Schools claim freedom to study capitalism, even as big donor Schnatter praises ‘greatest mechanism’ to pursue happiness

Ball State University is the latest school to defend another multimillion-dollar gift from one of its most famous graduates, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter, to establish an institute promoting the virtues of free enterprise.

Schnatter and Koch
Schnatter and Koch.

School administrators offered similar assurances when Schnatter and the Charles Koch Foundation gave $12 million to the University of Kentucky in December and $6.3 million to the University of Louisville in March 2015, in both cases to launch free-enterprise centers. Ball State in Muncie, Ind., is getting $3.3 million.

The contract UK signed says the institute must support a “diversity of ideas,” according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. But it also says the institute is to research aspects of free enterprise that “promote the well-being of society.” What’s more, when the gift was announced, Schnatter said in a statement: “The free-enterprise system is the greatest mechanism mankind has ever created to eliminate poverty, enhance prosperity, and enable the pursuit of happiness.” That suggests a more narrow scope that may not include any negative societal effects. Also, the school must notify the donors about any change in the institute’s leadership.

Dark Money book
$20.23 at Amazon.

Koch, 80, a billionaire industrialist in Wichita, Kan., has joined other very wealthy conservatives to shape universities and other institutions for their own benefit, according to New York Times reporter Jane Mayer’s new book this winter. It’s called Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

Schnatter, 54, started Papa John’s soon after graduating from Ball State; at today’s closing price of $64.59, his stake is worth $680 million. Read more about the Charles Koch Foundation and the John H. Schnatter Family Foundation.

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