Provost Wood discusses Liberty Institute, COVID-19 guidance at faculty council meeting

Lauren Abel, News Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the September 21 flipbook. 

University faculty and staff had the opportunity to ask administration about COVID-19 guidance and the proposed political center dedicated to free market ideals at a Faculty Council meeting Monday.

The UT community has protested the University’s handling of COVID-19 by petitioning for mask mandates, online classes and grade leniency. Additionally, the Liberty Institute, a political department that would teach about private enterprise, free markets and personal liberty, has attracted criticism because it is funded with government money for a department some UT faculty call overly politicized.

Liberty Institute

In May 2021, the Texas Legislature approved $6 million in funding in the 2022-23 state budget for UT to create the Liberty Institute. 

Several UT faculty members asked about the institute’s funding, structure and overall necessity. They also questioned if the Texas Tribune article, which implies there are politically driven motives behind the institute’s creation, is accurate.

Provost Sharon Wood said she was not included in the discussions during the legislative session, so she is not aware of any political motivations for creating the institute. However, she said the Tribune article incorrectly implied there was no student interest in the initiative and ignored the role of faculty governance and hiring.

“The institute is intended to support and help attract faculty,” Wood said.

However, Stuart Riechler, associate professor of practice in the College of Natural Sciences, said the institute is more politically motivated than other state-funded institutes.

“Why is the University allowing itself to be politicized by the legislature?” Riechler said. “It seems like a very dangerous precedent for us to set.”

Yasmiyn Irizarry, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, said she is concerned about how diversity, equity and inclusion will be addressed within the institute.

“Given the … underrepresentation of Black people as faculty, the likelihood that you’re going to have any representation of faculty of color, let alone Black faculty, in an institute like this … is already limited, if none at all,” Irizarry said.

Only faculty spoke out against the Liberty Institute at the meeting.

The Texas Tribune article also indicated legislative funding of the Liberty Institute violated standard procedures, though the legislature has funded approximately 15 different efforts at the University, Wood said. 

“This (legislative funding) is not unusual in approach, but it is relatively rare on our campus,” Wood said.

COVID-19 Guidance

Provost Wood also addressed concerns about the University holding in-person events like “Gone to Texas” when Austin Public Health guidelines discourage public gatherings. 

The University held “Gone to Texas” in late August despite the UT COVID Modeling Consortium indicating that it may be a super-spread event, mathematics professor Lorenzo Sadun said.

Wood said the University never received a request from the City of Austin to cancel in-person events like “Gone to Texas.” The University also made efforts to require students to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus. 

“As you look out retroactively, we did not have huge increases (in cases) due to the (on) campus events,” Wood said. 

Classics associate professor Jennifer Ebbeler said some universities mandating COVID-19 testing are reporting thousands of active cases. She said the case rates may be higher than reported as UT does not mandate testing on campus.

Wood said the University is increasing campus testing capabilities to get a sense of the situation on campus and address community concerns.