In 2017, Arizona State University launched the new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which was funded by the state legislature. The birth of the school was controversial at ASU, in part because it absorbed two think tanks that had been heavily supported by the right-wing Charles Koch Foundation.
The post below describes the process of the school’s establishment from the point of view of Matthew J. Garcia, who was the director of Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies from 2012 to 2017. He left ASU for Dartmouth College, “sickened” by the events that led to the establishment of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. He is now a professor of history and Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth.
Charles Koch and his brother, David, are billionaires who have spent part of their fortune to promote their anti-regulation, pro-business views of economics as well as their positions on social issues (such as climate change denial). They have been leaders in a conservative movement that believes U.S. higher education is dominated by liberals intent on indoctrinating young people.
They and a network of like-minded organizations they have helped create have been at the forefront of funding programs at hundreds of colleges and universities. More recently, they have turned attention to the K-12 landscape, in part by promoting the use of public money for private education and by helping fund high school courses that promote their libertarian economic views, as this piece in the Tucson Weekly explains.
Amid growing criticism of the new school at ASU, leaders there have been fighting back. The school’s director, Paul Carrese, recently wrote a letter to the editor published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and an op-ed in the State Press saying the school is not the right-wing institution its critics accuse it of being.
Here is the post by Garcia. Following the piece is a statement from Arizona State University about the creation of the new school.
By Matthew J. Garcia
The infusion of partisan projects and the polarization of once noble institutions is underway, influenced by billionaire investors and conservative state legislators. In Arizona, Republican elected officials leveraged an initial investment by the Charles Koch Foundation to advance an agenda that undermines faculty governance and the integrity of the humanities and social sciences in public universities.
Arizona State University’s president, Michael Crow, recently was quoted in a New York Times story about using public money to support a pet project of Arizona conservatives: The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). Crow said, “They were interested in having a broader set of curricular offerings than the one we presently have, particularly as it related to economic thought or political theory, philosophy.” He added, “The fact that someone from the state came along and gave us money for it, O.K., good.”
But it’s not good.
I served as the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University from 2012 to 2017. I had a unique vantage point to watch the birth of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.
The new school came in the wake of the creation of “freedom” centers largely funded by the Charles Koch Foundation: The Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona and the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty and the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, the latter nested within our school in the form of a certificate program and contributing faculty.
I welcomed the new perspectives the center and faculty brought to our curriculum. I felt then as I do now: we are strengthened by all forms of diversity.
Welcoming Koch gifts undoubtedly came with risks, then, as it does now. The Charles Koch Foundation has infused existing college curriculum with libertarian ideology by supporting strategic hires of new professors in existing departments in universities and colleges across the country.
More recently, it has circumvented history, philosophy, economics, and political science departments altogether by financing the creation of new schools and departments that contain only professors that share their conservative views. These are troubling trends.
Yet I trusted our agreement with the foundation because it guaranteed faculty control over the hiring process and required Center members to work within the school to create a curriculum that championed many perspectives. With their support, we succeeded in hiring a new historian of capitalism that complemented our hire of a senior U.S. historian of conservative politics. Both were integral to the center and our faculty and brought new vitality to our history major.
This is why I was profoundly surprised and disappointed when President Crow accepted the money from the state legislature to create an alternative school to our own, one that would absorb the original Koch-funded centers. Born in secrecy at the 11th hour in the Arizona Assembly, a small group of conservative legislators inserted funding for the new school into the overall annual allocation for public universities. The maneuver forced Crow to make a choice — defend Arizona State University’s curriculum or lay down to these political partisans.
He invited them in by hiring a group of conservative professors at private institutions to construct the foundations of the new school.
The report they produced (see below) reveals more about their intentions to use public moneys for ideological indoctrination than create intellectual diversity. The official justification for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership is full of assumptions that misrepresented our school as having a “conformity of opinion” that produced “an obvious lack of debate.”
But neither the small group of legislators or the architects of the new school showed any interest in debate. None of the external scholars charged with building the school ever talked to me or members of my faculty. If they had, they would have recognized our embrace of diverse political perspectives and the hiring of scholars that broadened our curriculum in ways that they claimed were lacking in higher education.
Michael Crow also exempted the new school from the usual budgets and hiring protocol. The recruitment of the first director, Paul Carrese, happened mostly outside the purview of his future colleagues in political science.
His hire was part of an overall commitment of 10 costly new positions to populate the school’s faculty, most of which have been filled through a “targeted” process normally reserved for exceptionally accomplished scholars or to address demographic under-representation on campus. So far, the faculty hired have not met these criteria. They appear to have been hired more for their right-wing commitments than academic stature.
In this revenue-starved state, moreover, this ideologically driven school has spent profligately on odd purchases. The school used more than $500,000 of its robust state investment, estimated at $7 million, to purchase original copies of “foundational” books even as other schools at ASU — and Arizona public K-12 classrooms — struggle to provide basic teaching materials to their students.
President Crow continues to support the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership despite its faculty’s failure to attract students to their classes. To boost enrollment, the school has promised costly goodies to students who agree to enroll in just one of its classes, including a free trip to India during spring break and a retreat to Sedona to talk about “Shakespeare’s Leadership.” Is this the careful shepherding of tax dollars conservatives promise?
The entire affair sickened me as I watched it unfold. When I raised concerns with fellow administrators and discussed the consequences of the new school with my faculty, a dean accused me of “making war” against the president. The experience disillusioned me about ASU and led me to take a faculty position elsewhere. Since my departure, ASU’s faculty senate has mostly submitted to these incursions.
Yet, encouragingly, faculty elsewhere, including at the University of Utah and the University of Arizona, have begun to raise strenuous objections to this kind of circumvention of standard governance and tampering with curriculum by wealthy donors and allied state legislators that seek to use public universities as an incubator for the next generation of partisan politicians.
The creation of ideologically driven schools such as the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at taxpayer expense bodes ill for public universities. It signals an intentional new front in the culture wars to undermine the foundations of the humanities and social sciences as we know them.
The belief that there is a “right” and “left” (and right and wrong) way to teach our subjects betrays the foundations of our university system that requires faculty and students to present evidence, argue theses, and civilly disagree with one another, all while respecting the disciplines that define our approaches to acquiring knowledge. Creating alternative schools to existing ones undermines this crucial component of our academic experience. Anyone concerned with the future of higher education in America should be paying attention to the quiet attack underway in Arizona and beyond.
Here is a statement from Arizona State University. It starts with a reference to the Feb. 26 New York Times story in which Crow is quoted:
Michael Crow, the university’s president, has embraced the program. “They were interested in having a broader set of curricular offerings than the one we presently have, particularly as it related to economic thought or political theory, philosophy,” Dr. Crow said.
“The fact that someone from the state came along and gave us money for it, O.K., good,” he said. Yet, he complained, the Legislature has not fulfilled his request to pay half the cost of the university’s in-state students. “The fact that they weren’t giving us money for other things, bad.”
Here’s the ASU statement:
Dr. Crow’s quote is accurate, but the story in which it was included was decidedly incomplete.
The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) does not receive money from either David or Charles Koch. As you know, a center focusing on political thought and leadership, in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, was partially funded by the Charles Koch Foundation before SCETL was established. That center will be moved under SCETL this summer.
SCETL was funded by a special appropriation from the Arizona legislature.
However, the school underwent rigorous faculty review and emerged from the typical academic discussions and debate over philosophy, pedagogy and, quite frankly, whether a new school in this area would pull students away from other established schools and departments at ASU. It didn’t just appear at the wave of a Republican magic wand; it went through the normal processes for starting new academic endeavors and is better for having had that opportunity.
And no one who contributes money to ASU receives a say in what is taught or studied at the university. If that had been requested, let alone required, the money would have been refused.
While SCETL’s courses do mostly address Western ideas, there is also study of other views, including through a comparative political philosophy course on Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The School organized a service-learning experience in India this year which emphasized for ASU students that the world’s largest liberal democracy arose from a blending of Hindu, Muslim, and Western civilizations in south Asia.
SCETL was created and is led by academics, not partisans. Its curriculum [scetl.asu.edu] and programming [scetl.asu.edu] include an emphasis on the intellectual foundations of liberal democracy and America’s political and economic order, fused with a character-centric approach to leadership and public service. A lot of its work focuses on reinvigorating civil discourse.
If you had more time to report this story, you might enjoy speaking with the SCETL students who are leaders in the College Democrats, or getting to attend one of the Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity forums. Previous participants have included intellectual conservatives such as Robert George, Heather MacDonald, Harvey Mansfield, Steve Hayward, and Clint Bolick, and just as many intellectual liberals, including Robert Post, Jeremy Waldron, Ulrich Baer, Cornel West, Jonathan Haidt, and Senator Tom Daschle.
The goal of SCETL and its public programs are concerned with improving the quality of talking, thinking and, perhaps most important, listening. SCETL hopes to inspire a generation of leaders who are practiced in the art of thoughtful and respectful debate. Seems useful in these highly partisan times.
Here is the 2016 status report to which Garcia refers in his post, and the cover letter to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R):
And here’s the report: