Bill would make UT-Austin center formerly known as Liberty Institute into its own college

Students walk through campus at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 25, 2021. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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A Texas lawmaker has filed legislation that would turn the Civitas Institute — a center that faculty have criticized as politically motivated because it was originally conceived with the help of conservative donors and state lawmakers — into a formal college at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, filed the bill late last week to create The Civitas School of Civic and International Leadership at the flagship campus in Austin.

It states UT-Austin must provide the college with 15 tenured or tenure-track faculty spots and allow the college to offer courses and undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The bill states that the dean would report to the university president and provost. The dean, president and board of regents would establish a board of advisers who would “participate in any future processes to select successor deans of the school.”

Any faculty in the college could also hold a joint appointment elsewhere at the university. The college must be created by Jan. 15 of next year.

“Through legislative action, Civitas Institute will be a leader in research, education and policy based on free markets, individual liberty and the philosophical and historical foundations of a free society,” Creighton said in a statement. “Building off of the appropriation in SB 1 in the 87th Legislative Session, this bill codifies the mission and purpose of the Civitas Institute and creates an academic unit, organizational structure and funding for faculty and staff.”

The bill has not been sent to a committee yet.

[UT-Austin working with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, conservative donors to create “limited government” think tank]

The Civitas Institute, which launched just eight months ago, initially received $6 million from the state budget in 2021, which the University of Texas System Board of Regents matched with system funds. In proposals obtained by The Texas Tribune, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and multiple donors were working with UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell and UT System Board Chair Kevin Eltife to create the institute “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets” and bring “intellectual diversity” to the flagship university in Austin.

Since then, the center has been mired in criticism as university officials attempted to assuage concerns from faculty that UT-Austin was allowing the Legislature to politicize the university with this new center. Months later, two professors behind the project accused Hartzell of walking back the original plan in the wake of that criticism. Patrick also claimed publicly last year that UT-Austin faculty “shot it down” because they wanted to have control of hiring. Despite pushback from both sides, UT-Austin launched the center with a new name in July 2022 and hired an executive director.

[Professors behind conservative-backed “Liberty Institute” say UT has strayed from plan]

Jeremi Suri, a public affairs and history professor in the LBJ School of Public Policy at UT-Austin, said it’s unusual for a university to turn a center into a college so quickly before it can fully assess its impact and dictate what subjects universities will teach.

“Faculty control curriculum and so we have a problem here that they’re circumventing faculty control,” Suri said. “It does seem to me a very strange and a poor way forward to create a college that the faculty at the university doesn't support being a separate college.”

He’s also concerned a new college with 15 faculty positions would create a financial burden for UT-Austin at a time when budgets are tightening.

“The way to create excellence is not to create more bureaucracy, more silos,” Suri said. “I want to see an integrated environment where we have people with diverse backgrounds, faculty, students, speakers with diverse backgrounds and diverse points of view, sitting in the same classrooms not divided in different sections of campus.”

UT-Austin officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The legislation is the latest step to expand the center’s presence on campus after the Civitas Institute officially launched last July. Since then, the center, which is self-described as a “university-wide initiative to support the study of the ideas and institutions that sustain a free society,” has largely hosted lecture series with the help of faculty fellows from across UT-Austin and at other universities across the country. It also created an undergraduate fellowship program.

“Universities are critical to the preservation of liberty, for no country can long remain free without leaders who understand the conditions of freedom. But it is especially critical at the present time, as American politics become increasingly polarized and American universities increasingly mired in disputes about higher education’s present state and ultimate purpose,” the center’s fall newsletter states.

“Our aim is to help American higher education return to itself by fostering the spirit of civic leadership and responsibility among our students, who are our future civic leaders and the future custodians of the American experiment.”

Suri said he has met with Justin Dyer, the Civitas Institutes’ executive director, and Dyer told him he wanted to engage with all viewpoints on campus.

“I don’t think he wants to build a silo,” Suri said. “But I think the way to do that is to begin slowly and work through existing institutions, with institutions supplementing existing colleges, not substituting for them.”

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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