Director Benjamin Powell said the institute fits within the West Texas values of individualism, free enterprise and community.
Back in 2011, a West Texas rancher approached Lawrence Schovanec with a complaint. He believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, economic freedoms were on the decline and, worse yet, young people didn't even understand the free enterprise system – how it operates or what it provides people.
Schovanec, a mathematician and then-dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Tech University, was intrigued. Together, they came up with the concept for the Free Market Institute – an academic unit dedicated to advancing research and teaching related to the free-enterprise system and the institutional environment necessary for it to function well; promoting transdisciplinary scholarship; and providing a forum that encourages and values discussion and rigorous debate regarding all aspects of free markets.
After Schovanec received a grant to establish it, the Free Market Institute was founded in January 2013 with the hiring of its founding director, Benjamin Powell. He immediately got to work growing the institute – and he's been highly successful.
"The Free Market Institute was created to provide another educational option that distinguishes opportunities for students at Texas Tech, elevating the academic discussion around free markets and providing the community a forum for rigorous debate," said Schovanec, president of Texas Tech. "Because of the support of many, the institute has grown its educational and outreach impact, and has become a point of pride for this university, both within our local community and within the larger realm of free-enterprise scholarship."
Nine years after that fateful conversation, Texas Tech is home to one of the top three such institutes in the nation.
"For a center for free-enterprise scholarship on a national level, it's Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace; George Mason University's Mercatus Center; and, really, us," Powell said. "These are the three biggest centers for this type of thinking, at least in a cluster this size and this productive at a major research university."
The Free Market Institute now boasts nine faculty members, most of whom hold joint appointments with other departments at Texas Tech, as well as faculty affiliates and researchers at other campuses within the Texas Tech University System, including the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and Angelo State University.
The institute also serves as the administrative headquarters for two important national organizations: the Southern Economic Association and the Association of Private Enterprise Education.
"The Southern Economic Association is the oldest regional economics association in the United States, and we support its full operations, including its annual conference with more than 1,500 economists," said Powell, who serves as secretary/treasurer for both organizations.
"The Association of Private Enterprise Education is the largest association in the U.S. of university faculty who study and support the free-enterprise system. It's about a 500-member organization composed of economists, political scientists, philosophers, some business professors and historians. Past presidents have included multiple Nobel Prize winners. It's the leading academic association in the U.S. for free-enterprise people to collaborate."
West Texas support
Texas Tech, Powell said, is the perfect place for the Free Market Institute because the institute's focus is so well matched with the culture of West Texas.
"Free enterprise just means leaving responsible adults free to cooperate and interact in any way they deem mutually beneficial," Powell explained. "It means not arbitrarily regulating, prohibiting or taxing away opportunities for people to interact in the economic sphere that would better themselves.
"There's no better place to be running something called the Free Market Institute than at Texas Tech University in West Texas, because West Texans have values that fit with individualism and free enterprise as well as a strong sense of community."
The Free Market Institute is perhaps best known in the Lubbock community for its popular Public Speaker Series. It has hosted notable speakers including Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason and a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist; Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, senior judicial analyst for Fox News; and George F. Will, a Washington Post columnist, author and political commentator.
"When we bring in a George Will or a Walter Williams, and 900 people from Lubbock show up for it, it's kind of a 'Wow' moment," Powell said. "I can't imagine having this type of community support anywhere else."
'Dare to be different'
The community's backing for the institute has been second only to the university's itself.
"Texas Tech is a tremendously supportive place for this, and that goes from the chancellor to the president to the provost, all the way down to my colleagues here on campus," Powell said. "As long as the institute's faculty puts scholarship first and foremost, and lets that drive our research agenda, this is just part of academic freedom on a university campus that's going to have a diversity of viewpoints."
Exposure to such diverse views, after all, is at the core of higher education.
"Great universities have always been characterized by open and frank discussion of ideas – ideas that arise from varied perspectives, experiences and cultures," said Michael Galyean, Texas Tech provost. "It is this open discussion and debate of diverse thought that has allowed us to identify ideas that stand the test of time and become the principles on which our societies and cultures are not only built but are remade and rejuvenated throughout history."
Perhaps one reason the Free Market Institute enjoys such widespread support is that, even as it has grown, raising $20 million in private funding, it has retained its West Texas nature.
"As George Mason's late Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan said, you have to dare to be different," Powell said. "To compete with the big boys, you can do a Moneyball strategy and pick out something that's undervalued widely in academia, then strive to be the best within that niche and distinguish yourself that way.
"Texas Tech, as a university that had been aspiring to reach that Carnegie Tier One status, saw this as an opportunity where it could grow with a specialization that fit with the values of our community, that maybe some other universities in other parts of the country would pass on for political reasons. I can tell you, back when I was teaching in Boston, if I had suggested bringing Walter Williams onto campus, my administration would not have been happy with me. The first time I brought it up at Texas Tech, former chancellor Kent Hance found a plane to go pick him up."
As widely popular as the Free Market Institute's speaker series is, one thing an average community member may not see is the tremendous amount of academic scholarship that goes on behind the scenes to support such events.
"These are the things that generally don't get communicated as much to the Lubbock and broader West Texas community," Powell noted.
"We reach about 400 students annually in classes taught by institute faculty members," Powell said. "We have in-depth exposure for some undergraduates who receive small scholarships to participate in semester-long, non-credit reading groups, where they explore various books related to free enterprise and other social issues, and discuss them with each other and our faculty. They also have the opportunity to attend and hear lectures by prominent free-market intellectuals from around the world who visit here."
In just the last two years, faculty, staff and graduate students within the institute have published more than 50 peer-reviewed studies, many of them in highly regarded scientific journals in economics, agricultural economics, political science, philosophy and business ethics.
"We've recruited highly research-productive faculty who put out a large volume of high-quality research on economics in the standard scholarly outlets," Powell said, "and we do a good job of communicating these findings more broadly, appearing on national television and in print media around the country."
The institute, which boasts a 100% placement rate within academia for its doctoral graduates, just recruited its largest incoming doctoral student class to date.
"We are conscientious about making sure our faculty across campus understand this is a first-rate scholarly enterprise, first and foremost," Powell said, "not some political, ideological thing that isn't up to Texas Tech's standards on scholarship."