“That’s what free enterprise looks like”: Neoliberalism comes to UK

Recently the University of Kentucky announced it will be receiving $8 million from the John H. Schnatter Family Foundation and $4 million from the Charles Koch Foundation for a new research and teaching institute and renovation and expansion in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. The funds will establish the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Gatton. (This is the same Papa John founder that railed against the Affordable Care Act a few years ago).

See the December 15th Herald Leader article: http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/education/article49830150.html

Obviously this is a startling announcement as the neoliberalization of higher education continues at my own home institution. The Koch brothers are a notorious force, buying out and controlling our political systems today, pushing for less government, pushing for a “pro-business” climate, and promoting a twisted view of the political economy. (See the “Koch Brothers Exposed” documentary.)

Schnatter’s words according to the Lexington Herald Leader are just as disconcerting:

“The free-enterprise system is the greatest mechanism mankind has ever created to eliminate poverty, enhance prosperity and enable the pursuit of happiness.”

Obviously Schnatter hasn’t taken an entry-level sociology class to learn about the increasing rates and reasons for poverty and inequality in this country and around the world. The gifts purportedly have no strings attached but are an obvious assault by corporate America and the Koch brothers on the autonomy and academic freedom of higher education. The gift contract was recently released through an open records request and is available here.

The recent announcement is just another step in the neoliberal assault on universities across the country. North Carolina has been especially vulnerable in recent years. See this incredibly disturbing New Yorker article about changes in the UNC system over the past year.

This new “Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise” comes in the wake of the new “BB&T Program for the Study of Capitalism” and the coal magnate Joe Craft-funded “Wildcat Coal Lodge.” See the May 29th article in the Lexington-Herald Leader for more details. The Ayn Rand strings (the most obvious ideological pandering) were dropped from the BB&T agreement.

Luckily there are voices of dissent or perhaps they should be called voices of reason:

The Herald Leader article highlighted UK political scientist Ernest Yanarella’s misgivings about the donation:

“Any political scientist worth his or her salt knows the terms “free enterprise” and “the free market” is a really distorted representation of America’s corporate political economy,” he said. “The clear intention of the Koch Brothers is to advance a very simplistic understanding of our complex corporate global economic system.”

Yanarella said he was “quite concerned about the subtle repression of free debate on this campus and the tightening bonds between corporate and academic world — how that linkage really skews the power of corporations over our academic institutions.”

Also, this past week in the Herald Leader, UK sociology professor (and my mentor and one of the most important social scientists working in Appalachia over the past 40 years) Dwight Billings gave his thoughts on the donation:

Wrong UK institute

I am dismayed that the University of Kentucky has accepted $12 million from John Schnatter and the right-wing Koch Foundation to create a new Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise. I am concerned that ideology, rather than free and genuinely critical inquiry, will prevail despite assurances to the contrary.

I don’t believe UK really needs extra money for this endeavor. Apparently, the Gatton College is already doing a good job of promoting free enterprise.

If it sincerely wants to show what free enterprise is all about, all it needs to do is offer field trips to Eastern Kentucky. Here, the coal industry has brought us thousands of mining deaths and injuries, a wanton disregard for safety and human well-being, black-lung disease, union busting and worker intimidation, mountaintop removal, environmental devastation, a mounting health crisis for populations exposed to toxic streams and wells, political corruption, persistent poverty and climate-change denial.

That’s what free enterprise looks like.

If UK is as concerned about serving its students and the commonwealth as it proclaims, why not seek funding to better support Gatton’s Poverty Research Center and create new institutes for economic justice, labor studies and human rights?

Thanks to Dr. Billings for saying what we all were thinking. I’m glad to know professors like Dr. Yanarella and Dr. Billings still have the academic freedom to call out the corporate buyout of institutions of higher education that seeks to further right-wing “free market” ideology.

These recent developments get to the larger questions of why we have institutions of higher learning in the first place. Is it to create workers with the skills needed to power corporate regimes? Or is it to create engaged, educated, caring citizens; to equip students to solve the problems of tomorrow, to understand systems of power and privilege, to learn from mistakes of the past, to make the world a better place, to cultivate a “critical consciousness” as Freire suggests?

I think a lot about the contradictions within the University of Kentucky. It is hard to understand multi-million dollar grants like the one announced in 2013 for carbon sequestration projects at UK while knowing about the work of another one of my mentors, Dr. Shaunna Scott, and the Elkhorn City Heritage Council. Their work on post-coal economic development possibilities in Pike County, Kentucky, faces the realities of coal industry decline in eastern Kentucky and looks to alternative economic development strategies at the community level. The work of another one of my mentors, sociology professor Dr. Shannon Bell likewise calls into question the longevity, declining benefits, and harsh externalities of the coal industry. Dr. Bell writes about the experiences of women who have been leading the fight for environmental justice in the coalfields fighting back against injustices such as air and water pollution that effects the health and safety of communities and families.

It’s hard to see the “Friends of Coal” banners plastered all over UK basketball games while Dr. Bell writes about the coal lobby’s ideological manipulation in the coalfields. See her article “Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia” in Rural Sociology 75(1)  for one of the best discussions of the issue to date. The abstract is available here.

It’s hard to make sense of the “Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise” after becoming familiar with Dr. Ann Kingsolver’s decades-long work on the negative impacts of neoliberal globalization on communities in Appalachia and across the globe and Dr. Billings foundational scholarship on poverty, political economy, politics, and economic representations in Appalachia. See also Transforming Places by Fisher & Smith and Recovering the Commons by Reid & Taylor for other critiques of “free market” neoliberal globalization in Appalachia. Puckett et al. in the chapter “Who Knows? Who Tells?: Creating a Knowledge Commons” in Transforming Places discuss the disturbing influence of the coal lobby on a forum hosted by the University of Kentucky in 2005.

Contradictions at the University of Kentucky are perhaps what higher education is about-the free-flow of diverse ideas, different ways of seeing the world, differing opinions, contested interpretations, and struggles for agreement. Yet when big-money and corporate ideology set the agenda, I wonder about the possibility of the “free” flow of ideas.

Perhaps one day when I become a professor I can wear a NASCAR-like jacket with corporate logos on my sleeve. Or perhaps one day I will work at an institution that promotes economic justice, labor studies, human rights, environmental justice, and democracy-one that critiques corporate hegemony and works towards civic engagement and democratic participation. I do hope it is the latter.


Addendum- 1/27/15: I have recently learned that UK is working on developing a Center for Equality and Social Justice. Information about a planning meeting is available here: http://uknow.uky.edu/content/faculty-input-sought-proposed-center-equality-and-social-justice  The proposal for the Center is available here: http://uknow.uky.edu/content/center-equality-and-social-justice-proposal-0 Hopefully this Center will become a reality, even in light of the recently announced budget cuts.

10/19/16- According to the Lexington Herald leader, “The University of Kentucky’s University Senate voted Monday to approve the academic content but not the administrative structure of a proposed institute on free enterprise funded by $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and pizza magnate John Schnatter.” The full article is available here.  This is after the UK Senate Council also split the vote. The Center for Public Integrity has a good piece about the influence of Koch money on universities.


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