At their finest, universities are places where the best minds and the best ideas compete, where students are presented with the breadth and depth of science, history, philosophy and art, and where they are guided through rigorous study to reach conclusions that, in time, will again advance human knowledge.
John Henry Cardinal Newman outlined this vision of higher education in what was once a seminal text, The Idea of a University.
He urged students to “compare one idea with another; adjust truths and facts; form them into one whole, or notice the obstacles which occur in doing so.”
These things come to mind now because a certain number of the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin are worked up over a plan to establish a new think tank on campus called the Liberty Institute that will be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.”
These faculty members are concerned the institute will be politicized and that its scholarship won’t be rigorous. Those are, in themselves, fair concerns, but we have to take them in the context of our present reality, where many college campuses and much of their faculties are fully politicized. The vision Newman suggests of a place where ideas compete among students in search of truth is often stillborn in classes where professors — almost uniformly from the left — operate in an entirely political frame.
It’s such a state that the conservative columnist George Will joked in a recent column that he was a Republican professor before such a term became an oxymoron. The joke dries up when you consider that many students who wish to consider or openly explore ideas from a free-market, capitalist and classically liberal perspective feel afraid to express themselves in their own classrooms.
University professors are among the best educated people among us, and they should not fear having their ideas tested by scholarship from the Liberty Institute. Nor should they fear the politicization of UT Austin based on the existence of this institute. Yes, it is supported by conservative donors and conservative legislators, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But it’s just as true that there is a political tilt to UT’s faculty, so we can only imagine the institute will offer some degree of much-needed balance.
Provost Sharon Wood was quoted in The Texas Tribune saying that the institute would provide educational opportunities for students “who cross traditional boundaries and consider problems from multiple points of view.” That sounds like it should be a fundamental plank of a UT education, the sort of thing all students should be doing and that all faculty members should be encouraging them to do.
There wouldn’t be a Liberty Institute if there were not a need for one. The institute is coming into being because too often there isn’t enough scholarship and debate on campus regarding free market ideas and policies. A major Texas university in the seat of state politics in Austin is a prime place to explore ideas in ways that support the students’ search for truth. We are encouraged that the provost will not allow preconceived ideas about the institute to interfere with this opportunity to engage in important debates.