Philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr. spoke in-depth for the first time on Tuesday about the $50 million gift he and fellow billionaire businessman Charles Koch gave to Utah State University’s school of business.
Huntsman told The Herald Journal how the deal between his friend Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, came together, saying the gift was the culmination of conversations the two men had been having about giving to the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
“(It) never started out as that size at all, but we really wanted to make a difference in the business school,” said Huntsman, referring to the $50 million gift that is currently the largest donation in USU history. “We had no idea what the biggest gift was. I don’t think it’s either one of our concerns. It’s never been my concern as a philanthropist or as an individual to try to beat a record.”
But Huntsman, who is founder and executive chairman of the Huntsman Corporation and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, has set records for USU donations. In 2007, he announced a $25 million gift to the business school — which led USU officials to rename it the Huntsman School — and $1 million to scholarships for Armenian students.
The $50 million gift, announced May 6, is $25 million each from the Huntsman and Charles Koch foundations. The money will go mainly towards increasing student capacity for the Huntsman Scholars program and creating The Center for Growth and Opportunity, a USU-affiliated nonprofit.
Huntsman defended the fact that USU’s history-making donation will only go to the business school. He likened the decision to his focus on eradicating cancer by establishing the institute in his name at the University of Utah.
“There are many marvelous areas of medicine that we would like to help, but our focus is on cancer, the most hideous and difficult health problem in the history of man,” said Huntsman, a cancer survivor. “Similarly with education, we’d like to focus on engineering and education and all of the other very fine subjects, but we can’t do all of them. So we select the ones that helped us the most.”
The $50 million gift announced earlier this month follows two previous gift agreements — at much smaller amounts — between the Huntsman School and the Charles Koch Foundation. Those agreements, dated 2009 and 2015, provided money for the Huntsman School to add professors, continue support to an institute within the school and finish the Huntsman School’s newest addition, Huntsman Hall.
Those gift agreements happened thanks to the decades-long personal friendship between Huntsman and Koch, who met as young men, doing business together with both of their companies. Huntsman Corporation is a manufacturer and marketer of chemical products, and Koch Industries is a firm focusing on a number of industries, including chemicals and petroleum.
Within the last 10 years, the two men were brought closer together when Huntsman Corporation sold one of its largest divisions to Koch Industries — a $1 billion transaction.
“We’ve just been very good friends in the industry and personally,” Huntsman said. “A lot of trust, we’re about the same age, we’ve both had prostate cancer. We just had a good relationship.”
That relationship contained a striking similarity: Giving billions of their personal wealth to causes they hold dear, including higher education.
Huntsman remembers initially approaching Koch about giving to USU.
“I’d explained to him … it’d be very helpful if he direct some of his funding toward the school where we could give them an Ivy League education,” said Huntsman, who is an alumni of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “He (Koch) said, ‘There’s nothing I like more than to help underserved men and women that deserve to go to college and can’t afford it, so I’d like to join with you.’”
The USU gift agreements from Koch and Huntsman have not come without controversy.
Critics of Koch — who with his brother, David, is known to donate his money to Republican politicians and candidates — contend Koch gives his money to universities all over the country to instill in students his conservative way of thinking.
Critics used the USU agreements as ammunition for their criticism, particularly with the 2009 deal, where USU Huntsman School Professor Randy Simmons was dubbed a “Koch professor.” The 2015 gift agreement, USU officials said, paid for some tenure track professors, but those professors were not called “Koch professors.”
USU students protested the 2015 gift agreement, demanding to meet with then-USU President Stan Albrecht to convince him to not accept the gift. USU eventually released the terms of that deal in an effort to be more transparent, but kept the gift.
On Tuesday, Huntsman pushed back on the criticism of Koch.
“Mr. Koch is a very fair man, and when he devotes his money to education, he does it with the hope that he will help students — particularly underserved students — who have the ability and the means to move ahead in life,” he said. “Charles and I have been together many, many times over the years; we never discuss politics.”