Commentary

Surprise! Koch Brothers and friends pour $4.2 million into new “well-being” center at Wake Forest

Image WFU.edu

Image WFU.edu

As readers may recall, a few months back we reported on the Koch Brothers’ ongoing effort to gussy up their special brand of reactionary, dog-eat-dog, market fundamentalism with a series of “academic centers” at selected universities dedicated to the study of human “well-being.” The story focused in particular on developments at Winston-Salem-based Wake Forest University, where an academic connected to the Kochs named James Otteson had established something called the “Eudaimonia” Project (since re-branded as the “Eudaimonia Institute”).

For what it’s worth, Dictionary.com defines “eudaimonia” as: “noun — a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous; Examples: Eudaimonia was first used by Aristotle and is important in ethics.” Well-being = eudamonia; Get it?

Anyway, as was noted in the article, Otteson gave a talk at a 2014 Koch confab in which, according to Jane Mayer’s outstanding book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” he spelled out plans for a scheme whereby the widespread adoption of terminology like “human well-being” would allow the Right to burnish its image and more successfully frame its reactionary messages.

“At another panel that weekend, James Otteson, a professor of political economy at Wake Forest University’s business school, argued that using the term ‘well-being’ would be ‘a game changer.’ He added that he was setting up an institute devoted to well-being at Wake Forest. To illustrate the power of framing free-market theories in this way, he shared an anecdote. A colleague, whom he described as a ‘left-wing political scientist’ who ‘railed’ against Republicans and capitalism, had been so fully persuaded by Otteson’s description of factors contributing to human well-being—‘peace and security,’ ‘health,’ ‘environment’—that he had said, ‘You know, even I’d be willing to take Koch money for that.’ The donors laughed. ‘Who can be against well-being?’ Otteson exclaimed. ‘The framing is absolutely critical.’”

In June, Otteson was none too happy with the Policy Watch article. In an email he complained to me that his new center was not a part of any Koch network:

“Indeed, the fundamental premise of your article–that Wake Forest is becoming part of the “Koch network”–isn’t even true, since my eudaimonia idea hasn’t even gotten Koch funding! (In fact, it’s gotten no funding whatsoever; I hope we do get funding, and we’ve reached out to several potential funding sources, but we’ve gotten nothing so far.)”

Uh, well, one guesses, as they say, that “that was then and this is now.” As the Winston-Salem Journal reported in a dreadful, glorified press release of a story last Friday:

“Wake Forest University has received $4.2 million to further study human flourishing and what constitutes a life well lived.

The University research will explore eudaimonia — a Greek term that translates to happiness or human flourishing — as well as the institutions, attitudes and cultural practices that encourage it beyond the typical scope of how happiness is perceived.

The Eudaimonia Institute began research in June with a planning grant from the Wake Forest Office of the Provost.

The Charles Koch Foundation has committed $3.69 million to support the institute over the next five years. Liz and Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Resources and Liberty Oilfield Services, have committed an additional $500,000.

‘The pursuit of eudaimonia is one of the most important goals for humankind,’ James Otteson, Executive Director of the Eudaimonia Institute, said.'”

In June we described the Wake Forest center as

part of an effort “to advance hard right market fundamentalist ideology by cloaking it in warm and fuzzy language and to thereby grace it with the veneer of academic legitimacy.” Two weeks ago, however, Donald Harward, the President Emeritus of Bates College, was even more pointed in a scathing op-ed for the website Truthout. He put it this way:

“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….

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.”

Stay tuned. We’ll keep you updated.

One Comment


  1. Patti Blaine

    September 13, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I would like to see the final exam in this course.

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