CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More and more folks are becoming concerned about the takeover by wealthy, extremely conservative families of the political landscape in this county.
One key example would be the Koch Brothers from Kansas who, according to the New Yorker magazine, "are trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies."
A case in point was the Wisconsin fiasco initiated to strip public employees of their labor rights. Spending vast millions, brothers David and Charles Koch have established Super PACS such as Americans for Prosperity to support an ultra right wing libertarian agenda following in the footsteps of their father who co-founded the John Birch Society and called Dwight Eisenhower a communist agent.
The Koch empire is everywhere, including pipelines, refineries, Stainmaster Carpets, and Georgia-Pacific, which produces building materials as well as paper products such as Brawny towels and Dixie cups.
The Koch Brothers are not merely into lavishing huge amounts of money into Super Pacs, the new campaign forces unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. They are also into systemic change for the long-haul. Shrewdly, they have "purchased" professors and programs in business and economics at over 250 universities, including West Virginia University.
When I arrived at WVU to study economics, it was a new program staffed by moderate faculty members such as Dick Raymond, Bob Saunders, Don Purcell, Gil Rutman, Bob Britt, Jim Thompson and Leo Fishman. Benedum Professor William Miernyk, who founded WVU's Regional Research Institute, was a key faculty member, and he became my dissertation chair as I focused on the impact of the 1950 UMWA/BCOA Mechanization Agreement.
One recent night, I dreamed that I talked to Dr. Miernyk and told him that the WVU economics area was sold to the Koch Brothers for slightly more than a half million dollars plus another quarter million for graduate students. He turned over in his grave.
The primary WVU agreement, signed by Jane Martin and Wayne King, who were recent top WVU administrators, states that WVU will hire two professors and prescribes that they will teach under the direction of Professor Russell Sobel. One of the professors would also have a joint appointment with Miernyk's Regional Research Institute. Another component funded several doctoral fellowships and the Koch brothers also agreed to provide operating expense money to the WVU Foundation. The contract is similar to those signed by ultra conservative Grove City College and schools like Clemson. Clemson, however, may have lost the Orange Bowl to WVU but it bowled over WVU with a Koch contract that was twice as large.
Russell Sobel, who was tenured and has been a professor at WVU for 17 years, emerged as the libertarian darling in West Virginia. He wrote a book about the virtues of unleashed capitalism in solving all economic and social problems and was courted at business functions. He advised those in state government and penned columns about the virtues of deregulated capitalism in The Charleston Gazette. Basically, Sobel was a spokesperson for the Koch message of entrepreneurial economics without government regulations, and his recent work was published by the Public Policy Foundation, a Morgantown-based Koch-funded think tank.
Suddenly last November, a few weeks prior to the end of the academic semester, Russell Sobel abruptly vanished from view. He left in limbo eight graduate students and many undergraduate students in his one class in basic macroeconomics. His WVU email address was removed. Efforts to find out what happened went nowhere. The professor vetted as a star became a professor that nobody knew existed. Calls and emails to his home and WVU office by Gazette reporter Paul Nyden were never returned. Then, two months later, he suddenly emerged at the College of Charleston in South Carolina as well as a fellow at the South Carolina Policy Council, which describes itself as that state's "premier think tank focusing on limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty" and is another Koch-funded program. Fearful of losing Koch funds, WVU immediately sought a replacement in the Koch-funded Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in its College of Business and Economics.
While clarity on what happened remains elusive, the episode does reveal that entire academic areas at universities can be bought just like politicians. The difference is that universities are supposed to permit open dialogue and exchange of ideas and not be places for the indoctrination of innocent students with dictated propaganda prescribed by outside special interests. David Koch stated to Brian Doherty, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, that "if we are 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 will withdraw funding."
If WVU complies, whether with Sobel, his replacement or in any other form or fashion, it will compromise its independence and integrity as a top ranked research institution and do a disservice to the people of West Virginia.
David, an economics professor at WVU-Tech, is a Gazette contributing columnist.