November 9, 2021

A GLIMMER OF SANITY IN ACADEMIA: The University of Austin puts the rest of academia to shame.

Rarely does the establishment of a new university attract global media attention, but the University of Austin has achieved just that – and for good reason. This exciting project, based in Texas, is upfront in its commitment to academic freedom, unfettered intellectual inquiry and knowledge-based higher education. It stands in stark contrast to the majority of other academic institutions, which have grown ideologically conformist, censorious and overly bureaucratic.

Founding member Bari Weiss says this ‘anti-cancel culture’ university will back ‘witches who refuse to burn’. These words have already been put into practice. Professor Kathleen Stock, forced to resign from the University of Sussex following a campaign of harassment by trans activists, has been announced as one of the first faculty fellows. Weiss’s spirited defence of ‘academics treated like thoughtcriminals’ is a desperately needed blast of oxygen for suffocating professors.

The University of Austin’s founders have a clear understanding of what has gone wrong in higher education. Its president is Pano Kanelos, formerly president of St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Kanelos criticises the world’s leading universities for purporting to stand for truth and intellectual freedom while betraying these values in practice. ‘We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves’, he writes, ‘so we’re starting a new one’.

Read the whole thing, and then check out Kanelos’ cri-de-coeur on Weiss’s Substack page: We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One.

The warped incentives of higher education—prestige or survival—mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction. Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven “student experiences”—from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities. In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit.

It’s not just that we are failing students as individuals; we are failing the nation. Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.

Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped. If these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?

At some future point, historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass. And perhaps by then we will have reformed our colleges and universities, restoring them as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse.

But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.

I mean that quite literally.

As I write this, I am sitting in my new office (boxes still waiting to be unpacked) in balmy Austin, Texas, where I moved three months ago from my previous post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis.

I am not alone.

Our project began with a small gathering of those concerned about the state of higher educationNiall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and Iand we have since been joined by many others, including the brave professors mentioned above, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot and Peter Boghossian.

We count among our numbers university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt,  Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen.

We are also joined by journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.

We are a dedicated crew that grows by the day. Our backgrounds and experiences are diverse; our political views differ. What unites us is a common dismay at the state of modern academia and a recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.

It will surely seem retro—perhaps even countercultural—in an era of massive open online courses and distance learning to build an actual school in an actual building with as few screens as possible. But sometimes there is wisdom in things that have endured.

Exit quote: “We expect to face significant resistance to this project. There are networks of donors, foundations, and activists that uphold and promote the status quo. There are parents who expect the status quo. There are students who demand it, along with even greater restrictions on academic freedom. And there are administrators and professors who will feel threatened by any disruption to the system. We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.”

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