Ex-New York Times opinion columnist and editor Bari Weiss is among the founding board of advisers for The University of Austin, a new college dedicated to freedom of inquiry that rejects “illiberalism” found at most of America’s higher education facilities.
“So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all,” former President of St. John’s College Pano Kanelos wrote to kick off a Substack post promoted by Weiss to announce the University of Austin.
“We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew,” Kanelos wrote, noting that he will launch the new university alongside various journalists, university presidents, professors, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals who are concerned about the state of higher education.
“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,” Kanelos wrote.
“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 continued.
University of Austin will have a “rigorous curriculum” designed by “society’s great doers,” in partnership with teachers and educators. The university plans to expose students to open inquiry with an “intrepid pursuit of truth.”
“An education rooted in the pursuit of truth is the antidote to the kind of ignorance and incivility that is everywhere around us,” Kanelos wrote. “It is time to restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom. You will find all three at our new university in Austin.”
Weiss, a former New York Times columnist who famously quit the liberal paper in a scathing resignation letter that claimed she was bullied by colleagues in an “illiberal environment,” is joined on the advisory board by Hoover Institution history Niall Ferguson, author Heather Heying, 8VC CEO Joe Lonsdale, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, journalist Sohrab Ahmari, author Andrew Sullivan, playwright David Mament, and multiple others.
Kanelos will serve as the president of University of Austin.
The University of Austin’s website lays out a timeline for the college, indicating it plans to launch a graduate program in entrepreneurship and leadership in 2022, graduate programs in politics, applied history, education and public service in 2023 and establish the undergraduate college in 2024.
Before Kanelos revealed the details of his new venture, he torched modern universities in his scathing Substack post.
“There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows,” Kanelos wrote. “These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”
Kanelos then pointed to data, including that “nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences” and “over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views.”
Kanelos also referenced a study showing “four of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars” and another indicating 70% of students “favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive.”
“On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals,” he wrote, noting a variety of educators who have been disinvited, threatened or harassed because of political views.
“We had thought such censoriousness was possible only under oppressive regimes in distant lands. But it turns out that fear can become endemic in a free society. It can become most acute in the one place—the university—that is supposed to defend ‘the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,’” Kanelos said. “The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized. At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite.”
Kanelos feels most institutions prioritize avoiding “financial collapse” over anything else and 40% of students who pursue a college degree don’t obtain one. Meanwhile, more cash is spent on things like “emotional support” and “luxury amenities” than things that truly help students learn.
“In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit,” he wrote. “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.”