University of Texas regents approve creation of new college to house Civitas Institute at UT-Austin

An aerial view of the main tower at the University of Texas at Austin on March 23, 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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The University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously voted Thursday to create a new college at the University of Texas at Austin to house the Civitas Institute, a center criticized by faculty as politically motivated because it was conceived with the help of conservative donors and state lawmakers.

The decision by the board came before Texas lawmakers could vote on a bill by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, intended to turn the Civitas Institute into a college. The board’s creation of the new college makes that legislation unnecessary.

“The Civitas Institute will be a leader in research, education and policy based on free markets and individual liberty,” Creighton said in a statement. “I applaud Chairman [Kevin] Eltife and the Board of Regents for their support, which will provide the organizational structure to hire faculty and staff.” ​​

The motion was added to the agenda Friday and approved in the last portion of the board’s two-day meeting.

According to the approved motion, the new college will be called the School of Civic Leadership. The university will appoint an inaugural dean by the end of November, who will have the ability to hire up to 20 new faculty within the first three years. Faculty could be housed in the school or could be joint appointments within other areas of the university. The school would be able to hire faculty through existing university procedures and protocols.

According to system rules, the board must notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board once it approves a new college or school, but no state approval is required.

“We believe that investment in this endeavor is essential for leading American universities and we hope UT-Austin will be a model for the best way to provide for scholarship and teaching that will prepare leaders and citizens,” Eltife said in a statement before the board approved the move. Eltife compared the new school to Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and Arizona State University’s School of Civics and Economic Thought and Leadership.

Eltife left the meeting after it adjourned and did not make himself available for further questions.

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 proposals showed that Patrick and multiple high-power donors were working with UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell and Eltife to create an institute “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.

Faculty immediately raised concerns that the university is allowing state lawmakers and donors to infuse their political agendas onto the campus by creating a center outside of traditional university channels. They were especially concerned with aspects of the proposals that suggested the center should be managed by a board of overseers of “alumni and friends” who would manage donations and help the UT-Austin president approve the center’s leadership. A separate board of scholars appointed by that board of overseers would advise on faculty hiring.

During the fall 2021 semester, UT-Austin administrators attempted to reassure faculty that the new institute would operate within the university's traditional protocols. Last year, two professors originally involved with the project accused Hartzell of walking back the original plan in the wake of faculty criticism. Patrick also claimed publicly that UT-Austin faculty “shot it down” because they wanted to have control of hiring. UT-Austin did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding these accusations.

But after Thursday’s board meeting, Hartzell said the college will work under normal protocols similar to other colleges in the university, including the role of the new college’s board of advisers in the school.

“[They’ll act as] sort of sounding boards for the dean and provide input and counsel all kinds of things, but as per norms,” Hartzell said.

The move by the regents is the latest step to expand the center’s presence on campus after the Civitas Institute launched last July and the university hired Justin Dyer to lead the center. 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 other universities across the country. It also created an undergraduate fellowship program.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the 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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