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The Koch Brothers’ Right-Wing Trojan Horse: Institutes for “Well-Being“

The Koch brothers are funding “well-being” institutes on college campuses to brainwash students.

The Koch brothers are funding "well-being" institutes on college campuses to promote right-wing, free-market ideology. (Photo: MyCarmCarm; edited: LW / TO)

It is essential that all of us — current scholars and teachers, public leaders of thought and those supporting learners at all levels — examine the connections of well-being to higher education: what that means, what it suggests and why it is important to all involved. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of editing a volume of 35 original essays by leaders of thought in higher education that does just that: Well-Being and Higher Education.

As a former college president and current director of a higher education nonprofit, I have long been interested in the issue of well-being on college campuses, so I was alarmed to learn from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article “New Koch” that the Koch brothers and their conservative network are funding a long-term effort to promote the right-wing fundamentalist free-market ideology by presenting it “as an apolitical and altruistic reform movement to enhance the quality of life — as a movement for well-being.” And I was dismayed to learn that the Koch brothers intend to implement that strategy with a particular strain of “well-being institutes,” spreading them to multiple universities.

Mayer quotes Allen Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute as claiming that Republicans just needed different packaging for their message: “In other words, if you want to be seen as a moral, compassionate person, talk about fairness and helping the vulnerable.” Professor James Otteson, the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University, which runs the Koch-funded Eudaimonia Project, is quoted by Mayer in his enthusiasm about the persuasive possibilities: “Who can be against well-being?”

This strategy, playing on the proclivity of institutions of higher education to accept gifts, uses its seemingly noble and apolitical movement in pursuit of well-being as the benign cover — the Trojan Horse — hiding its underlying message that a “free market” and reduction of government involvement will “forge a path to happiness.”

Just a few months later, Rob Schofield’s article in NC Policy Watch echoed this sentiment, describing the Koch brothers’ efforts to ideologically “frame” well-being so as to advance the “hard right market fundamentalist ideology by cloaking it in a warm and fuzzy language and to thereby grace it with the veneer of academic legitimacy.”

It appears that Schofield and Mayer are right in describing the strategy and the intent. However, they overlook an even more damning critique of this deceptive and manipulative tactic. The ascription of the fundamental source and values of well-being to the market ideology of the far right, and the lodging of its practice in the academy by establishing “Well-being Institutes” ignores the history, the community of practices, the research and the multiple available analyses of the complexity of well-being.

Furthermore, the Kochs’ strategy misconstrues the very meaning of well-being — failing (perhaps purposely) to recognize the reductive narrowness and transient nature of defining it solely through dimensions of “feelings,” including feelings of financial success. Their strategy ignores what constitutes the manifestations of well-being expressed in experiencing higher learning. In so doing, it also ignores what institutions of higher education can do to facilitate those manifestations of well-being in students: connecting them to higher education’s core purposes of open inquiry, the practice of civic and moral responsibility, and self-realization through the fulfillment of one’s human, individual and communal capacities.

The effort being made in funding these institutes to ideologically frame (better, capture) the meaning and implications of well-being is simplistic and shallow. This effort assumes that if this framing is voiced frequently enough and offered without examination, it will stick as the adopted framework. This is the logic of propaganda. When a university agrees to open an institute that is established to promote an ideology — be it the ideology of unregulated free enterprise, or one espousing state control — it has abandoned the principles of academic inquiry and critical thought that give it legitimacy, prejudging the very questions it would claim to investigate.

It is worth noting the discussion surrounding the significance of the recent nomination of John Schnatter (founder of Papa John’s Pizza and the namesake of Ball State’s well-being Institute) to the Board of Trustees of the University of Louisville by the conservative governor of Kentucky, following Schnatter’s and the Koch brothers’ combined $12 million donation to the University of Kentucky. Does that discussion, and the many others that will likely occur in regards to other campuses, get contextualized as part of a pattern? Isn’t vigilance needed when any gift appears? Shouldn’t we ask how a gift to a university will influence the integrity of the institution’s core purposes?

Institutions of higher education are, at their essential level, about the pursuit of knowledge, evidence, truth, justice and well-being. Colleges and universities are unique in upholding these qualities and must do so with integrity. Doing so should reveal (contrary to what the Kochs and their network may assume) that complex constructs, such as these, rest on neither market values, nor individual self-interest. Rather, constructs such as justice and well-being are rooted in relational experience and the values of open exploration and the common good.

That is just what the serious examination of the rich trans-historical and cross-cultural meanings of “well-being” suggests. True well-being is antithetical to the propagandizing provided by the gift of these Trojan Horse institutes. We must contextualize the Kochs’ effort to capture “well-being” and distinguish it from altruistic efforts to further the real purposes of higher education.

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