SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has announced plans to launch a new center, called the Marriner S. Eccles Institute of Economics and Quantitative Analysis, designed to strengthen its business school's reach and help top students form early partnerships with prestigious employers.
The institute, set to open fall semester, will operate using $10 million in combined donations from the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation and the George S. and Dolores Eccles Foundation, plus $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, scheduled to be dispensed over eight years.
Taylor Randall, dean of the David Eccles School of Business, said the idea for such an institute came about from brainstorming by top faculty about how to "raise the profile" of the business school.
"This enables us to create a whole new product for companies in terms of training people for them and to really elevate the stature of not only the Eccles School, but the University of Utah," Randall told the Deseret News and KSL combined editorial boards Wednesday.
The announcement comes a year after the U. instituted a new major called "quantitative analysis of markets and organizations." The institute will draw on students from that major, as well as the finance and economics majors, Randall told the Deseret News.
Randall said the field of quantitative analysis in economics can be understood as the handling of big data, combined with entrepreneurial intuition, to find solutions to complex questions and form a business strategy. Such a practice frequently involves acting on data about consumers specifically, he said.
Students will carry out data-driven research at the institute, he explained. The institute will begin with only about 20 to 40 top students as a way to ensure quality results in the organization's infancy.
"It will ramp up relatively slow ... to make sure we get (job) placements," Randall said. "It kind of develops a brand that these are great students coming out of the university."
Randall hopes that down the road, the institute will be able to serve between 100 and 200 students at any given time. He said qualifying students will have access to a variety of grants, scholarships and fellowships provided by the institute.
The eventual goal is to hire at least 15 professors within the next three to four years, though there will be just seven to start, Randall said. That includes the new institute's director, Adam Meirowitz, a U. finance professor who was instrumental in creating the quantitative analysis major.
"With economic analysis now applied widely to address problems in both the public and private realms, the new Eccles Institute not only will contribute significantly to these fields through its research, but also will enable the University of Utah and the (business school) to develop talented economics graduates who will make positive, real-world impacts," Meirowitz said in a statement Wednesday.
Spencer P. Eccles, co-founder of Salt Lake-based Cynosure Group and former director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, echoed Randall's optimism about the program, saying it would help the state retain its best students and pull in prominent companies.
"Back in the '70s, as you’ll recall, we used to hemorrhage children," he told the editorial boards. "They used to leave the state and they used to go to other states for the kind of jobs they’ve needed, and that’s changed a lot. ... (The institute) will help us enhance not just the students and their livelihood but also continue to help attract the best companies here and grow our economy in a strong way."
Asked whether Charles Koch's high-profile donations to conservative and libertarian causes and candidates would raise eyebrows about the thrust of the institute's research, Randall and other presenters at the board meeting said the economic analysis will not be done through a political lens.
"What impressed us the most with what the Kochs were doing and what made it feel us so comfortable for this to be a fit is that what we’re doing here isn’t an ideology," said Hope Eccles, president of the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation. "It’s not an attempt to get students and train them in a specific thing. It is an opportunity to make sure that they’re exposed to a full range (of ideas) and that they have an opportunity to hear the best arguments."
Spencer "Spence" F. Eccles, chairman and CEO of the George S. and Dolore Eccles Foundation, responded that "I am not at all concerned" about donations being associated with the Koch name.
"We are very proud to be a part of this," he said.
Spencer F. Eccles called the late Marriner Eccles, his uncle, "the father of the modern Federal Reserve," and said he was proud to put the man's name on the institute. Marriner Eccles was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1934 to 1948, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Randall said the coming together of the Eccles and Koch names is a great sign of the diversity of ideas that should be expected to be researched at the new institute.
"I think what we found kind of with the marriage of these is you have a broad set of economic ideas that can be explored and they’re actually great ideas that need to be debated in today’s environment," he said. "You’ve got Marriner on one side who worked for Roosevelt and (President Harry) Truman and you’ve got some very free market thinking folks on our faculty. We think it’s going to be a fun way to explore which way economics should evolve."
Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the business school and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, agreed with Randall, though she conceded "there will be some folks that will kind of give (the Koch donation) a second look trying to understand it."
"We have basically all perspectives in economic thinking at the table to go teach our students and to do world-class research" at the new institute, she said.
John Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, touted the fact that his foundation's namesake has contributed to hundreds of universities over several decades, with a track record of successful programs.
"They’re very diverse. They include Havard, Stanford, Chicago, Notre Dame and other schools across the board ... What we would hope is that people would take a look at this program and see the results ... and not get caught up in any of these other (political) distractions," Hardin said.
Opposition to Koch donations to places of higher learning, Hardin said, often boil down to "efforts to stop students from learning, stop professors from doing research."