What the Latest Big Koch Campus Gift Tells Us About the Interests of a Feared Mega-Giver

Though I've never been, Montana seems like a perfectly wonderful state. 

Rugged and vast, it tends to eschew the limelight. It does its own Montana thing, rarely calling attention to itself. And why would it? Its beauty speaks for itself. As far as states go, it's the strong, silent type.

That being said, for a quiet state, it seems to be a magnet for controversial university donors as of late.

In 2014, there was a minor ruckus about a $50 million donation to Montana State University by Norm Asbjornson, who was also a conservative "dark money" political donor. And back in May, we wrote about an advocacy group that called upon the Montana University System Board of Regents to refuse an $8 million gift to Montana State University (MSU) from Greg Gianforte, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. The group objected to the gift because Gianforte's values "don't align with the publicly stated values of the university."

The university accepted the money, but some critics are still sounding the alarm about the undue influence of private donors over Montana's public university system. The larger context is familiar: The state has steadily cut back support for higher education over the past few decades, even though cuts in recent years haven't been nearly as bad as those in other states. Lower public spending on higher ed increases the reliance of universities on private donors (not to mention student tuition).

Now comes word of another gift to MSU from a donor whose public persona, if we are to believe some of his critics, makes Greg Gianforte look like the Dalai Lama.(Cue the ominous music from Jaws....)

Yup, Charles Koch.

Two of MSU's leading faculty in economics—Wendy Stock and Vince Smith—will be expanding their research on the impact "regulation and policy have on societal well-being, particularly in the areas of regulatory economics as applied to agriculture, healthcare, technology, finance, natural resources, education and other sectors," thanks to a $5.76 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. Here's Smith:

Regulations can serve the public interest by protecting citizens, the environment, businesses and financial markets. However, at times, advances in areas such as biotechnology, engineering, computer science, natural resource management and other fields outpace the relevance of existing regulatory structures. Our hope is that this research will address these challenges, serving the needs of local communities, the state of Montana and the nation.

The funds support two new tenure-track faculty positions, research fellowships, research grants, and graduate and undergraduate research assistant training opportunities.

A couple of things, here.

First off, you've got to hand it to Mr. Koch. While it was Lewis Powell who famously argued in a 1971 memo that conservative funders needed to stop liberals from taking over higher education, few donors have done more to heed Powell's word than Charles Koch, whose foundation channels over $20 million annually to several hundred universities around the U.S.

Related: Koch Money on Campus: Who's Getting Grants and For What?

That's not a huge amount of money in the scheme of today's big philanthropy, but Koch is a great example of a strategic funder who's identified an obviously important leverage point—i.e., influencing the thinking of future generations—and stuck with it for the long term. His foundation has been particularly adept at doing the legwork to not only identify conservative activities on campus, but to construct a network of scholars, programs, and professors that donors can tap to find the right fit for their funds. In turn, this work nicely complements Koch's extensive investments in libertarian think tanks like Cato, which often tap the scholarly research emerging from Koch-backed scholarship on U.S. campuses. 

Related: Charles Koch Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

A second and related point is that we're likely to see more big Koch campus gifts like this one to MSU. Koch has said publicly that he believes that investing in ideas and intellectuals delivers a far greater bang for the buck than pumping money into politics. And, as we've reported, there are signs that the Koch brothers may wind down their recent political activities after big spending over recent years yielded lackluster returns while generating a tsunami of criticism that's hurt the Koch Industries brand. 

If the Kochs actually do decrease their political giving, it stands to reason that they'll double down on their true passion of academic and think tank giving—and, indeed, Charles Koch has said as much. So look for more seven-figure campus gifts from the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Related: Give Carefully: A Word of Warning to Conservative Higher Ed Donors