Colleges and universities across the country like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas are facing enormous challenges — challenges that threaten the mission of these institutions to discover and transmit knowledge.
Governors, state legislatures and governing boards are pressuring these schools to alter their curricula and eliminate programs designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion — to take actions that are political rather than educational, hence aligning these higher education institutions with conservative values and a conservative agenda.
Case in point. On Thursday, May 4, the Board of Regents voted to establish a new college at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) to house the Civitas Institute. This institute (center) was opposed vehemently by faculty who viewed its creation as politically motivated — something prompted and demanded by conservative donors and some state lawmakers.
According to a story in the Texas Tribune, “The Civitas Institute was officially established less than a year ago with the help of state and system funds totaling $12 million. Proposals for the center, originally called the Liberty Institute, were obtained by the Texas Tribune from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office in summer 2021.”
The Civitas Institute is “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets” and to bring “intellectual diversity” to the flagship university in Austin.”
Ironically, I believe this action is reprehensible. Why do I say ironic?
I was a faculty member at UT for more than 40 years. For the last 25 years of my career, I was an ardent advocate for academic-civic engagement, the alleged purpose of the Civitas Institute. Witness my Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) started in 1996, the goal of which was to educate citizen-scholars. Witness as well my dozens and dozens of op-eds documenting the practical as well as academic value of scholarship.
Not surprisingly, I have argued that faculty in academic departments have an ethical and professional obligation to leverage their disciplinary knowledge for social good and to expand their classroom to include the public at large.
However, this new, unprecedented and politically motivated institute (and college to house it) violates the core values of academe. After all, every other college at UT — and department — represents an identifiable academic discipline and corresponding body of refereed knowledge/research. But not this one.
In addition, all academic units at UT (colleges, schools, departments and institutes) are created and given legitimacy only after a rigorous scholarly review by faculty and university administrators. But again, not this one.
This move by the regents is repugnant. It clearly caters exclusively to politicians who want UT to establish a conservative think tank rather than reflecting genuine academic and intellectual interests and needs. I fear the next dominoes that inevitably will fall.
To see this happening at a place where I happily worked for 43 years saddens me. My only hope is that faculty at UT and elsewhere will stand up and vigorously protest this and other efforts that bring politics to the university’s primary mission of discovering and transmitting knowledge — like recent attempts to eliminate tenure, interfere with curriculum or forbidding/restricting initiatives promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.