How to Buy a University Department
Bradley Foundation and Kochs buy a new UW-Madison economics institute.
Back in June I reported on the new head of the conservative Bradley Foundation’s board of directors, James Arthur Pope, a right-wing plutocrat whose thuggish, my-way-or-the-highway style managed to alienate even the ultra-partisan Republicans in his home state of North Carolina. Pope, I noted, used his foundations to donate half a million dollars to North Carolina’s public university system to create separate free-market-related programs in the economics department and help fund the salaries of a dozen professors. “Don’t be surprised to see the Bradley Foundation follow Pope’s lead in creating privately funded centers” within the UW-System, I predicted.
Sure enough, a new Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy, was recently created, with $240,000 in funding from the Charles Koch Foundation and $100,000 from the Bradley Foundation, as Madison’s Cap Times has reported. Pope has collaborated for years with the Koch Brothers, and his family foundation, which has assets of $150 million, has given money to at least 27 groups supported by the Kochs, as I noted. If more money is needed for this new right-wing outpost at UW-Madison, Pope can always draw on his own foundation.
Conservatives have been obsessed with what they see as the “liberal bias” of universities for decades. In the mid 1980s, the Bradley Foundation bankrolled the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to provide balance, as one Bradley board member told me, for the liberal LaFollette Institute at UW-Madison.
I have no doubt many of the professors working with the department are liberal, but that barely begins to describe how the institute operates. This is one of the world’s premier institutions in public administration courses and research, with a wide purview, doing research on social policy, health and aging, public management, energy and the environment, international trade and development, science and public policy, and many other topics.
Like any university department, its goal is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, with peer-reviewed research, often with dull and wonky results: recent research papers include such oh-so-controversial ones as “The Design and Practice of Integrating Evidence: Connecting Performance Management with Program Evaluation” and “Making Sense of Performance Regimes: Rebalancing External Accountability and Internal Learning” and, yawn, “Balance Sheet Effects on Monetary and Financial Spillovers: The East Asian Crisis Plus 20.”
Yes, there are more political topics, like its recent research paper, “The Complicated Partisan Effects of State Election Laws,” which concludes that Republicans rather than Democrats are actually hurt by restrictions on early voting. If anything, that conclusion helps make the GOP look less partisan, but the institute reported the results its research discovered.
But the WPRI, for whatever reason, lacks the clout it once did, and its research always lacked the pedigree of a university. So why not simply create your own department at one of the top universities in the world? The Center for Research on Wisconsin’s Economy, or CROWE, will be caw cawing a conservative tune, presumably to help drown out all those liberal econ professors presumed to dominate academia.
But economics is a quite different matter, than, say, political science, where liberals surely dominate. One study found that those who take economics courses are actually more likely to be conservative. An analysis of economics professors by fivethirtyeight.com found that 60 percent were liberal and 40 percent conservative in their ideology. Another study found econ professors were about twice as likely to vote for Democratic candidates, but I suspect the ratio would have been different as recently as 15 years ago, before the Republican Party began to reject science and other university research. The broader point is there are certainly many economists with a conservative viewpoint whose work could be funded, something the Bradley Foundation has done for decades.
But even conservative professors can’t be counted on to deliver precisely the results demanded by someone like James Pope, which is where CROWE comes in. It will be run by Professor Noah Williams, who lobbied to get a job from Gov. Scott Walker and worked as an advisor to Walker’s presidential campaign, and then did a laughable “study” finding the manufacturing tax credit created all kinds of jobs even though such employment has been flat in this state and has trailed neighboring states in growth. Our Data Wonk columnist Bruce Thompson noted the many problems with Williams research.
Williams followed that up with a report claiming a huge economic multiplier for the Foxconn plant. The consultant hired by Foxconn came up with a 2.7 percent multiplier in jobs, which is grossly inflated, as economists William L. Holahan and Charles O. Kroncke have concluded. But Williams went even higher than Foxonn’s hired gun dared to do, using a multiplier of 3.0 to jack up the jobs numbers.
UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone assured the Cap Times that donors to CROWE will not set its research agenda or direct the research conducted there. No indeed. “Decisions about the way resources are allocated rest with the executive committee of the Department of Economics,” she said.
If that turns out to be true, you can bet the Bradley Foundation and Koch Brothers will terminate their funding. They want the kind of research cigarette companies bought for years to “prove” tobacco doesn’t cause cancer. But Williams has already proven he is a Walker toady. And UW officials, after years of seeing their funding targeted by Walker and Republican legislators, no doubt felt they had no choice but to hold their noses and approve this smelly deal. I doubt it’s the last such proposal the Bradley Foundation will offer UW-Madison. The Wisconsin Idea may gradually be replaced by the “golden rule”: he who has the gold rules.
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