Schools of Intellectual Freedom: Coming to a University Near You?

An increasing number of states have created, or are considering creating, autonomous schools within public universities, where depoliticized scholarship can flourish with institutional protections from the radical, illiberal monoculture of the higher education establishment.

In 2016, the Arizona legislature created the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at Arizona State University (ASU). Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee has announced plans to create a new civics institute at the University of Tennessee, while Florida intends to open a Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. A 2021 Texas plan to open a Liberty Institute at the University of Texas seems not to have borne fruit yet, but may in time. Throughout America, reformers are contemplating the creation of what we may generically call Schools of Intellectual Freedom (SIF).

We at the National Association of Scholars (NAS) applaud the campaign to create these autonomous schools. They build admirably upon the earlier campaign to create departments and programs devoted to political pluralism, notably supported by the Jack Miller Center. America’s public universities desperately need an institutional home for academic freedom, which can provide a haven for dissenting professors and students from the repressive policies of the radical establishment.

Yet we also have cautions, as well as thoughts about how SIFs should be created. SIFs should be tools to foster not only the re-liberalization of the American academy but also the re-liberalization of all the professions downstream from it—above all, K–12 teaching. Education reformers should take care in how they work to create SIFs, to ensure the schools have maximum effect.

[Related: “Reimagining College: Three New Schools”]

Funding: SCETL received $3 million a year of initial funding from the Arizona state legislature. States which wish to create SIFs should anticipate a minimum expenditure of $3 million a year for at least five years, for each autonomous SIF they fund—whether diverted from the remainder of the public university budget or added to it. The recent spurt of inflation may make an estimated minimum expenditure of $4 million a year more realistic.

Autonomy: Above all, the SIFs need to be able to appoint new professors and select incoming graduate students without being subject to the veto of the university administration or regular departments. They will be ineffective without this power.

Supporting Younger Professors: The radical academic monoculture has produced a stranglehold on the production of younger professors who are not woke. This stranglehold has affected every field, but in particular the humanities and the social sciences. In these fields, an extraordinarily small number of professors and graduate students under 40 are not woke, much less willing to challenge woke presumptions. An absolute priority for SIFs must be:

• to educate dissenting graduate students as they seek doctorates; and

• to employ dissenting younger professors.

States will waste their resources if SIFs only provide a sinecure for professors approaching retirement, with no younger colleagues and no graduate students. Even hosting speakers on campus who dissent from the radical monoculture is secondary to the goal of producing a new generation of dissenting professors. Legislators should assess the success of the SIFs first and foremost by their ability to educate a new generation of dissenting academics.

Educating K–12 Teachers: The radical academic monoculture also has produced a remarkable stranglehold on the production of K–12 teachers. SIFs should be seen explicitly as means to battle the monopoly of education schools, all of which have become extraordinarily woke. Legislators should require prospective teachers to take multiple courses in the SIFs as a condition of licensure. They also should allow would-be teachers to qualify by taking courses in the Schools instead of education classes. Legislators should assess the success of the SIFs by their capacity to educate a new generation of dissenting K–12 teachers.

[Related: “Academia Needs Builders, Not Burners: What Charlie Kirk Gets Wrong About Higher Education”]

Promotion: Education reformers suffer from a catastrophic shortage of personnel with experience in higher education who can serve as deans, presidents, and members of Boards of Regents. Legislators should also consider promoting directors of SIFs to these positions—above all, as university presidents and members of Boards of Regents. This will be useful for education reform in itself; it will also make service in SIFs attractive, by offering a career path that provides sufficient rewards in prestige and financial compensation. Indeed, if ambitious education administrators learn that the best way to gain a university presidency is by service in a SIF, this will greatly alter the dynamic of education administration in the universities, to the benefit of education reform.

Financial Autonomy: SIFs should seek financial autonomy, by means of benefactions from private donors. Legislatures, after all, may not have infinite patience for paying for such Schools. Private donors, however, should configure their gifts so that no university administrator has control over their gifts—not even, ultimately, the members of the SIFs themselves. Radical capture of institutions has been so much the norm that private donors should not risk its recurrence. Their money should support these SIFs—but always revocably, in case of woke capture.

Compromises—A Caution: Arizona pioneered the creation of autonomous schools in public universities with SCETL. It did much right in doing so, including requiring SCETL to submit annual reports to the legislature—a condition which provided a check against any attempt by the ASU administration to seize SCETL’s resources or take over its administration. Yet Arizona’s own political transformation from a red state to a purple state has had a discernible effect on SCETL’s character. SCETL is more middle of the road than its original legislative funders may have intended, and it is willing to engage in dubious endeavors such as endorsing Educating for American Democracy (EAD) as part of an attempt to burnish a bipartisan image. While SCETL certainly is more pluralist than the remainder of Arizona’s public higher education system, it is more polite than prophetic in its dissent. If more states create such SIFs, then they may follow SCETL toward a pluralism too polite to challenge openly the dominant academic monoculture.

State policymakers will adjust these recommendations to fit the local circumstances of their states and universities. Nevertheless, these principles and cautions should provide an outline of guidance to legislators considering founding Schools of Intellectual Freedom.

Image: Marijus, Adobe Stock


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