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The Stillbirth of the Liberty Institute
Bet On It is brought to you by the Salem Center at the University of Texas. In case you haven’t heard, Salem Center faculty, especially Carlos Carvalho, have been closely associated with the failed attempt to create a separate Liberty Institute at UT. Key idea: To help restore intellectual diversity by creating a separate contrarian academic unit with the authority to hire tenure-track and tenured faculty. Though the Liberty Institute almost happened, UT president Jay Hartzell finally killed the idea, and replaced it with a hollow substitute, the Civitas Institute.
How did all this come to pass? Richard Lowery of the Salem Center and UT’s business school shares the sordid details here. Highlights:
What we saw at UT-Austin was a huge gap in the study of the fundamentals of how free societies function, as well as the relationship between freedom and human flourishing. Virtually all other areas on campus where such ideas were explored effectively required that teaching or research take a perspective that such societies are, in fact, oppressive; that radical social change is necessary; and that activism designed to undermine the traditional foundations of free societies is a moral imperative. Beyond the obvious inappropriateness of presupposing such conclusions, such criteria were also clearly at odds with easily observable facts. Thus, effort was needed to restore sensible analysis to UT-Austin.
The proposal we developed gained significant positive attention, and potential supporters reached out to UT President Jay Hartzell to express their enthusiasm. The president begrudgingly acceded to the idea of pursuing the plan.
At this point, the university, potential donors, and Professor Carvalho further developed a plan that called for an independent academic unit (thus, a college or a department) with the ability to hire tenure-track faculty.
The key derailing event:
Then, in late August, The Texas Tribune ran a hostile article on the project, which led to a continuing sequence of hostile Faculty Council meetings in which UT professors attacked the idea, opposing anything even potentially conservative coming to campus. This Tribune article was explicitly used as an excuse to default on the original plan that had been agreed to with the state.
But according to Lowery, the root problem was that even their sympathetic donors prized the prestige of the University of Texas over any contrarian ideas:
Carlos was unceremoniously disinvited from a planning meeting between him and donors, apparently at the insistence of the UT President, who attended the meeting instead. Two out of the three core donors fully assented to his exclusion from all further involvement, effectively ending any say on the part of faculty who had brought the plan together…
We continued to fight for the original vision, laying out exactly why the Flores plan would be nothing more than a counterproductive fig leaf, but all of our support evaporated as the university dug in. Ultimately, it was conservative politicians and donors, not Marxist faculty, who brought it down out of their unwillingness to confront a supposedly prestigious Texas institution.
The good news is that the Salem Center for Policy is still alive, for now…