University of Texas selects new director — and new name — for its conservative institute

Justin Dyer has been named the executive director of the newly formed Civitas Institute. (Courtesy Justin Dyer, Courtesy Justin Dyer)

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The University of Texas at Austin on Monday named a director to head its new conservative-backed center — The Civitas Institute — which will “focus on the teaching, understanding and appreciation of American values.”

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Justin Dyer, the founding director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri will lead the new UT-Austin center, which had been previously called the Liberty Institute.

Dyer, who received his doctorate in government at UT-Austin, starts on July 1. In addition to running the new institute, he will be a professor in the university’s government department.

“We are so pleased to welcome Professor Dyer back to Austin, and I want to commend the faculty-led search committee for recommending someone with such an impressive record as a scholar, teacher and leader,” UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell said in a statement. “His deep expertise in American political thought, coupled with his leadership experience, integrity and proven ability to work with others across a university campus, all make him an exceptional choice to build this exciting institute here.”

The Civitas Institute will focus on areas including “constitutionalism, limited government, free enterprise and markets, and individual liberty.”

In an op-ed in the Columbia Missourian, Dyer described himself as “a conservative, straight out of central casting, a pro-life evangelical who is an unapologetic admirer of the American Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution.” Dyer is the author of the book “Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning,” in which he draws legal connections between slavery and abortion, arguing that Roe v. Wade denies personhood to fetuses the same way the Dred Scott v. Sandford denied personhood to Black people.

The Texas Tribune first reported last year that the school was working with conservative donors and politicians to create a right-leaning think tank on its Austin campus. Since then, university officials have faced questions and concerns about the center’s mission and whether the Texas Legislature was “politicizing” the university. Last year, state lawmakers allocated $6 million toward the new enterprise. The University of Texas System Board of Regents pledged another $6 million toward the new center last summer.

On a web page about the program last updated in January, the university stated that it hopes to support three to five new members of faculty “with teaching interests in philosophical bases for 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.”

On that same website, the university said the new center will be modeled after the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a center at Oxford University.

Last week, the Tribune reported that two of the professors who were involved in early discussions had grown frustrated with the direction Hartzell has taken regarding the center since last fall, including Hartzell’s decision to move forward with Dyer as the center’s leader.

“Justin is a good guy, but I don’t think he has the needed prominence to make this institution a reality,” Professor Carlos Carvalho wrote in an email to another professor. “I am also very disappointed by the lack of a proper national search for a director. We could have done a lot better!! Jay Hartzell likes people he can control, not top scholars!”

In the announcement, UT-Austin officials said the center’s new name comes from the university’s motto, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, meaning “the cultivated mind is the guardian of democracy.”

In February, the Tribune reported that another group, First Liberty Institute, already owned the trademark for the name Liberty Institute.

Jeff Mateer, the group’s chief legal officer, told the Tribune they had alerted UT-Austin of their objections to use of the name and said UT-Austin had agreed.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System 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.

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