Eudaimonia Institute quietly fades away

The controversially-funded research institute is “sunsetting” from the university

Alexandra Karlinchak, Assistant Opinion Editor

 In addition to exploring theories of law, physics, computer science, the arts and the humanities, Wake Forest University is dedicated to exploring an even more complex academic question: “What is happiness?” Or at least, it used to be.

On Nov. 6, a number of students noticed that the words “Eudaimonia Institute” were removed from the street signs on either side of the building, signaling an end to the brief project.

The Eudaimonia Institute (EI) was a research institution sponsored by the university to explore the political, economic, social and cultural institutions that impact human happiness. Located on Reynolda Road, just a one-minute drive from campus, EI was housed in a beautiful, two-story building that used to serve as the official home of the Pro Humanitate Institute, now the Office of Civic and Community Engagement.

“We are a community of scholars dedicated to developing an interdisciplinary understanding of what eudaimonia is, what the institutions are that support it, and what its chief obstacles are, all in the hopes of enabling more people to achieve eudaimonia,” the official website reads.

By definition, eudaimonia is a Greek word that roughly translates to “human flourishing.” These past few months have allowed the organization to do anything but.

Founded in May of 2016, EI opened as a research institution that provided grants for research projects that supported the institute’s mission. In addition, EI hosted student seminars for Wake Forest undergraduates interested in learning more about political, economic and social theories regarding happiness and human development.

Junior Alli Pluemer took advantage of one of these seminars her junior fall, attending a session for a class.

“There were 12 people in my class called Conservative Political Thought,” Pluemer said. “The group was really great, it was discussion based and the group was really diverse … We talked about readings and because there is no syllabus, we guided the discussion to talk about things we really wanted to talk about.”

“Also, students were given a participation stipend and our meals were paid for when we were over at the Institute. They put a lot of money into it. It had to have been expensive,” Pluemer added.

In May of 2019, the Offices of the Provost and the President renewed the Eudaimonia Institute’s stay on campus. But just one year later in May 2020, things took a turn in the opposite direction.

Then-Executive Director of the Institute, Jim Otteson served as the head developer of EI for the entire duration of his stay. Thanks to his fundraising efforts, the Institute raised millions of dollars to support research and education efforts. 

In May of 2020, he was offered a position at his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, where he now serves as a professor of Business Ethics in the Mendoza College of Business. When he decided to take the position and travel up to South Bend, Ind., he remarked that the last time he had spoken to the provost about his departure, a closure plan was potentially brought into motion.

“When I left, the provost indicated that he was thinking about allowing the EI to ‘sunset,’” Otteson said. “I think that both COVID-19 and my departure had a big impact on this closing, as I was the sole fundraiser for the institute.”

Other members of the EI Advisory Board echoed Otteson’s claims.

Dan Hammond, Scholar in Residence at the EI, remarked that Otteson’s departure was likely not the only contributing factor to the institute’s closing. 

“EI was not looked upon favorably by a large number of faculty members,” Hammond said. “And I think that is a shame.”

This distaste that the EI left among faculty members stemmed from the very reason the organization was able to flourish: the grant money that it was run on.

The funding came in the form of a $3.69 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The Koch brothers are famed for being conservative philanthropists and, as stated in a Wall Street Journal opinion article surrounding the investigation around the grant, some faculty members who opposed using Koch funding believed that “Eudaimonia was really a way of sneaking capitalist ideas into the university.”

Wake Forest administrators accepted the grant money on behalf of the EI despite some faculty members’ wishes, but the institute insisted that it accepted funding from a variety of sources and acted independently of all of them. In other words, the research projects that EI pursues are meant to be broad, diverse and objective.

No matter what the goal of the EI has been, its time has come and gone. The program is, as its former executive director said, “sunsetting.” The script that spelled its name in gold letters in front of the building it used to call its home has been removed, and now the building is as empty as the sign that sits in front of it — that is, until another program comes along.

“It’s a shame the Institute can’t continue on,” Otteson said. “I don’t know what the future will hold, but at least for those few years that we had the Institute and I was there, I really had a great experience.”

The Office of the Provost has not responded to the Old Gold & Black’s request for comment.