Winston-Salem State University’s new Center for the Study of Economic Mobility will be created using a $3 million grant funded through the conservative free-market groups Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries.
The Koch foundation is a charitable organization that pitches support for free-market academic opportunities and research at U.S. colleges and universities. Some of the foundation’s grants have proven controversial because of the foundation’s ties to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who are known for backing conservative political causes.
A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation determined the higher educational programs the Kochs fund are a “fully integrated” part of a massive organizational network fighting to enact de-regulatory government policies and elect conservative political candidates at the local and statewide level.
The WSSU grant is funneled through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s Center for Advancing Opportunity, which for decades has supported the nation’s historical black college and universities.
The Koch affiliates provided the Marshall fund with a $25.6 million donation in January. That donation sparked controversy for the Thurgood Marshall fund, which is named after the first African-American justice on U.S. Supreme Court.
The Center for Advancing Opportunity focuses on researching barriers to opportunity in fragile communities. WSSU’s program is the first to be announced as gaining funding from the Koch initiative.
Craig Richardson, a WSSU economics professor who will serve as the center’s founding director, acknowledged Wednesday that receiving Koch foundation funding could rub some individuals and groups the wrong way, in particular raising concerns about how much influence the Koch affiliates could have on the data and research emerging from the center.
“We were proactive in applying for the grant, gaining comfort from how Koch-affiliate funding of WSSU study-abroad initiatives in 2013 did not challenge our academic freedom or our academic curriculum,” Richardson said.
About 30 students participate in the study-abroad efforts, including 13 that Richardson took to China. Other funding sources for that initiative included BB&T Corp. and internal resources.
Richardson said he was inspired to create the center in large part by a 2015 report from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which determined Forsyth County “is extremely bad for income mobility for children in poor families. It is among the worst counties in the U.S.”
The report had similar low rankings for North Carolina’s other main urban areas.
“We want to be a nonpartisan laboratory serving as a way to get the data out, and observe successes in other areas, so that policymakers can use them in weighing their policies,” Richardson said.
Richardson said there has been no push-back from faculty.
“(WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson) presented the (Marshall) grant to our faculty, and as far as I can tell, there has been no reaction by faculty on campus,” Richardson said. “Our provost and dean have a very high level of comfort with the funding for the economic mobility center when issues (about Koch sourcing) were addressed.
“The Koch Institute included into the grant language ensuring our academic freedom with the data and where the research takes us.”
By comparison, Wake Forest University accepted a gift of $3.69 million from the Charles Koch Foundation last year. The gift went to the Eudaimonia Institute whose mission is to “study the nature of human flourishing.”
The gift drew opposition from the university’s Faculty Senate, which voted 17-9 vote in March of this year to recommend rejection.
Wake Forest spokeswoman Katie Neal said Wednesday that the university is continuing to move forward with the Eudaimonia Institute, including a schedule of events for the fall semester.
Robinson said in a statement that the economic mobility center “aligns closely with WSSU’s five-year strategic plan.”
“WSSU, with our strong academic focus on social and economic justice, and health-care disparities, and its deep connections to the communities around east Winston, is well positioned to take a leadership role in investigating and understanding how to spur economic and social development,” Robinson said.
“Our vision is for the center is to create and disseminate research to inform change that will reverse decades of economic immobility, helping to make the American dream more accessible to all citizens.
“If we’re successful, Winston-Salem could become a blueprint for communities around the country.”