Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
University of Texas at Austin leaders attempted to quell concerns among faculty this week over a proposed think tank on campus known as the Liberty Institute, weeks after The Texas Tribune reported that the university was working with private donors and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to create a center that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.”
At a Faculty Council meeting Monday, Provost Sharon Wood reiterated that many decisions had yet to be made about the institute, which already has $12 million in funding over the next two years from the state Legislature and the UT System Board of Regents.
Faculty Council leaders had presented university President Jay Hartzell with a list of eight questions about the university’s plans for the institute, its mission and how it would be structured. Hartzell was at an event in Dallas, however, and did not attend the meeting.
In his stead, Wood acknowledged to the council that the Tribune’s article “caused a lot of concern” on campus. But she noted that the university did not provide information for last month’s story, which detailed emails and documents obtained by the Tribune via open records requests. The request was filed after the university provided vague answers to students and ignored the Tribune’s questions about the center.
“So I want to talk to you about what the university is actually planning to do and try to address some of the misconceptions,” she told the faculty.
Wood, who is the former dean of the UT-Austin Cockrell School of Engineering, was named provost in June. She told faculty she did not know answers to many of their questions because the discussions about this center predated her arrival in the president’s office. But she described a more politically muted proposal than ones discussed privately among donors, lawmakers and school leaders.
According to Wood, the institute’s intent is to “support and help attract faculty.” She said it will be an “investment in philosophy, politics and economics.” She said the idea has been discussed among faculty and school leaders for over a decade, originally led by Tom Gilligan, who was the dean of the McCombs School of Business before he left to run the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a conservative think tank that operates outside the normal university structure. And she compared the new center to a philosophy, politics and economics department at Oxford University.
“The goal is to provide students who cross traditional boundaries and consider problems from multiple points of view,” Wood said. “This allows them to better understand how regulatory and legal environments are going to impact markets. They also will have the analytical and quantitative skills to solve complex problems and understand more economic drivers.”
In August, the Tribune reported on Hartzell’s emails obtained through an open records request to UT-Austin, as well as two proposals obtained from Patrick’s office which suggest more political — though not explicitly partisan — motivations to launch the institute among those involved.
“[A] growing proportion of our population lacks a basic understanding of the role liberty and private enterprise play in their well-being,” read one proposal. “Too many Americans, particularly younger students, maintain misconceptions about our political system and lack an even basic understanding of the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations underpinning a free society.”
A second proposal described the institute as one that will “educate thousands of students … on the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations of a free society” and asks the state to dedicate money to the project.
It is still unclear who wrote these proposals or when they were written. While they do not reflect the full breadth of discussion about the institute, they provided the most insight into the vision of some of the people involved in its creation. Emails show Hartzell has been involved in discussions since at least 2016.
Wood said the Tribune’s report “ignored the role of faculty governance and faculty hiring and also developing new degree programs and implied there was no interest among students.” She did not give specifics about those roles.
UT-Austin did not respond to an interview request or written questions sent Tuesday, including a request to provide a list of faculty and students involved in planning the new center.
Despite the decisions yet to be made, some professors remained skeptical about the new center. After Wood spoke, College of Natural Sciences professor Stuart Reichler said faculty’s main concern is that the university is allowing the Legislature to politicize UT-Austin.
“You say we need outside funding for this institute to happen,” Reichler said. “It sounds like there are already donors, political donors, lined up to provide money for the university to hire people to work in these positions to form part of this institute. I think our concern — or at least what I’m reading into the concern from the questions are — why is the university allowing itself to be politicized by the Legislature? It seems a very dangerous precedent for us to set.”
But one professor pushed back on the concerns of his colleagues, arguing that university programs such as social justice centers and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are already political.
“It seems like you’re just treating this as ideas you don’t want [on campus] as opposed to some broader principle,” said Richard Lowery, a finance professor in the UT-Austin business school.
In response to the funding concerns, Wood noted that there are 15 different efforts on campus funded in a similar way by the Legislature, including the McDonald Observatory and Marine Science Institute, while also stating that it is rare for the university to receive money this way.
She said no donors have been secured for the new center. But emails show at least one donor had agreed to commit $8.5 million toward a new center in 2016. Bob Rowling, a conservative billionaire businessman and well-known UT-Austin donor, confirmed he and oil company executive Bud Brigham were involved in the project. Rowling told the Tribune in August that Brigham was the “real leader on this.” UT-Austin did not respond to a question asking Wood to clarify what she meant by her comment.
UT-Austin has ignored interview requests and written questions from the Tribune. Leaders provided few details to students who also raised questions last spring.
When asked by a faculty member at the meeting why UT-Austin did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment, Wood said she did not know.
Wood also told the council that the goal this year is to hire three to five new faculty who would have teaching interests in “philosophical bases for individual and collective decision making and choice, government regulation, legal and policy impacts on economic outcomes and individual choice and freedoms, market design and social welfare, and social prosperity and well-being, including innovation, entrepreneurial activities, company formation and job creation.”
She reassured faculty that any new professors would be hired within the proper university protocols, which include deans, department chairs and the Faculty Council. One of the proposals obtained from Patrick’s office had suggested the center would be run by a board of overseers made up of “alumni and friends … committed to the mission.” They would report to UT-Austin’s president and the system’s Board of Regents and would manage donor funds and help hire the faculty.
Wood also told faculty that the president’s office will find philanthropic support to hire chairs or professors. She also said the university plans to do an inventory of existing courses to develop a list of new classes that may be added. They anticipate conducting a national search for the director. Wood said they also have yet to determine the official name of the institute, its mission and the board and governance structure.
While some faculty said the outline provided by Wood on Monday sounded reasonable, they did not feel as if the university has shared enough information and said more discussion and details are necessary.
“I don't think we know enough yet to know whether the university is doing anything inappropriate or in bad faith here,” Steve Vladeck, a law professor and member of the Faculty Council, said. “But I don’t think the university has helped itself in how it has conveyed information to the faculty. I don’t think [Monday’s] meeting helped in that respect at all.”
The Faculty Council’s executive committee has asked Hartzell to make a presentation to them on the new center.
If you appreciate reporting like this, you need to be at the all-virtual 2021 Texas Tribune Festival happening now through Sept. 25. Join as big names from politics, public policy and the media share what’s next for Texas and beyond. Explore live and on-demand programming, including dozens of free events, at tribfest.org.
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Austin - McCombs School of Business and University of Texas at Austin - Texas Enterprise - McCombs School of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.