Joining Forces: The Unusual Billionaire Duo Behind a Big Campus Gift

The Charles Koch Foundation and the Huntsman Foundation recently teamed up for a $50 million gift—$25 million each—to the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University (USU). The gift will expand the school's highly selective Huntsman Scholar Program and launch the Center for Growth and Opportunity.

The gift represents Koch's latest foray into pushing free market principles on campus—this time, in an unusual partnership with his friend, businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Sr.

As we've been reporting, the Charles Koch Foundation has stepped up its up giving, becoming one of the largest and most active grantmakers in the higher ed space—with money flowing in recent years to hundreds of campuses. The foundation's giving climbed from $15 million in 2012 to $44 million in 2015, and went up again last year. Its endowment has more than doubled in the past five years, too. (Read more about the foundation's giving in its most recent annual report.)

None of this is all that surprising, since Charles Koch, 81, is now worth over $40 billion and has publicly said he plans to increase his giving. Koch, who is well known for libertarian views, has also said that he believes his giving for ideas and policy work has made more impact than his political contributions. 

What's notable about this latest gift by the Charles Koch Foundation is its size. While the foundation's grants often range in the low seven figures or smaller, this one is much larger—and comes on the heels of some other eight-figure gifts this funder has made in recent years. In other words, Koch is giving bigger chunks of money, and we expect that to be the case going forward. 

Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman doesn't have a strong ideological profile, but his philanthropy is extensive. Dubbed "Utah's Richest Man," Huntsman is the founder of the Huntsman Chemical Corporation, the largest manufacturer of polystyrene in the United States. He created the Huntsman Foundation in 1988, and his lifetime philanthropic giving now exceeds $1.2 billion, focusing on the areas of cancer research, programs at various universities, and aid to Armenia.

Huntsman was among the first batch of billionaires to join the Giving Pledge in 2010, writing at the time that he had committed to giving away his entire fortune decades earlier, with cancer as a top priority. Although Huntsman is still listed by Forbes as a billionaire, he said in 2010 that most of his shares of company stock have already been donated to his family's foundation, and were no longer at his disposal. 

In 2015, Huntsman received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. Other recipients included Paul Allen and David Rubenstein.

Most of Huntsman's higher ed giving has centered on Utah. He's given to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young University, and the Karen H. Huntsman Library in Snow College, Utah. Beyond Utah, Huntsman made an unrestricted gift of more than $50 million to Wharton; one of the school's signature buildings, Jon Huntsman Hall, was named in his honor.

USU describes the Hunstman Scholar Program as an "integrated curricular and co-curricular experience" focused on "academic discipline and mentoring to provide a solid understanding of financial markets and the nature of business enterprise." Huntsman Scholars also benefit from international travels to experience foreign markets.

The Center for Growth and Opportunity, meanwhile, will "advance scientific understanding of the interaction between individuals, business, and government to develop solutions to important problems through economic research and student engagement." While that's pretty neutral language, our bet is that this center will lean to the right, like many of the campus outposts supported by the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Both USU and Hunstman are aware that working with the Kochs carries some potential PR risks. Doug Anderson, dean of the Huntsman School of Business, said the Charles Koch Foundation "never attempted to, nor would we allow them to, exercise any undue influence."

Hunstman, meanwhile, was quick to defend his friend. Charles "is a very fair man, and when he devotes his money to education, he does it with the hope that he will help students—particularly underserved students—who have the ability and the means to move ahead in life.

"Charles and I have been together many, many times over the years; we never discuss politics."

If it's true that Jon Huntsman never thinks about the political views of Charles Koch, it's fair to say he's highly unusual in that regard. 

“We’ve just been very good friends in the industry and personally,” Huntsman said. “A lot of trust, we’re about the same age, we’ve both had prostate cancer. We just had a good relationship.”