’s argument, according to Alan Ehrenhalt’s NYT review, is that “the Koch brothers and a small number of allied plutocrats have essentially hijacked American democracy, using their money not just to compete with their political adversaries, but to drown them out.”  Mayer discusses in Rolling Stone the ways that the Kochs tried to intimidate her, to accuse her of plagiarism; they had spies follow her and harass her as she researched her material for the book.

The players: Jane Mayer

10. January 21: My email is requested by the Pope Center which is necessarily and completely affiliated with and, in many ways, controlled by the Charles Koch foundation.  Charles Koch sat on the board of directors until very recently, and many of the current members of the board have Koch affiliations. Art Pope, who founded the center, was hand picked by the Kochs to serve as NC’s budget director. Further, the current president of the center, Jenna Ashley Robinson, “joined the Pope Center in January 2007 as campus outreach coordinator and later became the center's director of outreach. She was previously the E.A. Morris Fellowship assistant at the John Locke Foundation, where she had worked since 2001. . . .  Robinson is also a graduate of the Koch Associate Program sponsored by the Charles G. Koch Foundation.”  Check here for how Art Pope ran the NC government for years.  And here and here for information about Art Pope more generally.

11. 9. January 20: the Chancellor addressed the faculty senate and indicated that mistakes were made in the way that the process for approval of the center was handled. He continues to insist that academic freedom is his highest priority, and he promises that to make sure that there are no strings attached.  

12. January 23: WCU shows up in the Daily Kos in a story about Becky Johnson's coverage of this whole debacle in the Smoky Mountain News.  The piece notes that Johnson's story "is exactly why the Koch brothers worked so hard to keep their vast network of extreme anti-government organizations so secret. It's a local news story investigating the infiltration by the Kochs into the local university."  The article notes the complete initial omission of and the utter disregard for faculty voice in the process of approving the center.

Here's Rabbit battling Papa Doc in 8 Mile.  It's a preemptive strike, which inspired this blog. Please watch and then read below.

So here’s the thing: Jay Schalin has submitted a public records request for my email so that he might do the very thing that John Hardin criticizes: “cherry pick” from my correspondence to tell a “pre-meditated” story about me and my colleagues who have chosen to speak out against our institution’s acceptance of Koch money.  As Hardin notes, When this [a freedom of information request] happens on a college campus, a professor or administrator’s private correspondence can be weaponized against them and the school.” In this case, my correspondence will not be weaponized against WCU, I don’t think (as the Koch Foundation doesn’t want to alienate the school), but it will certainly be used against me to serve whatever ends Schalin, the Pope Center, and the Charles Koch Foundation deem appropriate.  Feel free to see what he says about English professors in his aforementioned article about the demise of my profession: it is, in his estimation, because we’ve stopped teaching the great works, are all democrats, and are engaging in cultural studies explorations that he finds utterly ridiculous. 

The players: Laura Wright

And here I am, a really excellent target: a postcolonialist ecofeminist, whose latest book is about veganism.  I am the antithesis of everything that Schalin, the Pope Center, and the Charles Koch Foundation want to see in an educator.  I’m also, apparently, scary.

As always, please buy my book.

So without further ado and after consulting with legal counsel, I present all of my email that was submitted to the Pope Center after its request was made to interim Dean Kloeppel.  There are over 100 pages here, most of which is just me forwarding various news stories to people.  Some of it might be interesting, but the majority of it won’t be.  Choice bits include my comments after the forum, the text of a blog post on the NC lapel pins that McCrory sent state employees, and various other anti-center commentaries by my colleagues (mostly leftwards leaning English types).  Legal counsel redacted anything in my emails that contained personal information, and I have redacted the names and emails of my colleagues with several exceptions: David McCord, Chair of the Faculty (whose emails are also the subject of this request) has given me permission to keep his name on his correspondence.  I have likewise left Interim Dean Kloepple’s name public, as he’s done nothing more than collect feedback and let us know that the Koch Foundation requested that data.  Members of the WCU’s Legal Counsel Office, the Chancellor, the Provost and members of their offices remain named, as do the various reporters with whom I’ve corresponded.  

The material covered in this blog is provided merely for context.  


  1. Dr. Wright, I am a recent WCU MPA graduate. In 2013, while serving as the Communications Director for Buncombe County Schools, and with Art Pope serving as Budget Director for the State, I also received open record requests for my emails. The first came from Terry Stoops with the John Locke Foundation, and the second from the NC General Assembly. The NCGA asked for ALL emails over a 3 month period, but refused to tell me or the school system's attorney why. I had nothing to hide, and never heard of any issues with the emails afterward. While nothing came of the matter, a school board member who had received the Polk award from the John Locke Foundation knew of the request, and used innuendo about it to disparage my character on multiple occasions. I tell you this to let you know you are not alone, and that as both a victim of this intimidation tactic, and as a former English teacher, I appreciate your public response. Stand strong!

    1. Ugh. That's really disturbing. I feel both angry and vulnerable as a result of all of this, and I'm a bit unsure about what more to do. This was the only thing that I could think of, a kind of preemptive strategy... Hang in there, and thanks for the support.

  2. Tweeted this. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

  3. I've just learned about this Koch Foundation proposed center, and am appalled. May I say that the architects of North Carolina's university system, Bill Friday, Terry Sanford, and others would roll over in their graves if they could see this assault on their liberal arts vision of open inquiry and critical thinking at the center of our state's public higher education. I stand in solidarity with Laura Wright and the WCU faculty who immediately grasped the Koch & Pope Foundations' efforts to tear down the one of the best university systems in the South and our nation, and have spoken out loudly and clearly. Jefferson Boyer, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology and Sustainable Development, Appalachian State University.

    1. Thank you, Jeff! I am an ASU alum with a minor in philosophy. :)

  4. I appreciate your candidness and completely support you in releasing all emails publicly. Keep shining a light on the darkness. Democracy depends on a free exchange of ideas and education is a journey - not a destination. Cliches all (I know), but I'm a science teacher - not an English Prof.

  5. Thank you for fighting this fight! Very similar situation at AppState after faculty member in College of Business was lead plaintiff in law suit against Board of Elections for suppressing student vote. She won and local Republicans slapped her with public records request for ALL her emails going back decades. Judge has dismissed that request.

  6. Thanks for standing up Laura. It is a constant battle against the "forces of evil" so to speak, who wish to thwart free thinking and exchange of ideas. However, we move forward slowly thanks to people like you who stand up against their nonsense.

  7. "If we're going to give a lot of money, we'll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent. And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don't agree with we withdraw the funding." David Koch

    In Jane Mayer's book George Mason and The Mercatus Institute are characterized as, "a lobbying shop posing as a university."

    Mayer describes how she was attacked by the Kochs after her reporting on them appeared in the New Yorker. The Daily Caller - a r-w site threatened to run a story exposing her as a plagiarist (a bogus charge that runs into hilarity when it turns out her husband was editor of a story she supposedly stole from. The instances of the Kochs hiring private investigators to attack enemies as well as members of their own family take up long sections of both Mayer and Schulman.

    "No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for misconduct in acquiring them." Teddy Roosevelt

    Hang in there Dr. Wright

    1. Thank you so much for this, Mark. I'm currently reading Mayer's book, which I find both unsurprising and terrifying. I really appreciate your support -- and the support that I've received in this endeavor has been nothing short of unexpectedly overwhelming.

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