The University of Austin — Yes, That One — Is Really Happening

The University of Austin — Yes, That One — Is Really Happening

The announcement read like an indictment, accusing elite colleges, including Yale and Stanford, of betraying their missions — all that viewbook bragging about truth and light — and instead fostering environments that instill fear and promote groupthink. Students can’t speak their minds without risking their reputations. Professors must weigh every word lest a misstep lead to protests. And the chilling effect extends beyond campus: “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?”

Furrow-browed jeremiads bemoaning the state of higher education in the United States are plentiful, but this essay added a twist: the author, Pano Kanelos, revealed that he and a small band of similarly concerned compatriots were starting a university of their own, one that would resurrect the ideals they believed others had ditched. They knew that not everyone in academe would cheer their new venture: “We welcome their opprobrium,” Kanelos wrote.

They got it. In the wake of Kanelos’s punchy cri de coeur, published last November, the University of Austin was mocked as a haven for aggrieved academics peddling retrograde views, a cynical cash grab, or possibly both. Critics put the word “university” in scare quotes. Someone on Twitter wondered whether “final grades are just skull measurements,” while another suggested re-christening the institution “U Genics.” The Root compiled an imaginary course list with titles like “Karenology 320″ and “White History 101.” The New Republic rolled its eyes, averring that the enterprise “seeks to be higher education’s premier institution of monetizing moral panics.”

Not all the reviews were quite so scathing, and some pundits — generally more conservative ones — applauded the idea. If you believe free inquiry has become anathema on college campuses, or if you think, as Kanelos wrote, that higher-ed might be “the most fractured institution of all,” then you surely thrill to the prospect of beginning anew. If you think that the crisis narrative is overblown, and that those sounding the alarm are hustlers and prima donnas, then the project probably sounds like a boondoggle.

Chatter aside, the University of Austin is starting to take shape in the year since its raucous rollout. Curriculum is being developed. The accreditation process is underway. A deal for land in the greater Austin area is being hammered out. The university has lured several professors away from other universities and plans to announce more hires in coming weeks. And then there’s the fund raising: Kanelos says the university is about halfway to its quarter-billion-dollar goal. More than 50 of the university’s roughly 1,400 donors have made at least a six-figure donation, and 20 or so have made seven- or eight-figure contributions. In the first two weeks of August alone, UATX, as it’s known, reportedly pulled in around $15 million. Not bad for a university that doesn’t quite exist.

But a long list of challenges remains. At the top: Can the University of Austin escape its reputation as merely reactionary and actually build, as its founders hope, an institution for the ages?

The origin story of the University of Austin begins with two characters: a famous historian and a wealthy tech entrepreneur. The historian, Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has written more than a dozen books, including best sellers like Civilization: The West and the Rest. He gets labeled a conservative, though he’s referred to himself as a “classic Scottish enlightenment liberal.” The entrepreneur, Joe Lonsdale, is less well known in academe, though he’s made a name for himself in the tech world. He graduated from Stanford in 2004 with a degree in computer science and went on to co-found a software company, Palantir, that’s worth north of $15-billion. Last year Forbes placed him at 18 in a ranking of top tech investors.

They’ve each found themselves at the center of campus controversies. In 2018, Ferguson resigned from his leadership role in a speakers program at Stanford after emails he sent to conservative student activists were published (Ferguson has said he regrets writing the messages). In 2014, Lonsdale’s relationship with a Stanford undergraduate he mentored came under scrutiny and he was banned from campus. He was later unbanned after more information came to light.

Our primary goal was to build a university truly committed to the pursuit of truth with academic freedom as a key part of its design.

Lonsdale and Ferguson got to know each other when they both lived not far from Palo Alto in California. They agreed about shortcomings in the American higher-education system and thought the best way to remedy them might be to start from scratch. At one point Ferguson sketched out a plan for what such a university might look like. According to Ferguson and Lonsdale, Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, and also of Palantir, was involved in some early discussions, but he didn’t think a new university was the right approach. (Thiel offers a $100,000 fellowship to students “working on a cool project or company” who are willing to drop out of college.) The two batted the notion around for a few years. “I think Niall and I both independently saw a giant gap here and were interested in doing something about it,” Lonsdale told me.

The talk became more serious. In May of last year, they convened at Lonsdale’s house in Austin, Tex., to flesh out the vision. Also present was Kanelos, who had recently stepped down as president of the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, Arthur C. Brooks, a Harvard professor and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, along with Heather Heying and Bari Weiss. Heying and her husband, Bret Weinstein, left Evergreen State College after student protesters targeted Weinstein over his opposition to a “Day of Absence,” in which white people were asked to stay off campus. Weiss is a former New York Times opinion editor and writer who quit the newspaper in the summer of 2020, writing in her resignation letter that the paper was now essentially edited by ideologues on Twitter. Kanelos’s essay appeared in Weiss’s Substack newsletter, which has become a hub for those who consider themselves refugees from the current political discourse.

The group spent the day talking about what the university might look like. That evening they had dinner with high-powered friends of Lonsdale’s, including some fellow tech executives, people who might be willing to finance the venture or to be involved in other ways. Lonsdale has said that he wants the university to, as he puts it, educate the future elite, and so perhaps it made sense to have members of the current elite present at the institution’s inception. Heying described the day as “fascinating, unusual, inspirational” and that it “just didn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever been involved in with higher ed.” Lonsdale said the process wasn’t unlike what he goes through when he’s starting companies. “It’s very unusual to have professors free-thinking about these things,” he says. “You return to first-principles thinking about what you’re doing.”

For Ferguson, there was a sense of urgency. His desire to get the project off the ground was speeded along when a number of professors he admired came under fire for their views. One was Kathleen Stock, who resigned from the University of Sussex in the wake of threats made by activists over her views on biological sex and transgender rights. Another was Peter Boghossian, who believed that Portland State University, where he taught, had become a “Social Justice factory” rather than a place of learning. “Part of my motivation was to create an institution for such scholars,” Ferguson says. “I’ve been saying for a while that, in the next stage of my life, I want to be doing more institution-building rather than just writing.” Though he doesn’t consider UATX mainly a shelter for firebrand academics: “Our primary goal was to build a university truly committed to the pursuit of truth with academic freedom as a key part of its design.”

Lonsdale was reluctant initially to pull the trigger, but Weiss and Ferguson persuaded him that the time was now. “You can’t wait forever on these things, and it’s a good mission,” he says. Lonsdale wrote in an op-ed for the New York Post that “stagnant institutional structures have hampered universities’ ability to achieve great things” and that the University of Austin intended to “take power back from ideologues.”

Statements like that apparently rubbed some early supporters of the project the wrong way. Two prominent figures — Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist who often finds himself at odds with orthodoxy, and Robert Zimmer, former president of the University of Chicago, an institution known as a beacon for free speech — severed ties soon after the public launch. Pinker wished the project well and said he wouldn’t comment further. Zimmer wrote at the time that the critical language about higher education “diverged very significantly from my own views.” In a statement, the University of Austin said it had conflated advisers to the project with founders on its website and that the error had led to “unnecessary complications.”

In short, the rollout was as bumpy as it was splashy.

Pano Kanelos, president of UATX, on September 23, 2022.

Arnold Wells for The Chronicle

Pano Kanelos, founding president of the U. of Austin

Pano Kanelos wasn’t shocked by the backlash. “We’ve said some really bold things,” he told me. “I did so intentionally to be provocative, to say, ‘Look, somebody’s gotta wake up and say, there’s something going on out here in higher ed and somebody’s got to do something about it.’”

I met Kanelos recently at the University of Austin’s headquarters, which is — for the moment anyway — rented space inside a nondescript office building next to a highway. The same building also houses a law firm, a doctor’s office, and a company that makes prosthetic limbs. The directory across from the elevators reads “UATX” because, under Texas law, you can’t officially call yourself a university until you’ve been certified by the state, a process that involves submitting a draft of the student handbook, financial statements, and other sundry evidence to show you’re not a diploma mill. The staff members of UATX are working on that and plan to turn in materials before the end of the year, Kanelos told me.

Look, somebody’s gotta wake up and say, there’s something going on out here in higher ed and somebody’s got to do something about it.

Kanelos greeted me at the door wearing a powder-blue suit with a white shirt and no tie. He led me past a series of small offices where a dozen or so staff members were laboring to get the fledgling operation off the ground. They had moved into the building less than a month before and Kanelos’s corner office remains mostly unadorned: The still-unfilled bookshelves partially obscure a mural left by the previous occupant. On his desk are a couple of notebooks, a small abstract sculpture made by a friend, and a MacBook. When I first sat down with Kanelos last December, he and his skeleton crew were huddling in a coffee shop not far from his house.

Kanelos never planned on becoming an administrator. In fact, he bristles a bit at the word. Kanelos sees himself more as a conversationalist than a pencil pusher. A decade or so ago, he was a Shakespeare scholar in the theater department at Loyola University Chicago, writing about Titus Andronicus, co-editing a book about the early modern stage, and happily living the life of the mind. A friend told him that Valparaiso University was looking for a new dean for its honors college and encouraged him to apply. “He said, ‘You seem to have the temperament for it,’” Kanelos recalled. A few years later, he applied to be president of the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, figuring that, with his brief administrative résumé, he wouldn’t have much of a chance. Kanelos got that job too. With its emphasis on Great Books, St. John’s is something of an outlier and perhaps less subject to the tensions roiling other campuses. “St. John’s remains a relatively sane place,” he says. “It gave me a way to conceive on a larger scale of an institution that could be more comprehensive and have a broader reach than St. John’s but draw on that vibrant tradition of open dialogue.”

Open dialogue is a key selling point in the UATX pitch. Another is the university’s promise to spend judiciously. Kanelos wants to keep tuition relatively low — around $30,000, which is a bit less than the national average for private colleges. UATX doesn’t have a multi-billion-dollar endowment and, despite the impressive fund-raising haul, it probably won’t get there anytime soon. Kanelos plans to outsource much of the university’s behind-the-scenes work. His assistant — whom he praises effusively — is a contract worker based in the Philippines. “I don’t think the administrative culture should be bigger than the academic culture,” Kanelos says.

In the months since the launch announcement, Kanelos has been courting donors, interviewing potential hires, developing curriculum, and dealing with the thousand and one details necessary to create a university. He pushed back my visit to their offices by a few days because staffers were still assembling furniture they had bought from IKEA. He’s also been figuring out where, precisely, the campus will be located. The organizers considered several locations and have settled on one, but Kanelos declined to say more, other than that it’s on undeveloped ranch land in the greater Austin area. He’s been talking to architects and developers, going on Jeep tours, and examining drone footage of the area. “I’m in some ways a horribly sentimental person,” he says, “and, for me, when I think about building a campus, my primary quality is beauty.”

The land will be donated, though Kanelos declined to name the person who is providing terra firma for UATX. They’ve had several offers from landowners, Kanelos says, who all want the university in their backyard and the dilemma has been in choosing between them. “I just think people see it as an exciting legacy, that they would have the opportunity to be part of an institution literally from the ground up,” he says.

Even with no campus to call home, Kanelos is busy recruiting faculty members. UATX recently announced the hiring of four professors, each of whom will oversee an interdisciplinary center or program. Among the new hires is Charles W. Calomiris, who will direct the Center for Politics, Economics, and Applied History. Calomiris currently holds an endowed professorship in the business school at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1996. Why leave a prestigious university for an operation that doesn’t have any students yet? Calomiris says he’s intrigued by the prospect of trying something new, and he’s also very unhappy with the state of free speech on university campuses, including his own. He sought out the role at UATX even though it will mean fewer resources and a substantial pay cut. “I have friends across the political spectrum who are staying where they are despite the fact that they’re experiencing real pain,” Calomiris says. “I don’t want to just use the word ‘disagreement.’ What’s going on in American universities is a source of pain.”

The only thing we really had in common was our dedication to open inquiry. … It gave me hope for my generation.

The pain was too much for Peter Boghossian, who left Portland State University last year after a decade as an assistant professor of philosophy. In his resignation letter, which was also published in Bari Weiss’s newsletter, he said the university’s “only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood.” Boghossian is probably best known as one of the three scholars behind the “grievance studies” hoax, which submitted nonsensical papers to a number of journals, some of which were accepted. “I’m going to lend whatever intellectual talents I have to create a place where people who are sincere can ask questions,” Boghossian told me. “If you want to mire in a swamp of dogmatism and ideological madness then nothing is stopping you. I’m done with it.” Unlike Calomiris, Boghossian hasn’t signed on as a professor at UATX and, while he’s listed as a founding faculty member, he has no plans to teach at the university full time. After leaving Portland State, Boghossian started a nonprofit, the National Progress Alliance, whose welcome page states that “truth is no longer the North Star of our universities.”

Boghossian was among the teachers at UATX’s Forbidden Courses Summer Program, held this past June. The two-week program was financed by a donor who covered expenses for 80 students from 46 colleges and universities (Kanelos declined to say who footed the bill). The list of lecturers included other academics who have found themselves, for one reason or another, the targets of petitions and protests. Kathleen Stock and Niall Ferguson both showed up, as did Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, who was disinvited from giving a speech at MIT over his views on colleges’ diversity programs. The event was held in Dallas at a renovated 19th-century teaching hospital, complete with dark wood interiors, statuary, and a glass dome. UATX later posted a video featuring interviews with students and professors waxing rhapsodic about the experience.

I spoke to several students who attended the program, including Widener Norris, a freshman at the University of Georgia. Norris, who considers himself moderately conservative, said that the event was not a “conservative echo chamber” and that he had meaningful, no-holds-barred conversations with fellow attendees with differing views. “The only thing we really had in common was our dedication to open inquiry,” he said. “That was really what was most encouraging about the program for me. It gave me hope for my generation.” Another attendee emerged with a more mixed impression. The student, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with UATX, said he applied because he hoped to provide a liberal perspective at what he assumed would be a politically one-sided gathering. Though overall the event was “better than I expected,” he told me, he often felt like conservative voices dominated the discussions. He also thought certain subjects, including issues of race and gender, should have been approached with more sensitivity.

Putting on a two-week event is, of course, a far cry from building and running a proper university. When UATX officially opens its doors — and the plan is for the first freshman class to arrive in the fall of 2024 — administrators will inevitably run into the same sorts of problems other universities face, dilemmas that will require them to balance competing values and navigate divergent sensibilities. It’s one thing to say you’re going to handle these situations more fairly and nimbly than everyone else, and another to actually pull that off.

Another test will be evolving beyond the “Anti Woke U” caricature. The founders hope that UATX will attract a cross-section of students with varying backgrounds and ideological leanings, but that could be difficult if it’s seen mostly as a place where right-of-center undergraduates go to have their world views reinforced. Several people connected to UATX told me that they don’t want the university to be seen as the southern version of Hillsdale College, the small Michigan liberal arts institution with a markedly right-wing bent.

That may be why when Kanelos talks about UATX’s mission these days his tone is less strident than it was in his announcement essay. He’s not firing shots at other institutions or shaking his fist at censorious administrators or illiberal campus activists. Instead he’s emphasizing his vision of a “nonpartisan and politically ecumenical” campus community. “It’s going to be an awesome education,” he told me. “And one part of its awesomeness is going to be that the anxieties that are rippling on the surface of other institutions with students and faculty and staff about their abilities to express themselves aren’t going to be part of the culture.”

Lonsdale is on the same page. “It can’t fall into being a political thing,” he says. “It can’t fall into something that doesn’t attract the best and brightest who have views on all sides.” Lonsdale sees the success of UATX as a personal responsibility. He says he’s involved, not just in the financial side of the university, but also in developing curriculum and making sure it stays true to its original goals. He is chairman of the university’s board of trustees and told me he plans to remain in that position for the rest of his life: “There’s a big sense of duty we have in making sure this is done correctly.”

For his part, Kanelos hopes that one day UATX will be spoken of in the same breath as Cambridge and Oxford and Heidelberg. A lofty vision? Sure. And Kanelos is aware that the university still has a long way to go in order to prove that it’s more than an interesting idea and that, until it does, critics will continue to doubt the seriousness of the endeavor. That’s OK with him. “I am totally convinced that this is an essential project — and maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the ideas I and others have for renewing higher education are totally off base. I will discover that,” he says. “But I believe that this is the thing I should be doing, so I am 100-percent all in.”

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