After personally previously worrying about the lack of someone in charge at Heterodox Academy, I think it is good news that they’ve announced that John Tomasi of Brown University will become the organization’s inaugural president as of Jan. 1 of next year.
Tomasi is a political philosopher, an endowed chair at Brown and founder and director of the Political Theory Project, an on-campus organization that hosts credit-bearing courses, houses postgraduate fellows and produces original programming around their mission to “investigate the ideas and institutions that make societies free, prosperous, and fair.”
Some of you are thinking that this sounds libertarianish, and you would be correct.
Tomasi’s work and the Political Theory Project are significantly funded by far-right figures like Charles Koch and the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, which gave Tomasi over a million dollars to establish those postdoctoral fellowships. In Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, which explores the influence of these far-right groups on all levels of government, commerce and education, Tomasi is identified as one of Koch’s “pet professors.” According to Mayer, Tomasi “slyly” described the result of his semester-long course in “free-market classics” at Brown to a conservative publication by saying, “After a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years.”
In addition to funding the Political Theory Project, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation is one of the leading donors to other organizations currently attacking critical race theory and antiracist education in K-12 schools and universities, spending nearly $13 million as of July of this year on this project, including over $4 million to the Manhattan Institute, home of Chris Rufo, by far the most prominent and vocal of the attackers.
So, interesting choice for an organization dedicated to viewpoint diversity and free speech in the academy, but Nadine Strossen, former ACLU president and a member of the HxA Advisory Council, tells us, “A scholar and educator as distinguished as John Tomasi will greatly enhance the effectiveness of HxA, and therefore of universities,” so who am I to argue?
Well, OK, I got a quibble or two with the latter part of that statement, the stuff about universities. I think it is important that we understand that whatever Heterodox Academy is, it is funded by the same people who also fund Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, The Federalist, Turning Point and Prager U, among others, as reported earlier this year by Judd Legum and Tensim Zekeria.
Is this guilt by association? Only if you think being associated with these groups is something to feel guilty about. And you know what? I do. I honestly think it’s a problem when people are funded by the organizations that are actively undermining our democratic processes by, for example, fueling bogus “election audits.” I also think people who fund organizations that are moving to ban “The 1619 Project” from K-12 classrooms do not share broadly accepted educational values around free inquiry.
If it was me, I wouldn’t want these people within a country mile of a higher education system that’s supposed to be dedicated to fostering a plurality of viewpoints, but I’m just a former college instructor and current freelance writer, not an endowed professor.
I have Cornel West’s books on my shelves, not the actual person on my advisory council.
Look, Heterodox Academy can hire whomever they want to run their organization, and based on who funds them and what I believe their actual mission to be -- protecting a particular part of the academic turf for their tribe -- Tomasi is a perfect choice. He clearly knows how to bring in the kind of funding a nonprofit organization needs to survive.
Some of you might be thinking that Tomasi’s remark about the effect of reading Hayek in his free-market classics course is akin to indoctrination, but this is not true. As I’ve said in this space ad nauseum when the critique comes from the right, it is a mistake and a fallacy to view students as empty vessels who are filled by their professors’ opinions. Reading lists do not indoctrination make. Students have agency over their own minds, and Tomasi’s quip aimed at an audience he’s trying to impress is not necessarily indicative of an approach that seeks to close off contradictory opinions in class, even as he may personally hope that Hayek sticks to his students like a libertarian to the Laffer curve.
Students should read Hayek in college. They shouldn’t only read Hayek, but for sure, read Hayek.
That said, I am somewhat concerned about the lack of range in the reading list for a Tomasi’s course on “The University” that he described in a Q&A at the HxA website:
“We begin by studying the historical roots of today’s challenges -- starting with Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History and some period classics such as William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, and recent work such as Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge. With that base, we then study issues currently roiling the academy, such as certain Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives. The final unit of the course is an in-depth study of Heterodox Academy itself -- what HxA currently does, how it is organized, and a preliminary study of the rival change-strategies that lay before it. I’m looking forward to that one.”
I gotta say, when thinking about the scope of discussion of the past, present and future of higher education this list runs the gamut from A to, I don’t know, C?
As someone who has read a lot of books both past and present about higher education, it looks very undiverse to me. Where is Clark Kerr’s Uses of the University or Thelin’s History of American Higher Education? How about Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price or Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake?
What about a week comparing and contrasting Cathy Davidson’s The New Education, which posits that higher education institutions have a key role in rejuvenating the entire country, and Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, which argues many fewer people should be going to college?
I think students might be interested in David Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, a book published more than 15 years ago, which describes problems we’re continuing to struggle with today when universities are captive to the market and therefore drawn away from their mission of education.
If Tomasi needs help placing some of these books on the political spectrum, Nicole Barbaro has done the work in a recent round-up at her Substack, placing 18 education-related books along two axes (liberal-conservative and prescriptive-descriptive). She helpfully includes a book Tomasi must know, The Coddling of the American Mind, co-authored by HxA co-founder Jonathan Haidt, so he can judge how other contemporary books orient to that fixed point. (Right of center toward conservative and somewhat above the median toward prescriptive.)
Heck, maybe he could even give a little book by a certain higher education blogger that hits the far poles on Barbaro’s continuum for both the liberal-conservative axis and the prescriptive-descriptive axis.
Most liberal! Most prescriptive! Imagine if Tomasi injected such an outlier into the conversation. What fun they could have!
I wish Tomasi good luck with his new position, and I hope everyone else who considers themselves aligned with the public sentiments of Heterodox Academy makes sure that the organizational funders and actions are consistent with their own values.
 I mean, I didn’t because I was a mediocre student who tried to avoid classes with difficult reading, but I’ve tried to remedy my shortfalls since.