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Conservative billionaires fund democracy center

Miami University will introduce the Menard Family Center for Democracy in spring 2020. The center is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and the Menard Family, two conservative donors with a history of influence on college campuses across the country.

The Center for Democracy’s intended purpose is to bring people together, give them an immersive civic experience and then provide them with the tools to make change in their own community, said John Forren, chair of the Department of Justice and Community Studies and inaugural executive director of the center. 

The Menard family and the Charles Koch Foundation provided $2.95 million in grants to fund the center. Representatives from both groups could not be reached for comment. 

The Charles Koch Foundation has a history of involvement on college campuses, which often reflects their right-wing libertarian values. According to Time Magazine, past donations have allowed Koch to control curriculum and obtain personal information about students. According to The New Republic, few people hold more responsibility than Charles Koch and his brother, David, for the unfolding climate crisis.

The Washington Post reported that the Charles Koch Foundation made a multi-million dollar donation to Florida State University in 2007, stipulating that the university’s economics courses must reflect pro-business, anti-regulatory philosophies.

According to Opensecrets.org, the Menard family donated more than $100,000 to Republican candidates during the 2016 election. 

The Center for Democracy will combine previously independent lectures, events and programs put on by both the Oxford and regional campuses. Oxford’s Harrison Hall and Hamilton’s Phelps Hall will jointly house the center. 

“What we’re hoping to accomplish through our programs is creating a larger space for students and community members to come and share ideas, build consensus and learn from each other,” Forren said. “This is essential in a democratic society.”

Bryan Marshall, chair of the Department of Political Science, said the center will have a director and associate director. The grant also funds a faculty member who will teach courses and conduct research around the center’s values of democracy and civic engagement. 

The idea for the center materialized in early 2018 when a group of faculty, led by Forren, introduced a proposal to expand civic engagement programming. 

Randy Pratt, associate vice president of development, principal gifts and presidential priorities, said the Charles Koch Foundation heard about Forren’s work and reached out to inquire about funding it.

“It’s the role of advancement departments at universities to match grantors or donors with programs that match their interests, and that is why Miami began discussions with the Koch Foundation and Menard family regarding support for the Center for Democracy,” Pratt said.

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Despite Koch’s past involvement on university campuses, Forren said he will not have a say in how the center is run. 

“I want to be very clear they are not in any way influencing the program,” Forren said. “There is no ideological content to what we’re doing … We will adhere to the same status of academic freedom that Miami does.”

Some students are still concerned about the Charles Koch Foundation’s involvement at Miami. 

“For the university to take these people as acting in good faith, I think requires them either lying about whether or not they believe them or just a massive amount of ignorance because I think the Koch brothers have proven throughout their entire lives to be very dangerous people,” said sophomore Alex Coiner, president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. “I think for the university to take them at face value saying they’re going to be nonpolitical is farcical.” 

Kenny Hawkins, president of College Republicans, said while he supports civic engagement, he worries about the inclusivity of the center. 

“We see politics motivated by money, and that can dissolve the equality of opportunity that we all fight for through our devotion to politics and civil service,” Hawkins said. “I don't think there's a question behind their motives as most of the people they fund are conservative, I just hope that they are inclusive in their decisions of those who they help and those who get involved.”

Additional reporting by News Editor Erin Glynn. 

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This article previously stated that the Koch brothers donated to Florida State University. It has been changed to say it was the Charles Koch Foundation.

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