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Executives at the University of Texas at Austin tried to allay faculty concerns this week over a proposed campus-based think tank known as the Liberty Institute, weeks after the Texas Tribune reported that the university was working with private donors and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to create a center that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual freedom, limited government, private enterprise and markets free â.
At a faculty council meeting on Monday, provost Sharon Wood reiterated that many decisions have yet to be made regarding the institute, which already has $ 12 million in funding over the two next years of the state legislature and the board of regents of the UT system.
The faculty council leaders 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 place, Wood admitted to council that the Tribune article “caused a lot of concern” on campus. But she noted that the university had not provided information for last month’s article, which detailed emails and documents obtained by the Tribune via open case requests. The request was filed after the university provided vague answers to students and ignored the Tribune’s questions about the center.
âSo I want to talk to you about what the university is actually planning to do and try to dispel some of the misconceptions,â she told the faculty.
Wood, who is the former dean of UT-Austin Cockrell School of Engineering, was appointed rector in June. She told professors that she didn’t know the answers to many of their questions because the discussions about this center predate her arrival at the president’s office. But she described a more politically silent proposal than those discussed privately between donors, lawmakers and school leaders.
According to Wood, the institute’s intention is to “support and help attract faculty.” She said it would be an “investment in philosophy, politics and economics”. She said the idea had 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 leaving to lead 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 department of philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford.
âThe goal is to provide students who cross traditional boundaries and consider issues from multiple perspectives,â said Wood. âThis allows them to better understand how the regulatory and legal environments will impact the markets. They will also have the analytical and quantitative skills to solve complex problems and understand more economic drivers. “
In August, the Tribune reported on emails from Hartzell obtained via a request for open cases to UT-Austin, as well as two proposals obtained from Patrick’s office that suggest more political – but not explicitly partisan – motivations for launching. the institute among those involved.
“[A] A growing proportion of our population does not have a basic understanding of the role that freedom and private enterprise play in their well-being, âone proposal reads. “Too many Americans, especially younger students, harbor misconceptions about our political system and lack even a basic understanding of the moral, ethical, philosophical, and historical foundations that underpin 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 devote money to the project.
It is still unclear who wrote these proposals or when they were written. While they do not reflect the full scope of discussions about the institute, they have provided the most insight into the vision of some of the people involved in its creation. The emails show Hartzell has been involved in discussions since at least 2016.
Wood said the Tribune report “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 “. She did not give details of these roles.
UT-Austin did not respond to an interview request or written questions sent on Tuesday, including a request to provide a list of faculty and students involved in planning the new center.
Despite the decisions still to be made, some teachers remained skeptical about the new center. After Wood’s speech, College of Natural Sciences professor Stuart Reichler said the main concern of the faculty was for the university to allow the legislature to politicize UT-Austin.
âYou say we need external funding for this institute to exist,â Reichler said. âIt seems there are already donors, political donors, lined up to provide money to the university to hire people to work in these positions to be part of this institute. I think our concern – or at least what I’m reading in the questions concern is – why does the university allow itself to be politicized by the legislature? It seems like a very dangerous precedent for us to set. “
But one professor brushed aside 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 you only treat this as ideas you don’t want [on campus] as opposed to a broader principle, âsaid Richard Lowery, professor of finance at UT-Austin Business School.
In response to funding issues, Wood noted that there are 15 different efforts on campus similarly funded by the Legislature, including the McDonald Observatory and the Marine Science Institute, while stating that it is rare for the university to receive money in this way. .
She said no donors had been found for the new center. But emails show at least one donor agreed to commit $ 8.5 million to a new center in 2016. Bob Rowling, a billionaire conservative businessman and well-known UT-Austin donor, confirmed that he and the head of the oil company Bud Brigham were involved in the project. Rowling told the Tribune in August that Brigham was the “real leader on this matter.” UT-Austin did not respond to a question asking Wood to clarify what she meant by her comment.
UT-Austin ignored interview requests and written questions from the Tribune. Executives provided few details to students who also raised questions last spring.
When asked by a faculty member why UT-Austin didn’t respond to the Tribune’s request for comment, Wood said she didn’t know.
Wood also told the board that the goal this year is to hire three to five new faculty who would have teaching interests in “the philosophical bases of individual and collective decision-making and choice, government regulation, legal and political impacts on economic outcomes and individual choices and freedoms, market design and social well-being, and social prosperity and well-being, including innovation, entrepreneurial activities, business creation and creation jobs.
She reassured faculty that any new professor would be hired under appropriate academic protocols, which include deans, department heads and the faculty council. One of the proposals obtained from Patrick’s office suggested that the center would be run by a board of directors made up of âalumni and friendsâ¦ committed to the missionâ. They would report to the President of UT-Austin and the System’s Board of Regents and manage donor funds and help hire faculty.
Wood also told faculty that the president’s office would find philanthropic support to hire chairs or faculty. She also said the university planned to take an inventory of existing courses to develop a list of new classes that could be added. They plan to conduct a national search for the director. Wood said they have yet to determine the institute’s official name, mission, and board and governance structure.
While some professors said the plan Wood provided on Monday seemed reasonable, they did not feel the university had shared enough information and said more discussion and details were needed.
“I don’t think we know enough yet to know if the university is doing anything inappropriate or bad faith here,” said Steve Vladeck, law professor and faculty board member. âBut I don’t think the university helped itself in the way it conveyed information to the faculty. I do not think so [Mondayâs] meeting helped in this regard at all.
The Faculty Council executive committee asked Hartzell to give them a presentation on the new center.
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Disclosure: The 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 financially supported The Texas Tribune, a news organization in non-profit and non-partisan which is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.