This past week, reporting from the Texas Tribune revealed more details of the undue right-wing influence of wealthy donors over a new program at West Texas A&M University. As previously reported in the Hotline, the Hill Institute, funded by a $20 million donation by a multimillionaire, is an on-campus academy dedicated to promoting a specific set of so-called “American values” and is inspired by former university president Joseph Abner Hill’s “belief regarding the importance of Judeo-Christian values.”
The multimillionaire funding the project, Alex Fairly, has donated to far-right causes, such as the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, which props up pro-voucher candidates across the state. His daughter, Caroline Fairly, is running for the Texas House in District 87 on a pro-voucher platform. According to campaign finance reports, members of the Fairly family and their associates have donated nearly $100,000 to Caroline’s campaign.
New reporting by the Texas Tribune has now revealed connections between WTAMU President Walter Wendler, who spearheaded the development and implementation of the Hill Institute, and prominent conservative political groups and individuals. These contacts include the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a blatantly political 501c(3) organization that supports private school voucher scams and pushed efforts to limit academic freedom at Texas public universities during last year’s legislative session. Though TPPF was unsuccessful in passing some of the more radical limits on academic freedom (as reported previously in the Hotline), its connection to the Hill Institute suggests a clear intention to influence academia.
The correspondence between Wendler and TPPF Executive Director J.B. Horton, obtained by the Texas Tribune via public records request, reveals a close, collaborative relationship between the public university president and the conservative influencer.
“WE ALL applaud your efforts for this desperately needed island of hope and sanity in our world today, especially on college campuses!” Horton wrote to Wendler after they met to discuss the project in Amarillo.
Via Horton, Wendler also connected with Carlos Carvalho, a University of Texas at Austin professor who proposed developing a conservative think-tank, called the Liberty Institute, to be housed within UT-Austin. Due to public outcry, the project was reformulated and rebranded as the Civitas Institute, but their correspondence suggests that those ideas will be recycled for the Hill Institute. Wendler described the institute to Carvalho as “intended to stimulate thought about traditional conservative value(s).”
The list of candidates for advisory board positions within the institute is a who’s who of Republicans, including billionaire right-wing mega-donor Charles Koch, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and U.S. Reps. Ronny Jackson and Kay Granger.
This is not the first time that Wendler has gained attention for his questionable practices. Last year, he banned drag shows from the university, which prompted a vote of no confidence from university faculty. In a previous position as chancellor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he suggested that providing employee health care to same-sex partners would encourage “sinful behavior.” At Southern Illinois, he was also accused of plagiarism, which led to his dismissal.
This apparent extremist influence on higher education in Texas comes after Republicans in the Texas Legislature last year referred to Texas public universities as “liberal” and politicized.