The Smith Institute and academic freedom

Guest column by Bas van der Vossen, philosophy professor

Bas van der Vossen, philosophy professor

On Nov. 13, The Panther published an article focusing on Chapman’s new Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, and the role of external donors in establishing this institute. The piece suggests that Smith Institute professors may be hired to further libertarian ideas.

I am mentioned as an example of a professor who was hired for this reason using money from an external donor. Students who read the piece might believe that my classes are ideological in nature, or that certain political views are being promoted. I want to make it clear that this is not true. There is not, and never has been, any ideological expectations or content in my teaching. Philosophers try to formulate the strongest possible versions of arguments on different sides of a debate. It’s part of our mission to help students better formulate positions, including ones that they hold but we don’t.

“There is not, and never has been, any ideological expectations or content in my teaching.”

There are legitimate questions to ask about the role of external money in the academy. In the article, our colleagues express a concern for academic freedom. I share their commitment. There are no expectations of me to incorporate specific ideas, topics or even themes in my work. Academic freedom is an unassailable good.

But academic freedom is not only for professors. It’s for students, too. I am worried that students who read the article will worry about expressing their views in class. This would do real damage to our educational mission at Chapman. All students should feel safe and free to express their views.

The classroom needs disagreement. It’s the lifeblood of education. Only when students (and professors) challenge each other, can we learn which ideas are best, which can withstand scrutiny and when we should change our minds. That’s the point of having a university. We cannot survive conformity.

It is true that I hold libertarian ideas, although I’m far from a “standard” libertarian, if such a thing exists. I favor open immigration, I worry about excessive state power, police brutality and the war on drugs, and I believe that market economies generally make people better off, rich and poor. But none of that should really matter. I am a philosopher first, and a philosopher’s job is to seek the truth, following the arguments wherever they might lead.

As a teacher, I want to help students do this, too. The point of a university education is for students to learn how to make up their own minds, how to reason correctly and how to evaluate evidence for and against different views. We offer different ideas, arguments and make the best cases for and against them. I’ll listen to you, and I’ll challenge you. But I will do so using arguments. Together, we’ll try to figure out what’s right and true. And what you end up believing is, well, up to you.  


  • I’m not sure why hiring libertarian professors would be a bad thing anyway.
    If there is anyone who is going to promote open, free speech and debate, it’s a libertarian.

    Hiring a bleeding liberal is basically asking for students to be intimidated into silence in fear or retaliation. Liberal professors are so very petty.

    Anyways, great article by Bas van der Vossen. Well said and well reasoned.

    I think we can all agree that the Panther got quite carried away with their big and revealing “investigative’ article. If the Panther really wanted to investigate anything, perhaps they should look into that “Tunnel of Oppression” nonsense and whose money is going towards that waste of resources.

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