Faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin still have plenty of questions about the Liberty Institute, a think tank that’s apparently coming to campus. This is even after the university rector raised the issue at a recent faculty council meeting.

What else do teachers want to know?

“Everything,” said Domino Renee Perez, chair of the UT Austin faculty council and associate professor of English. “The faculty needs to hear directly from the president, because he is the one who identified this as a priority for the university.”

Most professors heard about the idea from the Liberty Institute late last month, via a Texas Tribune investigation revealing that university leaders had worked with private donors and Republican Lt. Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick for eight months to get it started. Internal proposals describe the institute as “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual freedom, limited government, private enterprise and free markets,” according to the article.

The Tribune found that Texas lawmakers had already approved initial funding of $ 6 million for the institute in the 2022-2023 state budget. The university reportedly committed an additional $ 6 million, and a private donor pledged $ 8.5 million to a center in 2016. No details about the project had been made public, and the university did not provide them. , according to the report, which was largely based on documents obtained through open case requests.

The article names Jay Hartzell, president of UT Austin, as being involved in the project, as well as Patrick and Kevin Eltife, a former Republican senator who was appointed to a second term on the Texas University System’s Board of Regents this year by the Republican governor. Greg Abbott. Conservative donors Bud Brigham and Bob Rowling are also involved, according to the report.

Following the Tribune report, faculty members asked for more information about the project and expressed concern that the Legislature is allocating money to an academic enterprise that few, if any, faculty seem to know anything about. it would be.

Board members, for example, submitted a list of eight questions to the university, including whether the Tribunethe record of is accurate and how the institute will maintain the intellectual freedom and governance of the faculty. What the institute will offer that is not already available or possible in existing law, government, business and public affairs programs, the council also asked. How exactly is the institute funded and are there any conditions?

What role will the faculty play, including in faculty recruitment? And how will the center be structured?

Provost Sharon Wood attempted to answer some of these questions at the council meeting earlier this week. Still, Wood, who became provost in July, said she did not have answers to some of their questions because discussions about the institute predated her arrival at the president’s office.

“The goal is to provide students who cross traditional boundaries and consider issues from multiple perspectives,” said Wood. The institute will help students “understand how regulatory and legal environments are going to impact markets.” They will also have the analytical and quantitative skills to solve complex problems and understand more economic drivers. “

Regarding the TribuneIn his report, Wood said he “ignored the role of faculty governance and faculty hiring, as well as the development of new degree programs and implied that there was no interest among students “. But she didn’t share a clear plan for faculty governance or the faculty’s role in hiring.

Jeffrey Abramson, professor of government and law, said after the meeting: “The normal thing for a self-respecting university, once it has raised funds for the institute, would have been to go to the regular professors. and empower them, in the exercise of academic freedom, to make hiring and program decisions. Abramson said the possibility that the institute could “stand outside the normal ways in which mature universities make academic decisions is a threat to UT’s integrity and gives too much power to private donors over who teaches. what to our students “.

Centers dedicated to the study of free enterprise, individual liberty, and limited government exist elsewhere. Many are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and are seen by their supporters as a counterpoint to the less conservative systems and approaches encountered by students in the classroom. The BB&T Bank Foundation also offered Moral Foundations grants to colleges and universities, stating that they offered classes or provided students with a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel in favor of the free market. Atlas shrugged. In some cases, these grants included stipulations regarding the hiring of professors. A 2011 Western Carolina University advertisement, for example, stated that applicants for its BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism should be “at least familiar, if not actively receptive, to the writings of Ayn Rand.” Also in 2011, it was revealed that in several cases at more than one university, the Koch grant agreements stipulated that the foundation had a say in the hiring of faculty. A third institution, George Mason University, said in 2018 that some of its earlier deals with Koch involved donor influence in faculty recruitment.

Koch has since said that he always values ​​academic freedom and has intentionally stepped away from chord language of this nature. He also published a template for current agreements with donors. BB&T also ended its Ayn Rand-based program to focus on financial literacy-based philanthropy.

The concerns of professors regarding these centers remain, beyond the question of the influence of donors in the hiring of professors. Academic freedom advocates fear, for example, that underfunding of higher education places public institutions, in particular, at risk of compromising faculty rights to private funding. The state of Texas seems determined to fund this particular project, but that also raises eyebrows, given that politicians may know more than professors.

Another concern is that these institutes can be used to promote policy ideas as academic research. Immunologists at Stanford University, for example, have expressed concern over this regarding Scott Atlas, a member of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, as he disputed the effectiveness of wearing masks. as Trump’s White House coronavirus advisor. Atlas did not work directly for Hoover in this role, but his degrees, including his medical degree, were often cited regarding his public comments.

Elsewhere, faculty members rejected the proposed centers on the grounds that they would compete with existing university departments, namely economics.

The Hoover Institution would be a model for the UT Austin Institute. Wood also told the board meeting that Tom Gilligan, former dean of the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin, helped plan the Liberty Institute before he left for the Hoover Institute in 2015. Gilligan, who is now a senior member of Hoover, did not respond to a request through Hoover on Thursday.

Abramson said that in the “current political climate, Americans are divided and rightly discuss the right balance between individual freedom and the public good.” But he said he was concerned that the Liberty Institute, “while promising to bring diversity of thought to campus, is in fact stacked in its hiring and course decisions to favor only one side of this essential debate “.

However, not all professors are as skeptical of the Liberty Institute as they understand so far. Richard Lowery, associate professor of finance, told the board meeting that he was confused by some of the criticisms because the university already funds various “explicitly political” programs including social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Lowery declined an interview request but provided the following written statement:

The administration of the University of Texas at Austin, with enthusiastic support from the faculty, implemented a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan, the original version of which was describe by the Foundation [for] Individual rights in education as follows: “[T]The proposal warrants a serious threat to establish a point-of-view litmus test for both hiring and promotion, ”the final version being, in my opinion, as bad or worse than the draft. original. So not only are the alleged concerns about a political test in a potential “Institute of Freedom” hypocritical, but in light of these explicit and implicit political tests used at the university, it is absolutely essential to establish a structure to UT. -Austin where academic freedom can be restored. While I support the principle of establishing such a structure, the Provost’s plan is clearly designed to give control of such a unit to the existing faculty, which generally opposes academic freedom, and therefore would serve little purpose more. than a fig leaf.

Daniel Brinks, chairman of the government, said he knew little about the institute, but had heard that it might involve hiring a group of faculty members who study areas such as collective decision-making, government regulation and its effects on economic and other outcomes, market design and social well-being, and the drivers of social prosperity.

Speaking only for himself, he said: “I imagine that whether our department would support a hiring within this cluster would depend on how the scope of the cluster is defined and how it fits with our priorities and standards. disciplinary. ” And as with “any hiring,” he said, “I’m sure we would all expect our normal governance processes to be followed, including our normal role in selecting the professors we hire.”

JB Bird, a spokesperson for the university, said he was speaking with the provost’s office over a request for comment or an interview. At the end of the day, he shared a link to a new bullet point information page on the institute. Bird made the following point: “All new faculty will be hired under normal university protocols, which include deans and department heads. It distinguishes new professors from current professors who become affiliated with the institute. plan to take an inventory of existing courses to develop a list of new classes that might be added.

Bird added that the institute is “still in a planning phase”.

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