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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 05:14 am

Give me liberty, whatever it is

UIS establishes a controversial minor

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William Kline
In what might be a first in the nation, the University of Illinois Springfield has established an academic program called Liberty Studies.

Students won’t be able to major in the subject, but the decision by the campus senate last Friday to establish Liberty Studies as a minor was not without controversy. Critics questioned whether the program will be more an attempt at indoctrination than education, with writings from conservative icons such as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman eclipsing other points of view.

Not to worry, supporters say. Liberty means lots of different things to lots of different people. Gandhi, for example, had plenty to say about liberty, says Eric Hadley-Ives, chairman of the university’s liberal and integrated studies department that created the course of study. There is also room for Marxists and anti-imperialism, he said

Hadley-Ives said that he knows of no other U.S. university that has developed Liberty Studies as a course of academic inquiry. Most, if not all, of the courses needed to complete the program are already in place. The creation of Liberty Studies is part of an effort in his department to develop “interesting” minors, Hadley-Ives said, and programs on film or sports could be coming next.

William Kline, a liberal studies professor at UIS who pushed for the creation of Liberty Studies and did much of the legwork, says that liberty is hardly a self-evident truth.

“Both the left and the right believe that liberty means one thing,” Kline said. “My real goal is to prevent liberty from becoming a moribund concept.”

But critics say that the creation of Liberty Studies is an attempt by political conservatives to combat perceived liberal biases in academia by promoting right-wing economic views and causes. As evidence, they point to the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Foundation, which promotes free markets and limited government by funding research. Kline is a senior fellow at the ACLG Foundation that receives funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, a charity known for championing conservative causes.

Founded in 2006, the ACLG Foundation has billed itself as a think tank akin to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. The foundation once planned to sponsor research at the University of Illinois in Urbana, but the faculty senate in Urbana in 2010 voted to sever the school’s ties with the foundation in response to fears that the nonprofit group, with a board populated by business interests, had undue influence on academic freedom.

Supporters of Liberty Studies at University of Illinois Springfield acknowledge that money for the program might well come from the ACLG Foundation and the Koch charity.

“I’m happy to take their money and teach a course on unions as a pro-liberty movement,” Hadley-Ives said. “If they’re serious about liberty, they’ll get what they paid for. We will have a rigorous study of liberty in this program.”

But critics aren’t convinced.

“What I am saying is that this program is at best a misnomer and at worst a false pretense, just like the so-called Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government, where Dr. Kline is a senior fellow,” wrote Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosophy professor, in an email sent to fellow campus senators before last Friday’s vote. “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.”

In the end, the course of study was approved with five dissenting votes. Derek Schnapp, UIS spokesman, said that no further approvals are necessary and so the program could begin as early as next fall.

Eboni Harris, a senior who watched the campus senate debate, noted that nobody will be forced to earn a minor in Liberty Studies. Concerns about academic freedom and critical thinking in the Liberty Studies program might be overblown, she said, given that most UIS students take a pragmatic approach to their studies and rarely speak up in class.

“They know if they don’t say anything, the course is over faster and they can leave sooner,” Harris said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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