Elephant in the Room?

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: June 2018
Group Free

Is ASU’s new “freedom school” a homestead for intellectual diversity or a hotbed of conservative ideals?

Illustration by Angelina Aragon
Illustration by Angelina Aragon

Exactly a year ago, in this section of PHOENIX, a new school at Arizona State University was profiled for its goal of bringing rationality and civility back to political discourse. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) was framed as a place for young people to study different perspectives and learn to debate respectfully through a return to classical education – a sort of Socratic method for overcoming divisive, hateful  rhetoric in the Twitter Age.

But now, two semesters in and cleared for an official major and minor, SCETL is facing backlash for what some are calling a sneaky effort by conservative lawmakers to directly exert control over campus ideology.

In 2016, Republicans earmarked $5 million in the state’s annual budget to fund so-called “freedom schools” at ASU and University of Arizona. While conservative private donors are nothing new – the Koch Foundation, for example, helped fund two ASU certificate programs in the history and business schools – a state government funding a particular school with public dollars is unprecedented.

SCETL debuted last fall, folding the aforementioned Koch-funded Center for Political Thought and Leadership and Center for the Study of Economic Liberty into its repertoire. Its website purports to “inspire leadership and statesmanship for the common good” with a curriculum focused on “the guiding principles of America’s founders and the leaders who have inspired us.”

“It became what I’m calling a monoculture of conservative thought,” says Dartmouth professor Matthew Garcia, who previously served as director of ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies but left in 2017, dismayed by the way the school came into existence. “All of it was done at the expense of taxpayers, and it was done secretly,” Garcia says. “[ASU President Michael] Crow farmed out the process of creating the school, specifically to the Hoover Institution [think tank] at Stanford and [conservative political philosopher] Harvey Mansfield at Harvard.” Crow, meanwhile, continues to defend the school's founding.

Catherine O’Donnell, ASU associate professor of history, echoes Garcia’s frustration, expressing befuddlement at the idea that ASU needed such a school in the first place. “It’s redundant,” she says, pointing out that her department already teaches courses similar to SCETL’s catalog.

SCETL director Paul Carrese, recruited from the U.S. Air Force Academy, acknowledges that its birth inside the government is unique, but insists that the new courses and faculty do fill a hole at ASU. “What we do that’s so distinctive is the package of ideas in one curriculum: civic thought and economic thought, and then the capstone is thinking about leadership in some way,” he says. “We are intellectually conservative in the sense that we think that knowing… where liberal democracy comes from, where market economies come from, where America came from [is worthwhile].” Though Carrese maintains that neither lawmakers nor private donors dictate what is taught in the classroom, he acknowledges the unusual requirement written into the founding legislation that he submit an annual report to the Legislature.

Carrese says a widespread liberal progressive shift in higher education (60 percent of U.S. college professors identified as “liberal” or “far left” in 2014, according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute) has most academics believing that forward-thinking is better. But, he says, there should be more room to look back; and more room for civic disagreement, something Carrese is laser-focused on promoting through high-profile speaker series such as last year’s Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity series. “Americans have always argued about everything. We came out of argument,” he says of the societal shift toward demonizing the other side in debates.

Max Fees, a 19-year-old SCETL major and registered Democrat, is not concerned about the school being some sort of Republican factory established to indoctrinate students. “I haven’t experienced any of that in my classes,” he says. “I don’t think it’s been about conservative or liberal – it’s just been great ideas of politics and ethics… I don’t feel like my personal moral code or my foundations have shifted, but my eyes have been opened to a lot of other perspectives.”

Conservative in Name Only?
A sample of SCETL’s fall 2018 course catalog. You decide: surreptitiously politically conservative or straightforward ethics?

• Great Ideas of Politics and Ethics in Comparative Perspective

• Tocqueville on Liberty, Equality and Democracy

• Democracies in Crisis

• Ideological Origins of Anglo-American Liberty: Four Modern Revolutions