How to Build a Center for Freedom at Your University

Editor’s note: University-based centers that reflect respect for free institutions were the focus of a one-day conference by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in San Antonio on October 10. Adam Kissel, formerly a director of the Lehrman American Studies Center and the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles, offered ten strategies to avoid conflict when building these centers.

Academic centers that focus on free institutions have had a rough time over the past couple of years. Right now, faculty members at the University of Chicago are working very hard to kill a new Milton Friedman Institute at the university. Earlier this month, faculty members at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana successfully banished the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government to an off-site location. Less than two years ago, the Alexander Hamilton Center at Hamilton College was killed in the cradle because of faculty opposition.

These examples lead me to offer ten lessons for faculty who want to establish on-campus centers dedicated to an aspect of liberty. My advice is based in large part on talking with a few dozen center directors and with Steve Balch, president and founder of the National Association of Scholars, over the past two and a half years.

  1. Start small. A large and ambitious program can appear threatening and spur critics’ attacks on your goals and every detail of your operations. If the critics lose on the merits, they will then attack you in terms of governance or control over decision-making.

    Keep in mind that as a faculty member, you have the academic freedom to pursue small projects under whatever theory you like. You probably need only the approval of your department chair or your academic dean.
    By starting small, you won’t have to go through a long battle in front of the faculty senate. If your critics think you are not a threat, they are more likely to leave you alone.

    Another benefit of starting small is that you will be specialized. By doing a few things very well, you will build a strong reputation so that when you do grow, it will be from a position of respect and strength. For example, you don’t need to propose a new department or a new major. Instead, use the work of the center to build student demand for a new minor over two or three years. If your work is compelling, the students will come.

  2. Know your campus. The mission statement of the Milton Friedman Institute appears to have been written by world-class economists with help from the development office, but without any awareness of how controversial it would be to promote capitalism and free markets at the University of Chicago.

    Realize that when you are writing about your center, you need to persuade local readers of the value of the enterprise and at the same time preempt local critics. The rhetorical principle here is called accommodation, adapting your argument to your audience—speaking to each audience with the language it best understands.

    Make sure that every document about your center will pass muster with the critics. Focus on academic pursuits. You don’t need to include controversial terms such as politics or policy in your mission statement. But if the center is to focus on policy, it should focus on the academic study of policy; policy implications will appear naturally in such studies. And give the center a name that is not controversial.

    Local knowledge matters. Use the university’s own mission statement when you describe your center. Demonstrate how various aspects of your center help fulfill the university’s mission of teaching, research, civic engagement, and so on. Progressives as well as conservatives and libertarians are doing that. When the University of Delaware promoted a controversial, mandatory education program for all freshmen in its residence halls, the Residence Life staff created a chart to demonstrate how elements of the program fulfilled specific language in the school’s mission.

    Show that your new center will provide services to the university. It may contribute faculty members for required undergraduate courses, provide graduate student support, postdoctoral fellowships, and visiting professorships, or hold public events that raise the university’s reputation in the local community.

  3. Preempt the argument that your center is one-sided. From the beginning, you should involve faculty members from a wide variety of disciplines and invite them to share in the center’s governance. So long as they are intellectually honest, they need not agree with you on all particulars.

    Ring the bell of interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity and offer your center as an opportunity to address the fragmentation and overspecialization of the modern university. You might invoke the American Council on Education’s 2005 Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities, which declared that “intellectual pluralism” and “academic freedom” are central principles of American higher education.

    You should promise to hold debates and forums where different points of view will be expressed. The James Madison Program at Princeton regularly does that, providing evidence that it is a good academic citizen. On many campuses, such openness will be a breath of fresh air. Students will see that debates are important conversations about relevant issues, based on reason, that do not necessarily have a clear winner or loser. Through this approach, a center can (and should) show its dedication to realizing the ideals of a liberal education and the advancement of knowledge.

  4. Preempt the argument that outsiders are in control. Rather than have an entirely external advisory board, bring in trustees of the university. Trustees or regents are insiders, and they tend to have a healthy respect for the principles of a free society. Having trustees on your advisory board also raises the stakes for potential critics if they want to shut down a center that has the approval of the university’s strongest supporters.

    If donors are concerned that the university will divert their money from the center, they do not have to give directly to the center. Instead, they can give to an independent fund that provides operating expenses to the center so long as it is fulfilling its mission. If the center gets hijacked by hostile faculty who change the programming or the mission, the funding simply disappears.

  5. Point out precedents. Examine the mission statements of other centers and programs already on campus. Are they allowed to affect public policy? Do they get a pass for events that only express one side of a debate? Any benefits that these other programs get on campus, your center deserves, too.
  6. Show that students want you. Demonstrate student demand for the kinds of research and kinds of teaching that your center will perform. You can do that by affiliating with registered student organizations and student publications and encouraging students to form new organizations with a mission similar to that of the center. Identify courses that express the mission of the center, and teach them so well that they are oversubscribed.
  7. Work with the development office, but not too soon. Academic centers with a strong and compelling mission can be very attractive to potential donors who are disappointed with the existing opportunities on campus. Your center will enable the development office to demonstrate to these disaffected donors that the university takes liberty seriously. Once your center is approved, the development office will be a tremendous resource.

    But at the beginning, your goal is to persuade faculty and administrators, not donors. To do that, scrutinize all documents produced by the center for fairness and accuracy and avoid overheated rhetoric. Remember that ill-wishers are waiting to find any phrase they can to brand you as some kind of enemy. And remember that private documents have an awkward way of becoming public.

  8. Address criticism directly, both publicly and privately. Probably the most effective public response to the Milton Friedman Institute critics came from John Cochrane, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago. He wrote a long response pointing out the terrible arguments (and terrible writing) in the critics’ first statement. His commentary forced them to retreat and to develop new arguments. It was a victory in the area of public opinion. Such a professional response on the merits of the arguments is a good model for facing antagonists.

    Also be sure to keep the key players, such as the provost or the president, aware of your responses to the critics. They will appreciate it.

  9. Choose the first few activities wisely. A debate or forum is a good way to engage the campus and to show that you are being fair to opposing views. The events should be relatively uncontroversial, certainly not polarizing. Donors will understand that the way to succeed on a college campus is to be intellectually responsible—not to storm the gates for or against a specific view but to build something noble and respectable.

    For example, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the opening program of the Center for Western Civilization was a lecture by the eminent historian Gordon Wood. Most of the undergraduate participation was secured by two faculty members, who made a point of explaining to students in their classes who the speaker was and why he is important. At Georgetown University, the first event of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy was a lecture by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who easily won over the audience, followed the next day by a conference on civic literacy featuring scholars from the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere.

  10. Finally, don’t be afraid to revise your plan. You might find that your proposal does bear some shaping up. The critics may have made some valid points. And your proposal does not bind the activities of the center for eternity; later amendments will be a natural part of the center’s evolution.

I draw these lessons not only from the examples of Hamilton College, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago, but also, as I mentioned, from talking with center directors among others. Following this advice will help you counter critics and make the center a responsible part of the academic community. I encourage you to bring the same level of attention to a new center that you devote to your regular academic work when you are working at your best.