Sunday, May 28, 2023

A campus divided: Why students continue to protest a Koch-funded MTSU institute


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Photo courtesy of MT Solidarity

Since the establishment of MTSU’s Political Economy Research Institute, students and faculty have rallied against it due to a connection to the Charles Koch Foundation, which, they say, has been known to dispense money in exchange for political power and influence.

The PERI was established in late 2016 with the help of a $3.5 million grant from the Koch Foundation, an organization helmed by billionaire businessman and political donor Charles Koch. The institute’s mission is to involve students “in research that will further the understanding of business and economic principles.” It is a joint venture between the Jennings A. Jones College of Business and the University Honors College.

Multiple protests have been held on campus against the PERI, helmed by student organization MT Solidarity. The most recent of these protests occurred in late October, with students waving signs and gathering in front of the James E. Walker Library.

Dalton Winfree, an MTSU senior, has been involved with MT Solidarity for the last few years and says the PERI is a threat to students’ fundamental rights.

“MT Solidarity is hosting protests against PERI because we believe that MTSU is a bedrock of democracy that should not have private interests infiltrating our public university,” Winfree said. “The PERI is one of the physical manifestations of the Charles Koch Foundation’s plans to infiltrate public universities.”

Participants in the protests such as Winfree say that conservative ideals, which Charles Koch has championed throughout his career, will be pushed at the PERI.

According to the Unkoch My Campus, an organization that actively tracks Koch grants in universities around the country, grants have been provided by the Charles Koch Foundation to at least 443 campuses between 2010 and 2016. As of 2016, however, according to UnKoch My Campus, 193 of those campuses, or 41 percent, decided to stop receiving the funds.

This is due to the fact that, in some cases, the Koch Foundation has wielded influence due to the grants.

According to a May 2018 report from the Associated Press, the release of donor agreements between George Mason University in Virginia and the Koch Foundation showed that the foundation was granted the ability to hire and fire faculty at the college thanks to millions of dollars in contributions.

Additionally, an article from the Washington Post states that $1.5 million was pledged to Florida State University by the Koch Foundation in 2011. The catch, however, was that the contract of the agreement stipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee would be allowed to select professors and conduct evaluations of the university.

Based on the grant agreement between MTSU and the Charles Koch Foundation, there is no evidence that the grant came with strings attached.

“The Parties (MTSU and the Charles Koch Foundation) agree that the academic freedom of the University, the Institute, and their faculty, students, and staff is critical to the success of the lnstitute’s research, scholarship, teaching, and service,” the agreement reads.

Additionally, according to MTSU College of Business Dean David Urban, the Charles Koch Foundation has been involved with the university multiple times in the past, with no cases of corrupt financial stipulations. Urban said that the Koch Foundation funded a speakers’ series in Department of Economics and Finance prior to the PERI grant, and an MTSU Ph.D. student in Economics received a $5,000 grant from the foundation to fund dissertation research.

“Again, the Charles Koch Foundation’s role was limited to providing the funding, and the CKF exercised no control over the research topic or the conduct of the research,” Urban said.

The recently hired director of the PERI, Daniel Smith, told Sidelines that, despite prior instances of political influence at other universities, this will not be the case at MTSU.

“The PERI and its faculty do not do directed research and will not work with any foundation or individual donor that expects it,” Smith said. “… The grant explicitly protects the academic freedom of all faculty, students and staff in the PERI. All faculty hired in the PERI will go through the standard hiring process at MTSU and be expected to meet the rigorous academic and professional standards of MTSU and their respective fields.”

Smith also denied that the PERI will actively push one political ideology over the other.

“Opposing ideas should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and engagement, never a threat,” Smith said. “I hope students have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of worldviews, methodologies and fields across the curriculum and extracurricular activities offered here at MTSU. The opportunities for this, however, are diminishing at many universities, given the growing political bias in the academy.”

While he said he hopes students find their own political paths while working with the PERI, Smith did claim that in many academic circles at universities across the country, a liberal bias is growing.

“The fact that individuals are protesting funding from the Charles Koch Foundation but not external funding going to a wide variety of other centers, initiatives and faculty at MTSU and other universities, such as the faculty and centers supported by the left-leaning George Soros’ Open Society Foundation or the Ford Foundation, suggests there is some ideological discrimination at play,” Smith said.

Some, however, such as MTSU professor Michael Principe, believe that Smith was hired due to his alleged pro-Koch background.

“Daniel Smith has a resume consisting entirely of work done for Koch related institutions,” Principe said.

Smith once worked at a Koch-funded institute at Troy University. There, Smith worked to “bring down the state pension system,” according to Troy professor George Crowley.

Crowley’s remark was made at a conference in 2016. Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers colleges and universities, reported that Crowley was relieved of his duties as chairman of his department following the remarks.

Regarding the comments made at the panel, Smith told Sidelines: “That assessment of my research on public pensions is incorrect. The heart of all my research and policy work is helping other people. My work on public pensions is no different.”

Smith said that he was simply working to reform Alabama’s pension system to avoid “substantial increases in taxes, public spending cuts or reductions in promised benefits.”

Principe, who is also the United Campus Workers’ MTSU chapter vice president, claims that no matter how Smith defends his former or present actions, his influence will be a negative one for the students of MTSU.

“The Charles Koch Foundation has a record,” Principe said. “Daniel Smith has a record. These records are clear. There is no doubt that $3.5 million has come to MTSU to promote an extreme right-wing libertarian agenda.”

Principe cited a quote from Charles Koch, which he spoke in 1974 during a speech, to sum up the political ideals he believes the PERI will pursue.

“(The PERI’s) practices will follow the political methods of its founder who has explicitly articulated his vision: Only those schools or departments that ‘contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system’ should be supported.”

To contact News Editor Angele Latham, email

For more news, follow us at, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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