Tomasi’s Political Theory Project gets $1 million gift

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Political Theory Project received a gift of $1,021,088 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation of Greenwich, Conn., the University announced Oct. 13. The number may seem random, but it’s precisely the funding needed to bring five postdoctoral research associates to Brown every year for three years, said John Tomasi, associate professor of political science and director of the project.

“So far we’ve been relying on individual alums, but the Thomas W. Smith Foundation grant gives us financial stability for the heart of our program,” said Tomasi, who founded the project in 2003.

Tomasi met Thomas Smith through a Brown alum, Tom McWilliams ’65. McWilliams attended a Janus Forum lecture sponsored by the project last year and became interested in the project.

“He invited me for dinner at his house in Westerly, R.I., to meet some friends of his who are interested in higher education, and one of them was Thomas W. Smith,” Tomasi said. “The foundation was established just last year. It’s quite new. We were lucky enough to get involved early.”

The postdoctoral research associates will teach undergraduate courses and participate in project-sponsored events while simultaneously pursuing their own independent research.

According to Tomasi, one of the main activities postdoctoral research fellows take part in is the Political Philosophy Workshop, a research group of professors, graduate students and postdocs that meets every other week throughout the academic year to help one another with their work.

Project-sponsored events that incorporate undergraduates are offered through the Initiative in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and the Janus Forum.

As part of the initiative, the project supports students who choose to pursue an interdisciplinary independent concentration in philosophy, politics and economics, inspired by a program offered at Oxford University. Efforts to establish a formal PPE concentration have stalled, The Herald reported Wednesday.

The initiative also includes a biweekly luncheon in the Faculty Club known as the Open Seminar, where undergraduates and postdocs can participate in informal discussions on a particular topic.

Driven by the motto “We think uncomfortable thoughts” and named after a Roman god with two faces, the Janus Forum was established in 2005 by undergraduates seeking to provide various perspectives on political issues. The Political Theory Project works closely with the Janus Forum to host lecture series on campus. Each lecture includes a debate between two speakers who have opposing perspectives on a particular issue followed by a question-and-answer session that involves the audience and stimulates further discussion.

“The goal of the project is best described by Ruth Simmons,” Tomasi said.

“While other types of communities devise covenants so as to avoid conflict, our covenant is rooted in quarrel, in opposition. We encourage ideas and opinions to collide in the service of learning,” he quoted Simmons.

In addition to funding the Political Theory Project at Brown, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation also gave grants to programs at Harvard and Princeton universities, Tomasi said.

“We try to provide a place for students with diverse viewpoints to come together and discuss freely and passionately. We want to make Brown the place where the best political conversations happen in the country,” he said. “If people at Princeton and Harvard feel the same way, we welcome the competition.”