Public money supports university center tied to white nationalism and election denial
Benson Center founder served as vice president of ‘hate group’
The entrance to the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Kittredge Central Hall at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
The Benson Center has attracted national attention due to its association with John Eastman, the lawyer at the center of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to stage a coup after he lost the 2020 election.
But other notable aspects of the center’s story remain obscured or have so far gone unreported, including its founder’s ties to white nationalism and prominent racists, the far-right views of multiple Benson Center figures, and the support the center receives from public funds.
The Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization presents itself as a private donor-funded conservative counterweight to liberal leanings at the University of Colorado’s flagship campus in Boulder, and its donor-funded status has helped insulate the center from ideological criticism. But the general fund of the university, a public institution, has provided tens of thousands of dollars to the center, according to documents obtained by Newsline through public information requests.
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The documents confirm that the vast majority of the center’s funding comes from private contributions, such as individual and foundation donations. University and Benson Center representatives declined to discuss private donors, and the names of private sources were redacted from some of the center’s budget records obtained by Newsline. But the private sources can be identified at least in part through indicators in multiple records, including those supplied by the university that in places contained inconsistent redactions, which thereby reveal names.
A Newsline analysis of the records shows that among the center’s largest sources of revenue is a fund, called the Operational Fund in budget documents, that’s a repository for private donations apart from endowments and other standalone or recurring sources. Contributions funneled through this fund in the four years from 2018 to 2021 totaled $1.1 million.
The center’s next largest source of revenue was the Grohne Endowment Fund, which contributed a total of $883,719 over those four years. The fund shares a name with David Grohne, a retired Chicago-based founder of a steel tube manufacturing company who serves on the Benson Center board of advisors. A message left with an attorney who represents another Grohne entity, the David F. and Margaret T. Grohne Family Foundation, went unreturned.
Another large source of Benson Center revenue is a fund tied to the Snider family, with a total contribution in those four years of $527,451. Tina Snider, daughter of cable and sports entrepreneur Ed Snider, who founded the Philadelphia Flyers, also serves on the Benson Center board of advisors. When contacted by Newsline, the Pennsylvania-based Snider Foundation’s senior director, Heather Stohler, when asked about the Benson Center, told a reporter that the foundation “does not respond to press requests” and refused to make Tina Snider available for comment.
Other substantial sources of Benson Center revenue include a large legacy fund established in the name of former CU president Bruce Benson, and the Bradley Foundation, whose other beneficiaries have included such far-right entities as Turning Point USA and Prager University.
The center has also accepted significant sums of money from the university’s general fund, which comprises student tuition and state funds. Over the course of recent months, Newsline attempted to determine precisely how much state and student money goes to support the Benson Center, but responses from university representatives obscured the figure, and they ultimately declined to state plainly how much public revenue ends up in center coffers. The center’s director, Daniel Jacobson, declined to speak by phone with a reporter and did not respond to emailed questions.
Newsline’s investigation, however, overcame some of this secrecy. Documents related to the center’s reauthorization in 2017 indicate that around that time 1% of the center’s annual funding came from the university. In 2015, for example, the center’s total funding was $750,071, 1% of which is $7,500. The portion of the center’s budget that comes from the university has since increased.
“Campus financial support is less than 2% of the center’s overall revenues since it last reorganized in 2018,” university spokesperson Andrew Sorensen wrote to Newsline this month in an email. The center’s total annual revenues in the four years from 2018 to 2021 averaged a little more than $1 million, suggesting that up to about $20,000 in public money a year goes to the Benson Center.
The center enjoys other public benefits. It occupies space in Kittredge Central Hall on the Boulder campus. When asked about the value of this space, a university records spokesperson said “no information is maintained to provide a value for the use of campus facilities or services at the departmental level.” Benson Center employees are entitled to university health care coverage, for which during the most recent school year the university would pay at minimum $611 per month per enrollee.
This is the most detailed account of Benson Center funding so far published.
'Western Civilization,' as still appears in the center's name, for the center's founder connotes a racist, misogynist, classist, anti-democratic framework through which to view Western traditions.
What does this funding support?
The center’s most visible program is the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy position, which Eastman occupied in the 2020-2021 academic year. Eastman, who is a prime target of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, as a Trump lawyer wrote a memo that outlined how former Vice President Mike Pence could block the certification of electoral votes. A federal judge in March wrote that Eastman and Trump “likely” committed crimes in trying to reverse election results. Earlier this month it was revealed that Eastman used his CU email account to instruct Pennsylvania Rep. Russ Diamond on how to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in that state, as reported by The Denver Post, despite an explicit university policy against engaging in private political activities using university resources like email.
While Eastman has become a widely recognized “big lie” proponent, other far-right figures tied to the Benson Center so far have largely escaped public scrutiny. At least two other former visiting scholars of conservative thought — Steven Hayward and Stephen Presser — are election deniers. In December 2020, Hayward wrote that “the election was effectively stolen months ago,” and, in the same month, Presser published a piece for Newsmax under the headline “Election Irregularities Cry Out For a Most Intensive Scrutiny,” in which he argued that Trump’s false claims of election fraud were supported by “plain old common sense.”
Therefore, at least a third of the Benson Center’s past visiting scholars of conservative thought have amplified lies about the 2020 election.
Other Benson Center academics exhibit similar far-right affinities. Alan Kahan, the most recent visiting scholar of conservative thought, is a defender of Steve Bannon, chief strategist of the former President Donald Trump, who champions authoritarians and neofascists. Tristan Rogers, a recent scholar in residence at the center, wrote that the Jan. 6 insurrection was comparable to “political violence” on the left, such as at George Floyd protests in 2020.
However, E. Christian Kopff might be the Benson Center figure who is the most overlooked — and most objectionable. The retired Kopff, a paleoconservative who extols the values and culture that have descended from ancient Greece and Rome, is the founder of the center that later became the Benson Center. He taught in the university’s Classics department and the Honors Program and from 2004 to 2011 served as the first director of the center — then known as the Center for Western Civilization, which in 2014 merged with the Program in Conservative Thought and Policy (university officials refer to philosophy professor Robert Pasnau as the founding director of post-merger center).
One of Kopff’s activities away from campus was participation in the H.L. Mencken Club, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as a “white nationalist hate group.” Kopff at one time was the group’s vice president. When Village Voice reported on the group, Kopff told the outlet, “Every time you say something good about the West or Europe or America’s European heritage, someone calls it racist. No one’s saying China or India doesn’t have a great culture, but we have ours and it’s worth preserving.”
Kopff gave a presentation to the club in 2011, according to a program from the event. Also on the bill was Peter Brimelow, founder of the white nationalist website VDare. The master of ceremonies was Richard Spencer, the influential racist whom many know from a 2016 speech he gave celebrating Trump’s presidential victory that was cheered with Nazi salutes, his role in leading a torchlight march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and when he was punched during an on-camera interview.
One of Kopff’s academic preoccupations is the work of Julius Evola, an Italian neofascist promoted by many alt-right personalities, such as Bannon. Kopff’s admiration for Evola, who died in 1974, comes across in pieces by Kopff that appeared in such white nationalist publications as The Occidental Quarterly and Radix Journal, which was founded by Spencer.
In an introduction to an edition of Evola’s “Fascism Viewed from the Right,” Kopff notes approvingly that “Evola finds that Fascism’s principles were often good,” and concludes, “Evola’s attempt to combine a disinterested commitment to principle with active involvement in the world provides a model of traditionalism that will remain valid.”
The focus on this strain of “tradition” echoes language used by Kopff — who did not respond to an email with questions from Newsline — when in 2004 he first proposed to university officials what became the Benson Center: “The mission of the Center for Western Civilization is to explore the distinctive traditions, languages and issues that characterize the cultures of Western civilization.”
“Western Civilization,” as still appears in the center’s name, for the center’s founder connotes a racist, misogynist, classist, anti-democratic framework through which to view Western traditions. As an exponent of such a view, Evola said in complaint of democracy, as rendered in Kopff’s own translation, “It will be necessary to take a resolute stance against the aberrant system of indiscriminate universal suffrage and ‘one man, one vote’ which now includes the female sex … The majority of a healthy and ordered nation should not be involved in politics.”
Even before Eastman tried to help Trump take a stance against “one man, one vote” in America, the Benson Center had stirred ideological passions in support of and against its presence in Boulder. Heidi Ganahl, a Republican University of Colorado regent who is running for Colorado governor, has donated money to the center and has praised it for teaching “the beauty of Western civilization” and for bringing in “fantastic” scholars like Eastman.
Opposition to the center most recently has taken the form of a campaign, led by the youth political advocacy organization New Era Colorado, to shut it down.
University officials last approved the center for reauthorization, for a period of seven years, at the beginning of the 2017 school year. Center leaders are due to undertake another round of reauthorization in the 2023 school year.
In the meantime, the center has reappointed Kahan as its visiting scholar in conservative thought for the 2022 school year. In announcing Kahan’s reappointment, the university noted that in September Kahan will speak during Constitution Week in Grand Lake. He’ll be in familiar company — one of the the featured speakers at last year’s Constitution Week was Eastman.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:24 p.m., May 26, 2022, to add that university officials refer to Robert Pasnau as the founding director of the post-merger center.
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