Protesting Alleged Liberal Bias in Higher Ed, Scholars Announce a University of Their Own
This summer, Pano Kanelos left his post as president of St. John's College, just a few years into the job and before his term was set to expire.
On his way out, he praised the Annapolis institution, which is known for its Great Books curriculum that emphasizes key texts from Western civilization, for staying “mostly outside the culture wars that are challenging our society.” He remarked that “the centrifugal force of politics is pulling everything into it,” conditions that he felt make it difficult to pursue liberal education rooted in free thought and speech.
Perceiving politics creeping into higher education, the outgoing president wondered, “how do we self-consciously maintain that space of liberty over time?”
Perhaps by starting a new university.
That’s the answer Kanelos gave to his own question this week as he announced the creation of the University of Austin, an institution-in-the-making that describes itself as committed “to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.”
Unlike many new higher ed endeavors, the proposed university—UATX for short—hopes to root itself in a physical campus. “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,” Kanelos wrote in a letter announcing the launch of UATX.
So its leaders are looking for land in the capital city of Texas. Why Austin, a city home to the South By Southwest festival whose slogan implores residents and visitors to “keep Austin weird”? Because the city is a hub for “builders, mavericks and creators,” according to the university’s extensive FAQ webpage—plus “if it's good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it's good enough for us.”
That line in particular, and the announcement as a whole, sent academic Twitter—a sometimes unruly collection of scholars and other higher ed workers—into a frenzy. Almost as soon as the university’s teaser trailer hit the internet, parody videos popped up.
Many observers critiqued the cast of characters assembled to serve on the UATX board of advisors. Like Kanelos, several of them recently picked up and left other organizations—some kicking up clouds of controversy on the way out. There’s Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor who left Portland State University after facing investigations for research misconduct, calling it “a Social Justice factory.” There’s Bari Weiss, a reporter who left the New York Times citing bullying and an “illiberal environment” after colleagues pushed back against some of her ideas. There’s Heather Heying, a professor of biology who left Evergreen State College after settling a lawsuit she and her husband filed over their treatment during campus protests.
Setting itself up as in contrast with those institutions, the new University of Austin promises to be “fiercely independent—financially, intellectually, and politically.” No one can sign up for classes yet—but they can donate money. Its website says that $250,000 will support 10 students—so does that mean tuition will be $25,000 a year?—$500,000 will support 10 faculty fellows, and $100 million will get naming rights for an undergraduate college.
The institution, which its leaders say will seek accreditation (though that process takes years), has secured enough seed money to launch and aims to raise an additional $250 million, according to its website. Its fiscal sponsor is a nonprofit called Cicero Research, affiliated with one of the co-founders of the data-analytics company Palantir. Cicero Research had no assets as of 2020, according to The Daily Beast.
Money raised will be spent largely on instruction, not administrative “bureaucracy,” according to the university’s website, because the institution intends that “student affairs, athletics, and extraneous services will be outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down.” Kanelos explained this further in his announcement letter, critiquing that “universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven ‘student experiences’—from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities.”
Yet research shows that those services and activities are the kinds of programs that help students complete college. They can be especially important for students typically less well-served by higher education—students least likely to be “insulated from the quotidian struggle to make ends meet,” which the UATX website names as one of the motivations for creating a physical campus.
What all the rhetoric about freedom and independence looks like in practice remains to be seen. Kanelos’ farewell interview with St. John’s may offer clues. He called for an environment where “intellectual exploration is the centerpiece,” and for a learning community “to allow one another to make mistakes, to explore ideas that maybe aren’t fruitful, to sometimes say things that are challenging or might offend the sensibilities of others—and then to forgive each other when we do make mistakes and to continue to move on.”
It’s a perspective about education that seems at odds with the reality that many students and faculty “don’t want their lives to be made intellectual matters,” as one professor told EdSurge recently.
As news about the proposed university spreads, some early supporters are clarifying their affiliations with it and their opinions about its strident stances. For example, one person listed as an advisor to the University of Austin is longtime college president Gordon Gee, who these days leads West Virginia University. But he sent an email to faculty, staff and students at West Virginia U. on Monday distancing himself from the premise of the upstart university.
“Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share,” he wrote. “I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken. I do not believe that to be the case at West Virginia University.”
Another advisor, Jonathan Haidt, a longtime advocate for viewpoint diversity at universities, expressed his firm endorsement for UATX in a tweet on Monday. Haidt runs a group called Heterodox Academy, of which Kanelos is a member.
The University of Austin did not reply to immediate request for comment.