Guest Opinion

The UA Freedom Center responds: We are not a nest of Koch Brother acolytes

In a guest column in the Tucson Weekly (Oct. 12), David Safier contends that the Koch Brothers are entering Tucson's high schools through the University of Arizona's Center for the Philosophy of Freedom.

There is some truth in what Safier writes: David Schmidtz, former director of the Freedom Center, designed an economics course titled Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship. The course integrates ethical and philosophical issues into the study of economics. High school students are able to earn college credit for it, and it is used as an elective in some Arizona high schools to satisfy a state economics requirement. In other schools, it counts as an elective without satisfying any economics requirement.

In fairness to Safier, I do think the course and the textbook lean in a direction favorable to libertarians and others who are right-leaning. At least a reasonable critic could make such a case, even if others would think it contestable.

That exhausts the truth in Safier's column.

Safier reports that Arizona's Freedom Center receives most of its funding from two donors, the Koch Brothers, and from Ken and Randy Kendrick. This is false. According to Schmidtz, since 2004 the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom has received $16 million dollars from roughly two dozen donors. The Kendricks have donated approximately $2.6 million over that period. Charles Koch has donated $1.8 million. (Strictly speaking, the Koch Brothers have not donated anything to the Freedom Center.)

Of the funds coming from Charles Koch, $1.5 million were provided in 2010 for the hire of a tenured philosophy professor whose work is entirely unconnected with anything remotely to do with the content of the high school course Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship. The remaining $300,000 was used to support six to eight graduate students in philosophy each year over the course of six to seven years. These students worked with five different faculty in the philosophy department, including faculty with no Freedom Center affiliation. Many of these graduate students wrote on topics unrelated to political philosophy at all, and many others who did work on issues in political philosophy had no interest in defending libertarian views.

Most directly to the point, none of the financial support for the course Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship came from the Kochs. None. It came from a Templeton Foundation grant of $2.9 million.

Safier reports that the University of Arizona's Freedom Center is the latest in an effort by the Koch Brothers to infuse libertarian philosophy into institutions of higher learning. But the facts do not support Safier's contention. The Freedom Center is no libertarian mecca. To explain, Arizona's David Schmidtz was already one of the world's most prominent political philosophers, with well-established libertarian views long before Charles Koch came along. As for the academics populating the Freedom Center, in 2010 Schmidtz supported the Philosophy Department's hire of four philosophers. Only two defend views associated with libertarianism.

The other two, including yours truly, have no such intellectual commitments. None were hired with any ideological litmus test, and no one has ever made any attempt to influence any of our positions. There are also three other tenured philosophy faculty in the Freedom Center. Two are political philosophers. None defend libertarian views. (Incidentally, Schmidtz himself defends various views associated with libertarianism, but according to him, he has never defended libertarianism per se.)

So, of the eight tenured long-term faculty in the Freedom Center, three defend views associated with libertarianism. Each of these eight faculty has produced, over the last several years, a considerable volume of work, the majority of it in the world's premier peer-reviewed presses and journals. Very little is devoted even to considering, much less defending, libertarianism. Indeed, some work is devoted to strongly criticizing various libertarian themes. Finally, it also bears noting that the political philosophers in the Freedom Center are members of the top ranked Ph.D. program in the world for the study of political philosophy. This peer ranking is determined by a global community of savvy intellectuals with no tolerance for any sort of ideological agenda. Safier cannot see what they see, but since they are experts, that is to be expected.

Even setting the preceding points aside, Safier simply assumes that libertarian views are evil, so it would be sinister to teach these ideas to high school students. To disparage Schmidtz, Safier considers Schmidtz's view that freedom is threatened when government plays an expansive role in citizen's lives. He then compares Schmidtz's remark with the widely derided popular culture philosopher Ayn Rand. But of course, this is a theme we can find in the writings of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, or Robert Nozick, or for that matter John Locke or John Stuart Mill. Maybe we should protest courses discussing their views too. Come to think of it, there's much about which to be suspicious in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Maybe that should be next.

Those who value a liberal arts education believe that our educational system should celebrate a diversity of ideas. Schmidtz's course is, after all, one course, and it is offered as an elective to advanced high school students who have the opportunity to earn college credit. No one is forcing students to take this course.

So why not celebrate Schmidtz's efforts to bring a college course to high school students? If this course smacked of left-leaning views that bleeding heart liberals like me endorsed, would Safier and relevant others be equally incensed?

Safier and those who find Schmidtz's course so outrageous should consider just how much they infantilize high school students and how little faith they apparently have in the intelligence of high school teachers. Advanced high school students with an interest in enrolling in challenging college courses can be a pretty tough audience. And most high school teachers offering such courses do have minds of their own—even if they do get the chance to be trained by Schmidtz in how to teach the course.

Why assume that these students and teachers will respond to Schmidtz's course as if they are being indoctrinated rather than educated? To catastrophize the teaching of a course that might have some libertarian-leaning or right-leaning ideas in it is just to see these students and their teachers as fools with no ability to think for themselves.

As I noted above, it is a fair criticism of Schmidtz's class and his textbook that they favor somewhat libertarian or more generally right-leaning views. So in that sense, it is perhaps intellectually biased. But despite this, Schmidtz's course was evaluated and originally approved by the Philosophy Department. The faculty in the Freedom Center also had an open critical debate about whether Schmidtz's textbook amounted to mere ideology. This was in response to an article by David Johnson, "Academe on the Auction Block" in an online source The Baffler, which accuses Schmidtz of peddling his textbook to high school students as mere propaganda. While some of us disagreed rather strongly on certain points with Schmidtz (and we still do!), our consensus was that Johnson's criticisms were overreaching and reckless. So both the Philosophy Department and the faculty in the Freedom Center chose to stand by Schmidtz. This should give pause to readers who are convinced by Safier's assessment.

Safier closes his column by quoting two Tucson High students who recently took the course. He insinuates that both quotations confirm how insidious the Freedom Center's agenda is. One student reported that along with being a doctor, he would like to be an entrepreneur. The other explained that as he now sees it, successful businesses in free economies are virtuous; businesses that lack ethical practices will not and should not succeed. It is striking that Safier takes these as objectionable views for students to have. What it displays, really, is that it is Safier who suffers from an intellectual bias. It is commonplace to note that we can rarely see our own prejudices but are quick to point them out in others. In this case, Safier has done so in an article meant to disparage David Schmidtz and my colleagues in the Freedom Center with little regard for the truth. And it seems he has little concern as well for how those two high school students might feel. Presumably, they spoke with pride. Safier took their words and put them on display in the local paper as shameful effects of a college course with which he happens to disagree. They deserve better.

Regrettably, as with other universities around the country, our university is depending more and more on private money. We must figure out how to preserve academic integrity in light of this trend. Hence, public scrutiny and vigilance are to be valued. If so, Safier's concerns are after all legitimate. We should all respect and even welcome his interest in preserving what is best in cultivating the life of the mind here at UA. Nevertheless, Safier's indictment of the Freedom Center is unfounded.

Michael McKenna is the Keith Lehrer Chair and professor of philosophy, and the director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom

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