In February of 2013, the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) adopted something called a “Liberty Studies” minor. There was dissent within the academic senate, but the proposal carried the day. The description of the minor begins, “It is a course of study focusing on the foundations, meanings, and implications of ‘What can I do with my life?’” The minor requires one course in each of three categories: liberty and commerce, liberty and authority, and liberty and culture. There are also three required courses: liberty studies, ethics, and moral theory.
Political Philosophy Professor Richard Gilman-Opalsky objected. He wrote to fellow senators, “I strongly believe that this programming will raise our reputation within certain ideological communities but will damage our reputation among scholars more widely. I would not associate myself with this program for professional reasons. I am not alone.” The problem with the program, which might sound innocuous enough, is its real sponsor.
The Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government
The real initiator of the program is something called the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government, hereafter referred to as the Academy. It was created in 2006 here in Champaign-Urbana by two wealthy right-wing UIUC alums. In its 2007 mission statement, the Academy made clear that its intent was to use its wealth to inject its libertarian, pro-business/limited government ideology into the University by establishing “curricula leading to the establishment of majors. minors, and other academic credentials.” As I wrote in the October, 2010 issue of the Public i, one of the local founders, Tom O’Laughlin, was perfectly open about the nature of the Academy’s crusade in a March, 2007 News-Gazette commentary. He had just returned from a meeting of the conservative National Association of Scholars, where he appreciated the attacks on postmodernism, which he viewed as a relativistic and egalitarian offensive against Western capitalist values. He made clear that the Academy’s role was to counter such “postmodern moonshine” with pro-business, libertarian curricula—not in business schools, which obviously did not need them, but in the fields of liberal arts, education, and journalism. The Academy receives funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, a major funder of right-wing, libertarian efforts.
The major sponsor of the UIS Liberty Studies Minor was Liberal Studies Professor William Kline, a Senior Fellow at the Academy.
The Academy’s Prior Efforts at UIUC
In 2007, the Academy established the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund within the University of Illinois Foundation. The Foundation’s offices were sited on the Urbana campus. A number of the Academy’s founders, and its publications, stated that the Fund, aside from collecting money, intended to sponsor the development of specific courses and curricula, direct research, hire faculty, and impact other educational and academic decisions at UIUC. Then-Chancellor Richard Herman was very supportive of the Academy’s proposal, and brought it to the Executive Committee of the Academic Senate, of which I was a member. The Chancellor refused to share the written agreement between the Academy’s Fund and the U of I Foundation, claiming that the two parties had proprietary rights over the documents. On November 5, 2007, I, with the endorsement of the Senate Executive Committee, submitted a resolution to the UIUC Senate, which stated that the powers over academic decisions that the Academy was trying to secure, “including development of courses and curricula, establishment of majors, minors, and other academic credentials must remain the exclusive authority of the faculty and the Senate through shared governance with the University administration and with the approval of the Board of Trustees.” It further requested that the President (then Joseph White), the Chancellor, and the Senate Advisory Committee conduct a thorough review of the agreements between the Academy’s Fund, the Foundation, and the University, to make sure that nothing in them contravened the authority of the faculty, the Senate and shared governance with the administration and the Board of Trustees.
The passage of the resolution seemed to terminate the Academy’s thrust to establish curricula and to hire faculty on the Urbana campus. But the Academy continues to have an address, if not an office, at the U of I Foundation, and it sponsors annual symposia and “weekend events” on the campus as well. It reaches out to instructors at Parkland Community College to send their students to these events. All of them, of course, reflect the right-wing economic and anti-governmental regulation positions of the Academy. One of the symposium speakers was Stephen Moore, who was nominated for the Federal Reserve Board by President Trump. That nomination died when even normally Trump-acquiescing Republican Senator Joni Ernst said she could not support it, because he had demeaned minorities and women, saying for example that no woman should earn more than a man. But he was good enough for the Academy, because of his economic libertarianism.
An Interesting Parallel in Virginia
Thus, after being rebuffed in its attempt to create curricula and majors or minors at UIUC, the Academy has been very successful in getting the Academic Senate on the Springfield campus to accept its largesse and create a “Liberty Studies” minor on that campus. There seems to have been considerable discussion on what that word “liberty” meant, but in the stated intention of the Academy since its inception, it clearly means what the Academy’s very name indicates, a free market with limited governmental regulation and taxation, i.e, a right-wing ideology that Koch and a number of other right-wing billionaires are eager to support and have supported elsewhere.
This represents an interesting parallel to what happened in Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, where there was a somewhat more successful attempt by the libertarian right to penetrate the flagship state university (UVA). But it did not end well and, as in the case of Illinois, there was a more successful attempt at a state university of lesser academic standing, George Mason University (GMU). That attempt was initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, and documented by Duke historian Nancy MacLean in her 2017 book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. While the catalyst within these two state universities in Virginia was Buchanan, he was supported by a web of national right-wing organizations, such as the Koch-backed Liberty Fund, the Cato Institute, and a host of others. Additionally, while there was secrecy in the Academy’s and the U of I Foundation’s refusal to reveal the agreement between them to the public or to the U of I Senate, the Academy’s intentions at UIUC were very clearly made public by its advocates.
In Virginia, MacClean found Buchanan’s files, which indicated that he and his wealthy support network were part of a much wider secretive national political strategy, dubbed by two Heritage Foundation staffers as “Leninist,” that went looking for academic cover. At GMU, where non right-wingers had already been purged from the law school, Buchanan got himself a graduate program in libertarian economics, from which Stephen Moore received an M.A., as well as an outreach program, heavily under the thumb of Charles Koch. Indeed, Koch was made co-chair of the Buchanan Center, the purpose of which was to “tutor” state and national policy makers in the application of free market and anti-regulatory principles to their work. Most of the staff were nonacademic political operatives, who nonetheless operated under the public university’s imprimatur. Both programs persist in their ideological mission today.
At the U of I Springfield, the Academy has not been fully forthright either. If it were, it would have been honest about the ideological nature of the enterprise there, and named it a Minor in Libertarianism rather than a Liberty Studies Minor. Students and faculty deserve truth in packaging.