(Texas Tribune) — A tweet sent by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has reignited concern among some University of Texas at Austin faculty members that the purpose of a new conservative-backed think tank may be to restrict teaching about critical race theory.
“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote on the social media platform Twitter. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”
Critical race theory, a university-level discipline that studies how race and racism have impacted social and local structures in the United States, has come into the crosshairs of conservative state lawmakers across the country over the past year, including in Texas. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that limits how race, slavery and history are taught in K-12 classrooms.
Now, some faculty members are demanding an explanation from university leadership, arguing that Patrick’s comments directly contradict what administrators told them last fall and raise serious questions about academic freedom and freedom of thought on campus.
“Either the lieutenant governor is just speaking out of school, or he’s reinforcing the very narrative that has provoked individual concerns last fall,” Texas law professor Steve Vladeck told The Texas Tribune. “It’s incumbent upon the university to provide a full-throated update and … explain to faculty members, to whom assurances were made in September, why the lieutenant governor is wrong. Or if he isn’t, why that attitude is acceptable?”
Domino Perez, the president of UT-Austin’s Faculty Council, also said the lieutenant governor’s tweet contradicted what faculty members have been told about the new center.
“We were told that the idea for the institute originated with faculty on campus,” she told The Texas Tribune.
Last August, the Tribune reported that UT-Austin leaders were working with private donors and Patrick to create the Liberty Institute, a center “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” Public documents revealed that these leaders wanted the center as a way to bring “intellectual diversity” to campus. The two proposals provided by Patrick’s office suggested those involved in the project had political motivations to launch the institute at the flagship university.
Patrick’s tweet was in response to a nonbinding measure passed by the UT-Austin Faculty Council this week that reaffirms the group’s academic freedom to teach about race, gender and, specifically, critical race theory.
Bryan Jones, the J. J. “Jake” Pickle regents chair in congressional studies in UT-Austin’s government department, said Patrick’s comments on Twitter make clear his intent to suppress free speech on campus. He said UT-Austin should reject the state money for this institute.
“[UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell’s] got a lot of explaining to do because he will not keep a great university having this kind of institution on campus,” Jones said. “We will have increased problems attracting senior people at least. They’re gonna ask about this. … I would.”
While UT-Austin officials have stated on the university website that it is too early to say what the center’s name will be, it received $6 million dollars in the state budget for the University of Texas at Austin Liberty Institute last spring. Last August, the University of Texas Board of Regents chipped in an additional $6 million toward the new endeavor.
Bob Rowling, a conservative billionaire businessperson and well-known UT-Austin donor, confirmed to the Tribune last year that he and oil company executive Bud Brigham were involved in the project. Rowling told the Tribune in August that Brigham was the “real leader on this.”
Last September, Provost Sharon Wood initially tried to calm faculty concerns over the institute at a Faculty Council meeting, stating that the institute’s intent was to “support and help attract faculty” with a specific investment in philosophy, politics and economics. The university has posted a page about the new institute on its website, stating that it is still in planning phases, and that the school hopes to hire three to five new faculty members within the normal university hiring protocols.
UT officials have not responded to multiple requests for interviews or written questions about the institute. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for clarification about Patrick’s tweet.
Vladeck said without clarity from the university, the original questions about the institute’s true intent have been resuscitated.
“Potentially creating new institutes and devoting submitted resources outside of the normal faculty process to appease the political whims of the state leadership would be a pretty ominous precedent,” he said.
This is not the first time Patrick has taken credit for helping to launch the Liberty Institute.
At a Texas Public Policy Foundation 2022 Policy Orientation keynote address earlier this year, Patrick told the crowd that Brigham and Bill Holmes, an oil executive from Midland, approached him to start the institute at UT-Austin and asked for the $6 million in state funding. Patrick said UT Board of Regents Chair Kevin Eltife and Hartzell both signed off on the idea, but professors “shot it down” because they wanted to have control of hiring.
“Well, that’s the whole point,” Patrick told the crowd with a chuckle. “We don’t want to hire you guys.”
Patrick said they continue to work to bring the institute to the university. The Tribune asked Patrick’s office to elaborate on his tweet but did not receive an immediate response.
Meanwhile, his tweet Tuesday signals that the debate over teaching about history, race and critical race theory is headed to Texas’ colleges and universities. Vladeck said while faculty members have been concerned about this issue, it was only a matter of time before the conversation shifted to higher education.
“I still have to hope that calmer minds will prevail and will realize it’s in everyone’s interest to preserve the principle of academic freedom at the university that bears the state’s name,” he said.
“Hopefully, even the lieutenant governor understands that a transparently partisan assault on academic freedom at the state’s flagship public university will only hurt the university — and, through it, the state itself.”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin 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.
Correction, Feb. 16, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the UT-Austin provost. She is Sharon Wood, not Susan Wood.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.