A Lone Star in Higher Ed?

I bear good news about a bright spot in higher education. In early 2013, Texas Tech University joined the ranks of world-leading institutions studying and teaching about free markets.

Texas Tech University, located in West Texas, is growing—with a student body of 33,000 and with a goal of 40,000 students. The faculty, staff, students, and leadership have high aspirations and a palpable drive to elevate the status of the university both nationally and worldwide. The university recently achieved  “national research/Tier 1 status” in the state of Texas and aims to become a major national research university.

Part of Texas Tech’s energy is reflected in the formation of a specialized program encouraging serious study of and rigorous debate about the merits of free markets. The Free Market Institute, which I direct, reflects the generosity of a West Texas rancher who thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction.

That rancher, in conversation with a friend who is on a governing board at Tech, said that “it’s a shame more young people don’t understand how free markets operate and the tremendous benefits they’ve provided.” That conversation, and many others, ultimately resulted in a gift of $4 million and a resolve to create a new institute dedicated to the teaching and study of free market economics. Texas Tech University emerged as the ideal institution for its establishment.

Indeed, another new institute at Texas Tech, the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, headed by Stephen H. Balch, founder of the National Assocation of Scholars, began in 2012. Texas Tech’s drive has opened up opportunities for finding niches that will contribute to the university’s growth in size and stature.  

The leadership of Lawrence Schovanec proved indispensable in the establishment of the Free Market Institute. Throughout the founding of the institute, he served as a dean and then interim president. He described how he saw this institute fitting with Texas Tech’s mission at the institute’s grand opening in March 2013:

We want to be a top university in Texas and this nation. We want to be known for offering special excellent academic programs… We want to be known for recruiting top students and superb faculty. This institute is such an important asset in meeting those ambitions.

This was the right place for an institute of free market economics. The support of the community really speaks to the fact that this institute really is a fit for Texas Tech. It will bring scholarship, student learning opportunities, great publicity, the right type of publicity, to this university. The intent was to bring the institute here to sort of elevate the academic discussion around free markets, to give students, faculty and the community a forum where there can be a rigorous debate about free markets.

The institute’s mission is to promote the teaching and study of free market economics. Too many young people do not appreciate how a prviate enterprise system works and or the benefits of economic freedom. The institute will accomplish its mission by a variety of means—through traditional classroom instruction, by engaging in research projects, by funding, employing, and mentoring Ph.D. students, by conducting reading groups and research seminars, by holding public lectures and debates, and reaching out to broader audiences via the media and the Internet.

The university and local community have been overwhelmingly receptive to the new institute—even hungry for its programs. 

Between 850 and 900 people showed up to hear Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, give our opening lecture this fall. Nearly an hour of book signing preceded the event and Dr. Williams said he signed more books that day than any other time in his life! More than 300 people attended the institute’s opening public lecture featuring Dr. Robert Lawson, who holds the Jerome M. Fullinwider Chair in Economic Freedom at Southern Methodist University, and myself, on the decline of economic freedom in the United States. Three other public lectures were well attended. They featured George Mason University economist Peter Leeson discussing the lessons of 18th century pirates for modern governance, historian Tom Woods lecturing on the compatibility between Catholic teaching and free markets, and a debate on the sustainability of the U.S. welfare state. Local media outlets have all been receptive to covering events about the institute.

The institute is a university-wide research center with an interdisciplinary approach. It is not part of any single department, although faculty from the Rawls College of business and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Department have been the most involved.  

Courses offered by institute-affiliated faculty go through the normal academic approval process and are offered in existing academic departments. The faculty members associated with the institute will ultimately be offered tenure or tenure-tracked positions in standard academic departments along with their appointment with the institute. The way the Free Market Institute is set up gives us the ability to pursue research programs and lecture series that cross disciplinary boundaries but still ensure that the institute has academic integrity by tying individual faculty and courses to their appropriate academic unit.    

I began work in January as the inaugural director of the Free Market Institute. Since that time, the institute has affiliated with existing faculty members at Texas Tech, hired an administrator and staff economist, and recruited its first Ph.D. students. Some of the graduate students were attracted because of the establishment of the institute and others knew of my work with prior graduate students or I had met at summer seminars or conferences. We anticipate that its appointments will include other social science departments as appropriate. We plan to hire two additional faculty members for the 2014-2015 academic year in tenured/tenure-tracked positions.

The institute is in the beginning to plan major research projects that will involve faculty and graduate students at Texas Tech as well as other scholars from around the country. These projects include research on the various forces that give rise to increases in economic freedom, the impact of immigration, and studying the reforms that should, and could, be implemented when the United States has a fiscal crisis. 

Texas Tech is an entrepreneurial university that is blending high standards of scholarship with a commitment to intellectual diversity and emphasizing scholarship on free markets. I hope that other universities will follow our example.