When John Tomasi, professor of natural theology and political science and founder of Brown’s Political Theory Project, first visited the University where his now-wife was getting her master’s degree in fall 1989, he was struck by the pockets of students sprawled on the campus’s greens.
“There were Brown students sitting around on the green working and also talking with each other and calling to each other, and there was something about it that was so lovely,” he said. “They were obviously intelligent people, but there was a community I felt at the time that just enchanted me.”
Years later, when Tomasi left a position at Stanford University to join Brown’s faculty, his students on the West Coast warned him about the kind of reception he might receive in Rhode Island. “One student told me, ‘They’re going to eat you for lunch at Brown,’” Tomasi said.
Another of his Stanford students, Rachel Maddow, who went on to a career as an MSNBC host, gave Tomasi an eccentric-looking hat and a pack of cigarettes as going-away presents, props to help him fit in at his new gig on College Hill.
But over his 27 years at the University, Tomasi said he has felt welcomed and valued by the Brown community, from which he will be departing come January to enter a new role as the president of a nonpartisan collaborative called Heterodox Academy.
According to the group’s mission statement, the academy was founded in 2015 to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.” Its founder Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist known for his outspokenness, described in his 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about the failings of modern college campuses.
Tomasi is giving up his tenured position at Brown to serve as the HxA’s inaugural president, a role that he sees as an opportunity to move a voice that he expresses at Brown onto a larger stage.
“What HxA is really about is this positive mission of not fighting against bad things but rather trying to build good things and trying to support the best aspects of the American educational system,” Tomasi said. “We do that by encouraging critical reasoning, viewpoint diversity and what I think of as something like free curiosity. HxA stands up for those kinds of values and encourages people to look for barriers that are preventing curiosity, that are preventing the free expression of our intellect, that are preventing the free exploration of ideas.”
Tomasi “is a highly respected academic with a passion for academic discourse. He has demonstrated sustained commitment to the values of HxA, and he possesses a track record of successfully envisioning and promoting those values in the university setting,” Jeffrey Flier, chair of the search committee and HxA board member, said in the press release announcing Tomasi’s appointment. “John is the right person, at the right time, for HxA and for higher education.”
In his 27 years at Brown, Tomasi has taught courses in both the political science and philosophy departments, in addition to his work for the Political Theory Project, which seeks “to investigate the ideas and institutions that make societies free, prosperous and fair.”
“John has contributed a lot to Brown over many years, and I wish him well in his new role,” wrote President Christina Paxson P’19 in an email to The Herald about Tomasi’s departure.
Since arriving at the University in 1994, Tomasi has established himself as a proponent of free speech on college campuses. A political philosopher, Tomasi has authored books on topics such as “Free Market Fairness” and has conducted extensive public policy work in Chile. He and co-author Matt Zwolinski are working on a forthcoming volume on a social justice-minded model of libertarianism.
At the University, Tomasi’s classes are spaces for student-centered discussions on provocative themes. He has led the seminars POLS 0920A: “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism” and POLS 1150: “Prosperity: the Ethics and Economics of Wealth Creation.” He is currently teaching his last Brown course entitled POLS 1825Z: “The University,” in which he encourages students to grapple with the concepts and themes that he hopes to work on in his new position at HxA, he explained.
Tomasi founded the PTP, an interdisciplinary collective on campus, in 2003 as the outgrowth of a Group Independent Study Project of two politically heterodox students eager for more opportunities to have their own viewpoints challenged.
One of these students, Democratic Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand ’05, who met Tomasi in a first-year seminar, sought out a fellow student writer of a controversial conservative column to be his partner for the GISP. “I just thought I came (to Brown) to get an education and that involves me encountering a lot of different ideas, so I can learn what I think about them and learn their ins and outs, and I didn’t feel like that was happening very well,” he said.
Sand was inspired to engage with an ideologically different peer after he heard University President Ruth Simmons speak at his convocation in her first year as president. Sand recounted Simmons saying, “‘If you’re here to be comfortable, there’s the gates’ — meaning we should be willing to examine everything we talk about and everything we say we believe to really have an opportunity to discuss whether or not we believe it’s true or whether or not we might find something out there that has more truth to it,” he said.
Emily Skarbek, an associate research professor at the PTP, said that the research collective brings together faculty and postdoctoral fellows to collaborate on and lead cross-disciplinary initiatives to promote viewpoint diversity and elevate ideological inquiry on campus.
“John has been so formative in terms of the type of programming that we’ve done here at the Political Theory Project,” Skarbek said. “For so long before I joined and before others in the building were here, John was kind of doing a lot of this on his own.”
Skarbek explained that the PTP is responsible for hosting the University’s Philosophy, Politics & Economics student society and large-scale lecture series, like the Janus Forum Lecture Series.
“The idea (of the Janus Lectures) is to bring in scholars from different perspectives on a particular issue to engage with one another and also to engage with students on different topics,” Skarbek said.
The Janus Lectures have been the site of some controversy in years past, including in 2014 when scholars Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy were brought onto campus to debate the topic of the existence of a rape culture on college campuses, The Herald previously reported.
“There’s a line to be drawn between open thought and open discussion, and intentionally attempting to upset or trigger people,” Sand said. “Different people are going to draw that line in different places. I think we have to be mindful of that at the same time that we do the work of trying to promote open discussion of ideas.”
The PTP itself has faced backlash in the past for its decision to accept funding from billionaire and conservative political ideologue Charles Koch.
Tomasi himself has pushed the envelope by bringing Koch into his “Prosperity” class to speak directly with students and respond to their queries and criticism.
“Some people see Brown as a place which stands up for a certain set of preconceived notions that they affirm, and they like Brown that way,” Tomasi said. “They prefer that Brown be like that. But that’s not what most people at Brown think. That’s not Brown at its best. Brown at its best is a place that really does celebrate community (and) exploration together.”
Sand looked to Tomasi’s efforts to meld the ideas of political philosophers John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek in his book “Free Market Fairness” as an example of the kind of cutting-edge scholarship he has brought to Brown. “The fact that he wrote a book that said, ‘Look there’s a way to take these ideas and read them together … that actually can be an improvement upon both’ is frankly a little bit courageous, and also I think pretty effective,” he said.
Sand discussed how an impulse of intellectual empathy has proved an asset to him in his own political career after graduating from the University. “I could tell you so many stories when somebody says something that so many people would be eager to jump on and judge, but then if you just listened to them and only asked a single question you can understand that the place that they’re coming from is a place of curiosity and not a place of bigotry,” he said. “We can’t find partners in good-faith conversation without ourselves being willing to engage in that.”
In Tomasi’s opinion, the best of Brown is an “impatience with the status quo, including the status quos of our own making.”
“Brown creates status quos on certain moral issues, but true Brown is impatient even with that,” he said.
Looking ahead to his future at HxA, Tomasi expressed gratitude for his time at the University and the lessons it has taught him.
Brown is about “caring so much that you are never content with what you think you know,” he said. “It means caring so much about justice, caring so much about beauty and truth that you question things for yourself again and again in an ongoing way that doesn’t stop, neither when you walk in nor when you walk out. … The battle for what Brown really is, what it really wants to be … is an ongoing struggle that will go on long after I leave.”