Is higher education really broken and can the University of Austin save it?
Pano Kanelos, president of the newly created but still very much raw University of Austin, has thrown down a challenge to the rest of higher education.
In a Substack blog posted by former New York Times editor Bari Weiss, he writes: “Many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized. … Higher education fails 4 in 10 of its students. A system that so brazenly extracts so much from so many without delivering on its basic promises is overdue for a reckoning.”
That reckoning, the former St. John’s College Annapolis president says, will come from a coalition of forces—higher ed leaders and presidents, journalists and intellectuals—dedicated to the launch of this new, unaccredited-for-now university whose mission is the “pursuit of truth and freedom” and the end to cancel culture.
“So much is broken in America,” Kanelos says. “But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.”
Kanelos takes a direct stab at the current state of post-secondary education and learning, saying institutions have become illiberal and incapable of “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.”
So, the University of Austin (aka UATX) will bring back traditions that Kanelos says have disappeared from modern-day campuses, including the physical campus itself (though it admits it will supplement some courses with online instruction). The university is both looking for land to build it and for financial backing to get its private non-profit liberal arts dream off the ground, although it says it has seed money to get started and is “in the process of securing” $250 million.
“We are old-school,” the university notes on its FAQ page. “We believe human beings think and learn better when they gather in dedicated locations, where they are, to some extent, insulated from the quotidian struggle to make ends meet, and where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom.”
The learning is slated to begin in the summer of 2022 with the launch of a non-credit test program called “Forbidden Courses,” an open invitation for dialogue among current university students to tackle censorship and engage in “proactive disagreement.” Later in 2022, it is hoping to unveil a 12-month graduate program in entrepreneurship and leadership before launching graduate programs in politics and applied history, as well as education and public service, in 2023. A four-year undergraduate college would begin in 2024. The expansion could include STEM-based programs as well as Ph.D. programs and a law school.
“We expect to face significant resistance to this project,” Kanelos said. “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.”
As for those they will be targeting for admission, UATX notes, “We are looking for highly intelligent students who are intensely curious about the world, both past and present, and wish to assume a leadership role in its future. This means students who wish to address—boldly and fearlessly—the most vexing questions of human existence, and who also wish to work hands-on with scholars and entrepreneurs on humanity’s chief problems. Our university is not for everyone, and certainly not most. Those who are looking for a summer camp will not be happy at UATX.”
But it does say it will not use race, gender, class or identity in its decision-making process.
The backing to get it off the ground
While UATX is still waiting to hear back from the Internal Revenue service on its tax-exempt status, it is accepting donations through a sponsorship under data management consultant Cicero Research, “a tax-exempt entity organized under section 501(c)(3)” based in Salt Lake City. Addressing the lengthy time it often takes institutions to get accredited, UATX says it believes the process will happen sooner rather than later, according to accredited partners and also says the accreditation process “needs reform.”
That brash style appears to be the hallmark of this university, which promises to be “fiercely independent—financially, intellectually and politically.”
UATX’s project backers include Weiss, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Niall Ferguson, evolutionary biologist Heather Heying and entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, along with several professors who have resigned or been under fire for controversial public comments they’ve made—Dorian Abbot at the University of Chicago, and philosophers Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex and Peter Boghossian at the Portland State University.
The group is said to also include a slew of university presidents, including the University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer, President Emeritus at Harvard University Lawrence Summers, West Virginia University’s Gordon Gee and Concordia College’s John Nunes.
In response to the surprise announcement that he would be an advisor to the university and facing backlash on social media, Gee told the WVU community: “Let me state unequivocally that I am fully committed to West Virginia University. I have no intentions of placing my energies elsewhere. However, I have never been shy in sharing my thoughts on how higher education can—and must—improve if we are to have a positive impact on people’s lives. I have always stated that we need to improve quality while reducing costs and that we must always be a place of free expression and dialogue.
“Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share. 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.”