SHAKING IT UP Tomasi challenges higher education’s stale political debate.

Last month on a bright fall day, hundreds of Brown University students spurned sun and Frisbee for a debate on the constitutionality of President Obama's health care reform law.

On stage: Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who argued for the measure's legality with an appealing crankiness, and Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University Law Center professor who took obvious delight in picking the law apart.

This, you might think, would be de rigueur on the American campus: intellectual heavyweights doing battle on the nation's most pressing concerns. But it is remarkably rare.

The academy's political conversation is, too often, an insulated affair: partisans talking to the like-minded, with occasional breaks for aggressive, ill-considered protest against the opposition.

Brown itself made headlines just three years ago when an environmental activist tried, without much success, to pie New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman during a campus speech.

The recent health care forum served as a sort of direct rejoinder to the whipped-cream juvenility. And it helps to explain the enormous popularity of its sponsor, Brown's Political Theory Project, which has staged a series of sharp, balanced debates on everything from gay marriage to nation-building in Afghanistan.

But the project, housed in a small, brick building in the shadow of the admissions office, isn't quite as down-the-middle as the debate series — its public face — would suggest.

This year, the institute brought Steven Calabresi, co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society and former speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle, to the university as a visiting professor.

Amity Shlaes, a conservative author and columnist who argues that the New Deal exacerbated the Great Depression, recently spoke on campus at the project's invitation. And PTP professors and postdoctoral students teach classes on freedom, capitalism, and prosperity.

Its right-leaning donors, moreover, are not the sort you'd expect to find on the Brown campus: the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America's Founding Principles and History, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation, among them.

Koch and his brother David are figures of particular scorn on the left. The billionaire businessmen are patron saints of the libertarian movement, major Tea Party financiers, and for many, proof that the vast right-wing conspiracy is alive and well.

So, which is it then? Is the Political Theory Project a Trojan Horse in the heart of liberal academia? Or is it a model of civil debate, bent on saving Brown from itself?


John Tomasi, the well-regarded political science professor who launched the project eight years ago, sits in a high-backed chair in his office and tells the organization's founding story.

Two undergraduates who couldn't have been more different — a tall, popular liberal who worked as a model for a time and an outspoken conservative who took his lumps on the left-leaning campus — came to his office one day with a proposal.

They had designed a course they called "Knowing Right: Conservative Thought in America" — thick with readings from Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Barry Goldwater –— and they wanted him to sponsor it.

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