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Over the past eight months, leaders at the University of Texas at Austin have been working with private donors and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to launch a new think tank on campus that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.”
Legislators already approved initial funding for the Liberty Institute, slipping $6 million into the 2022-23 state budget without giving details of the project’s aim. University officials have also committed $6 million. All involved have been vague or silent about their plans so far when asked by faculty and student groups. And they have repeatedly denied interview requests from The Texas Tribune about the project’s intent, its budget and who is involved.
But emails and documents obtained by the Tribune via open records request show that UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell and others at the university have been working in earnest with Patrick, UT-Austin donors and UT System Board Chair Kevin Eltife, a former Republican state senator, to launch the Liberty Institute as a way to bring “intellectual diversity” to campus. At least two well-known UT-Austin alumni and conservative donors, oil tycoon Bud Brigham and billionaire businessman Bob Rowling, also have been involved in the project.
While these records do not reflect the full breadth of discussion about the project, and officials say many decisions have yet to be made, the documents provide the most insight so far into the vision of some of the people pushing for the new institute, as well as its intent.
The Tribune obtained two proposals from various stages of the planning process from Patrick’s office. One proposal describes the institute as one that will “educate thousands of students … on the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations of a free society” and asks the state to dedicate money to the project. It also includes a plan to create a civics course within UT-Austin’s OnRamps program, which works with more than 20,000 Texas high schoolers to expose them to college courses.
A second document explains why the Liberty Center is necessary at UT-Austin.
“[A] growing proportion of our population lacks a basic understanding of the role liberty and private enterprise play in their well-being,” that proposal reads. “Too many Americans, particularly younger students, maintain misconceptions about our political system and lack an even basic understanding of the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations underpinning a free society.”
In that proposal, the center would be run by a board of overseers made up of “alumni and friends … committed to the mission.” They would report to UT-Austin’s president and the Board of Regents — rather than UT-Austin’s deans and academic colleges — and would manage donor funds and help hire the faculty. That model would be similar to Stanford University’s conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution. But questions remain as to whether that or other suggestions made in the brainstorming process would be adopted or even allowed under UT-Austin’s current policies.
Both proposals also describe how the group hopes to influence Texas education beyond UT-Austin’s 40 acres, with possible plans to help other universities open similar centers and create programming for Texas high schoolers.
It’s unclear when the proposals were written, who authored them or how many of the ideas will be included in the center when it’s ultimately launched. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for more information. UT-Austin redacted the names of individuals involved who are not employed by the university and redacted nearly all planning documents. Still, the documents provide the most details so far about the thinking of some of those working on making the center a reality.
When asked about the project, Eltife said in a statement that the board is “extremely enthusiastic to be part of the creation of the Liberty Institute.” He said the system and UT-Austin are in the early stages of developing the concept and hope to launch the institute by next spring. At a Board of Regents meeting last week, the regents unanimously authorized funding from UT-Austin’s budget to match state funding. Eltife said the board hopes to expand the center to other UT System institutions over time.
Rowling confirmed to the Tribune through his assistant that he is involved with the project and said that Brigham, an oil company executive and fervent promoter of the writer Ayn Rand, was the “real leader on this.” Brigham did not respond to a request for comment.
The proposal that requests state appropriations and obtained by the Tribune includes draft language for the state budget item, which says the money would be used to “dramatically increase the number of students who are able to explore and learn about the value of free markets, limited government, personal enterprise and individual freedom.” However, those details were not included when it was ultimately added to page 304 of the massive budget document, providing less information to the public.
Many unanswered questions remain about the project, such as where the institute will be housed in the university, its final budget and the full list of people involved in its genesis.
Leaders of UT-Austin’s Faculty Council, which represents faculty across the university, said they have not received details about the plan. Steven Ding, president of the student-led UT Senate of College Councils, said when he and other student government leaders asked Hartzell about the institute, Hartzell told them, “It’s not what you think it is,” and compared it to other public policy think tanks, but did not provide more details. Ding said he’s frustrated by the lack of transparency and involvement from the university community.
“Donors are slowly trying to reach into higher education in the state against the will of the people on campus: the students, the faculty and the staff,” he said. “There are so many other institutional priorities for us.”
The development of the institute comes at a moment when conservative leaders across the country have criticized higher education as a bastion of left-leaning indoctrination. The accusation that higher education is politically imbalanced in a way that silences conservative students and faculty is not new. But this fear among conservatives has been revived over the past year as university communities across Texas and the country have reckoned with their histories of racism in their traditions, enrollments and curricula.
Experts who study the intersection of politics and higher education say universities have become the battleground for the country’s culture wars, and it’s not surprising that donors with strong political leanings would get involved in university initiatives regardless of their ideology.
Chris Marsicano, assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College, said much of these conflicts are fueled by the belief that higher education is filled with left-leaning professors indoctrinating students.
“As long as the perception is there, legislators and donors who feel that colleges need to be more conservative will find ways to try to influence their development operations,” he said.
The proposals obtained from Patrick’s office envision the Liberty Institute would create new degree programs and courses taught by around 10 faculty members recruited to work at UT-Austin. The faculty would teach classes in areas like philosophy, politics and economics. One proposal set a goal to be fully operational by fall 2026, serving 2,500 students. It envisioned an initial budget at $100 million with $25 million coming from private donors and around $75 million from the UT System Board of Regents and the state.
It’s unclear if that is the budget UT-Austin is pursuing. UT-Austin did not respond to multiple requests for comment or answer written questions for this story. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for an interview. At first, the UT System did not provide any information, referred the Tribune back to UT-Austin and recommended that the Tribune file an open records request, before providing its statement Wednesday. The Tribune requested Hartzell’s emails that reference the Liberty Institute between January and May of 2021.
According to those emails, Hartzell has been discussing the idea of the Liberty Institute with donors and alumni since at least 2016, when he was dean of UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business.
Emails show that donors who supported the Liberty Institute were intimately involved in discussions, writing draft proposals and meeting with state leaders.
“Attached is the latest draft of the proposal for the Liberty Institute,” a donor, whose name was redacted, wrote to a group that included Hartzell in January. “I believe you’re all generally up to speed, but all the stakeholders are very excited. … I believe we all agree with the Lt. Governor’s statement that we need to ‘go big’ on this. We have a historic opportunity for our state, our country, and very importantly our students.”
Right now, the full list of faculty, donors and alumni who are participating in the conception of the institute is unclear. UT-Austin redacted their names in emails provided to the Tribune, arguing it can redact the names of donors under Texas’ open records law.
Rowling, the donor who confirmed his involvement, owns TRT Holdings, the holding company for Omni Hotels and previously for Gold’s Gym. Rowling served as the chair of the UT System Board of Regents until 2009. He resigned after facing criticism from state lawmakers for giving the managers of the University of Texas/Texas A&M Investment Management Company $2.3 million in bonuses in the midst of a financial crisis.
Brigham, who Rowling said is the “leader” of the initiative, has founded multiple companies within the energy sector in Texas, two of which have sold for combined proceeds of around $7 billion. He is reportedly a huge fan of Rand, whose books have long influenced libertarians and conservatives. Brigham funded the production of two movies, “Atlas Shrugged II” and “Atlas Shrugged III,” according to a 2017 Forbes article.
Texas Ethics Commission records show that 11 days after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the budget that included funding for the Liberty Institute, Brigham donated $10,000 to Patrick’s campaign.
Some of the documents obtained by the Tribune suggest that at least some of its boosters raised the idea of having the institute operate outside the normal academic structures of UT-Austin. One proposal calls for giving the institute’s backers power to appoint their own faculty and have a separate budget managed by the board of overseers. That same proposal obtained from Patrick lists 11 scholars as examples of who would fit the mission. The list largely includes conservative economists at prestigious universities, including John Cochrane at the Hoover Institution and Kevin Hassett, senior adviser and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers to former President Donald Trump. All but one example were white men.
“These names are all aspirational and reflect examples of the knowledge gap we are trying to close with the Liberty Institute,” that proposal reads.
Another draft document outlines a potential fundraising strategy for the institute that would require a $1 million minimum gift to be on the board.
“We need the Liberty Institute at UT”
Emails show Hartzell worked closely with UT-Austin professor Carlos Carvalho, who heads the Salem Center for Policy in the McCombs School of Business, on the project. On one occasion, the two met on a Saturday to work on the project proposal over food from Tacodeli, with Hartzell choosing a papadulce taco and a Freakin’ Vegan taco on corn tortillas, according to email records.
Carvalho, who came to UT-Austin from the University of Chicago over a decade ago, is described by Hartzell as “a world-class statistician and the somewhat rare kind of academic that one enjoys hanging out with,” in one email. Carvalho did not respond to a request for comment.
As the two met about the Liberty Institute, a national debate was brewing over what many conservatives saw as an overcorrection in the push to better teach America’s difficult history of race relations and institutional racism, which intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Many conservative groups and leaders felt these lessons were incorrectly teaching children that the United States was founded on racism and were unfairly making white students feel guilty.
In Texas and across the country, conservative lawmakers have passed so-called critical race theory laws that critics say are an attempt to limit anti-racist discussions that might challenge dominant narratives about the country’s history and identity.
During the regular session, Patrick criticized critical race theory, calling it a “woke” philosophy.
“These divisive concepts have been inserted into curriculums around the state, but they have no place in Texas schools,” he told the Tribune in a statement earlier this year.
Emails also show these types of discussions fueled some of those who believed UT-Austin needed to create the Liberty Institute.
In one email to Hartzell, Carvalho shared an episode of a podcast from the Hoover Institution and said it “touches on our motivation to build the Salem Center and Liberty Institute.”
The podcast episode is titled “A Chill in the Classroom” and discusses “what to make of elite universities with scant conservative representation in their faculty ranks.”
Another person involved in the project, whose name was redacted by UT-Austin, also sent the podcast to Hartzell for a listen.
“It’s truly discouraging how illiberal the erudite class has become,” the individual wrote to Hartzell. The sender then raised issues with a link to a page on UT-Austin’s website called “Resources on Equity and Anti-Racism,” which includes links to readings on race, segregation, housing discrimination and links to trainings on anti-racism practices.
“It’s very discouraging to see only one, slanted viewpoint presented by the entire department,” the email read. “Why can’t the other side of the story be presented so that a robust discussion leading to truth emerges?”
The author then referenced a recent opinion article from The Wall Street Journal titled “America Isn’t a Racist Country.”
“Note this article is penned by a Black man; his grandfather was a slave. We need the Liberty Institute at UT Austin.”
Hartzell responded the following morning.
“I appreciate the input,” he wrote. “Given what’s been happening with the Tribune, I won’t email more,” referencing the Tribune’s reporting on the emails Hartzell received over UT-Austin’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” from donors. “But, please know I’m grateful for you and am very excited about the Liberty Institute!”
The group of backers eventually met with Patrick to discuss their proposal and state funding for the project in early March, around the time the funding was quietly added to the state budget. But as questions were raised publicly about the line item in the budget, few answers were provided by UT-Austin.
In late May, State Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Dallas, inquired about the institute on the House floor the day members prepared to pass the state budget for the next two years, questioning whether the institute was linked to the conservative Liberty University. Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, the House’s chief budget writer, reassured Ramos this was “an independent initiative of the University of Texas at Austin,” but provided little information otherwise.
As news of the funding circulated on campus in late May, students also started raising questions and concerns about how the $6 million would be allocated.
The UT Senate of College Councils and other student leadership organizations released a list of demands calling on Hartzell to instead direct the state appropriations to student needs, which received 300 signatures. The organizations encouraged students to email Hartzell to rescind his support. According to the emails, at least 22 students sent such emails.
In a Daily Texan article published in the spring, university spokesperson J.B. Bird said the institute would create new educational opportunities for students.
“UT-Austin welcomes the Texas Legislature’s interest in creating an institute dedicated to free markets, economic development, private enterprise and personal liberty,” Bird said in a statement.
As the emails objecting to the institute started rolling in, even communications staff within the university were in the dark about the project.
“Can you provide any background for us on what the Liberty Institute is?” wrote Eliska Padilla, issues and communications manager at UT-Austin.
“I have no additional info or insight on this,” responded Avrel Seale, “messaging architect” in the president’s office.
He directed her back to the two-sentence explanation in the state budget for information.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, the McCombs School of Business, the University of Texas System, Tacodeli and Bob Rowling 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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