Expanding Intellectual Diversity on N.C.’s Largest University Campus
Is there such a thing as a conservative intellectual? Drs. Stephen Margolis and Andrew Taylor, two long-time professors at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, are out to show N.C. State students the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes.”
Their method: a groundbreaking campus program known as the Economic, Legal, and Political Foundations of Free Societies. Funded by a grant from the John William Pope Foundation, the multidisciplinary initiative explores the relationship between economics and politics in American life.
Teachers and students agree that the program broadens the array of ideas encountered by students by bringing well-respected speakers to campus, providing valuable undergraduate courses, facilitating student organizations, and funding graduate and faculty research.
“It’s fair to say that hundreds of students benefit from the program each year,” said Taylor, a political science professor in N.C. State’s School of Public and International Affairs, which houses the Political Science Department. “We’ve elevated the intellectual atmosphere on campus and diversified the ideas students are exposed to.”
The program, founded in 2004, is jointly run by the Department of Political Science and the Department of Economics at N.C. State, which is the largest university in the Tar Heel State. That collaboration has brought significant value to students, particularly those who hold a conservative or libertarian political philosophy.
“We’re creating a venue where conservative students can find both a congenial affiliation and intellectually stimulating experience. It’s good for us to be here,” said Margolis, who teaches economics at N.C. State.
The program touches a large number of students. A significant majority of undergraduates at N.C. State take at least an introductory course in economics. In addition, the university boasts nearly 700 undergraduate majors in political science.
Travis Fisher, an N.C. State graduate who now works as an economist for the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, was involved with the program between 2004 and 2006. He gives it high marks.
“The program is an invaluable way to expand intellectual diversity on campus and a great method for getting involved with a network of contemporary thinkers,” Fisher said.
Pope lecture series
A cornerstone of the N.C. State program is the annual John William Pope Lecture, which annually attracts top-notch academics and thinkers from across the nation.
“It gives the campus community access to some of the best minds in political science and economics, and elevates the university’s profile in the community,” Taylor said.
Free and open to the public, the lecture has featured such well-respected speakers as Dr. Vernon Smith, an economist and Nobel Laureate; David Frum, a journalist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush; and Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
“These speakers might never come to campus were it not for the Pope support, because they command a significant honorarium,” Margolis said. “Students have shown lots of interest in turning out to hear what these thinkers have to say.”
Another part of the Pope Foundation grant funds an undergraduate student organization called the Society for Politics, Economics, and the Law. The group meets roughly every month, or four times a semester, to hear lectures from speakers and debate the ideas presented.
In the 2010-2011 academic year, SPEL students heard such lecturers as Dr. Michael Boskin, an economist professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Deroy Murdock, a libertarian journalist; and Dr. Michael Munger, an economist and former Chair of the Political Science Department at Duke University.
“The students who attend tend to be libertarian and conservative types, but not exclusively,” Taylor said. “Some of the students who have been most interested in the program have had different political tastes.”
Dr. Roy Cordato, vice president for research and resident scholar at the free-market think tank the John Locke Foundation, serves as SPEL’s faculty advisor. He says the student club is a great addition to any graduate’s resume. “It stirs people to think about ideas — not just classical liberal ideas, but ideas in general regarding politics and economics,” Cordato said.
Fisher served as president of SPEL in 2006. “As part of the group, I learned to think independently of the curriculum (economics in my case, although other students had different backgrounds) and create an education for myself,” Fisher said.
As a spinoff, SPEL recently added a reading group — known as the Austrian Economic Forum — for faculty, graduate students, and undergrads. At bi-weekly meetings, attendees discuss the idea of such notable Austrian school economists as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, and Murray Rothbard.
Pope Foundation support also has opened doors for the creation of two new undergraduate courses at N.C. State.
The first, the Political Economy of the Market Process, is offered each fall and taught by Cordato. The course examines the institutional, philosophical, and economic foundations of markets with a special emphasis on economics and human rights.
The second course, Public Choice and Political Institutions, is also offered in the fall and taught by Taylor. The course examines the electoral system in the United States and political institutions, such as the U.S. Congress.
Scholarship, faculty support
A fourth arm of the Pope Foundation support funds undergraduate research grants and doctoral dissertations, in addition to support for summer faculty research and teaching.
For undergraduate students, the grant provides $4,000 to the student and $1,000 to the student’s faculty advisor for the project. The grants are split between students majoring in economics and political science and are reserved for the highest performing learners.
“Students do their own independent research,” Margolis said. “We expect it to be more ambitious than a term paper, or even a senior thesis. We want it to be, in some sense, original research.”
For doctoral students, financial support is provided for students in economics and public administration in the final year of their programs. The grant is meant to aid students in the development of their dissertations in such topics as private-sector practice and the institutional foundations of economic growth.
Summer grants for faculty also are available. The $10,000 grant allows a faculty member to devote a summer to research involving economics or public choice.
The Foundation originally funded the N.C. State initiative in 2004 at a five-year commitment of $94,000 per year. A new five-year commitment of $140,000 per year began with the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
“The Pope Foundation’s grant has been transformative in so many different ways,” Taylor said. “A highly respected foundation is essentially saying that N.C. State University is a serious place, and its faculty and students are worth investing in. That kind of confidence only motivates us to become better.”
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