Regents approve a controversial new school of civic leadership for UT-Austin

The new school will include the Civitas Institute, a current University of Texas at Austin entity backed by state GOP leaders who say the university needs more ideological diversity.

By Shelly Brisbin and Wells DunbarMay 8, 2023 11:43 am,

The University of Texas Board of Regents voted last week to create a new college at the University of Texas at Austin.

The goal of the School of Civic Leadership is to instruct students in what the regents call “the values and principles of a free society.”

But observers are already asking about the political orientation of the new college, and whether it exists to forward a conservative political worldview.

Austin American-Statesman education reporter Megan Menchaca told Texas Standard that while critics remain concerned about the potential ideological focus of the new school, the measure passed by the regents specifies that it will adhere to university policies, including the inclusion of tenure-track faculty members. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s begin with just what exactly University of Texas Regents did with their decision last Thursday to create a new college at UT-Austin and it’s supposed to contain certain institutes and specialty centers. Do I have that right?

Megan Menchaca: Yes. It’s expected to contain the Civitas Institute, which is controversial, as you mentioned earlier.

What is the Civitas Institute and why is it so controversial?

The Civitas Institute has existed for about a year and it’s focused on teaching, understanding and appreciation of American values. It was formerly known as the Liberty Institute and faced some controversy from students and faculty, particularly in its initial stages, because they felt like Republican lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, were politicizing the university and getting a little too involved in campus operations. They also felt like it was not being as transparent as they’d like with the center’s development and initial implementation as transparent.

What specifically are they concerned about?

When the Civitas Institute was first developed, lawmakers put in $6 million into the state budget that they passed during the previous [legislative] session, which caught a lot of students and faculty off guard because there wasn’t a lot of discussion about the budget item. And then UT System regents approved additional funding with, again, not a lot of discussion. And faculty and students kind of hoped that they could have had more input into the development of the institute, and they were a little unsure about the institute’s motivations when it was first established. Since it’s since been open for about a year and much of the controversy has largely died down over the institute and wasn’t really a top of community’s mind.

It’s been hosting events on topics like American foreign policy, the concept of freedom and faculty housed within the institute teach on topics like experimental economics, natural law theory, and the U.S. Constitution,

The new School of Civic Leadership, which the UT System Board of Regents approved Thursday, is going to essentially be a new college within UT-Austin once it gets off the ground. Think of something like UT’s College of Natural Sciences or College of Communication. And within that school, UT is expected to house the Civitas Institute. The school itself, the school civic leadership is in its very early stages. So the specifics of things like the curriculum, what classes are going to be taught, who will work there, has not been decided and won’t be for several months. We do have a very broad outline of what it will look like from the motion that the regents approved. The school will teach students critical thinking skills that are “steeped in Western tradition in American constitutional history and the values and principles of a free society.”

Well, what about UT students and staff? Are you hearing anything from them about the creation of this new college?

Yeah, many students, faculty and staff, they were caught off guard by the Civitas Institute. They were also a little bit caught off guard by the announcement of this new school. The regents’ discussion of the school was only posted on the meeting agenda file on the Secretary of State’s website and not the UT System agenda book or posted meeting. There are some faculty and students who are a little nervous about the potential to incorporate the Civitas Institute into a real college, but it seems like the students and faculty that I saw, were happy to hear that the school would follow the university’s governance procedures, and it will be hiring tenure and tenure track faculty through existing university policies and procedures.

UT is looking to move pretty quickly here to get the School of Civic Leadership off the ground. Any word on timelines?

I actually asked UT president, Jay Hartzell, who was at the regents meeting on Thursday, a similar question. And the answer is largely, we don’t know exactly what the very specific timeline for this is going to look like. We do know that the Board of Regents wants to hire a dean by Nov. 30, who is also expected to hire a board of advisors that will help counsel him with running the school. I think that they want this sooner rather than later, but the specifics is a little unclear. But it does take a while to develop a college, develop curriculum, get input from all the people who want to have input in the process. So it’s going to be a minimum several months and it could be even longer.

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