What terrific news! I knew this was coming, and today it’s official: the University of Austin is here. From Pano Kanelos, its president:
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?
The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. 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. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.
The picture among undergraduates is even bleaker. In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe. Nearly 70% of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports at least 491 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Roughly half were successful.
On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals. Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago scientist who has objected to aspects of affirmative action, was recently disinvited from delivering a prominent public lecture on planetary climate at MIT. Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, finally quit in September after years of harassment by faculty and administrators. Kathleen Stock, a professor at University of Sussex, just resigned after mobs threatened her over her research on sex and gender.
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 education—Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and I—and 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.
The university as we know it today is an institution that originated in 11th-century Europe. The fact that there have been universities for nearly a thousand years—despite all the extraordinary changes in the nature of knowledge and communications technology in that time—tells us something important.
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.
We believe that the purpose of education is not simply employment, but human flourishing, which includes meaningful employment. We are therefore also reconceiving the relationship between a liberal education and the demands of our dynamic and fluid professional world.
Our rigorous curriculum will be the first designed in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences. Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.
This core purpose—the intrepid pursuit of truth—has been at the heart of education since Plato founded his Academy in 387 B.C. Reviving it would produce a resilient (or “antifragile”) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively. Such graduates will be the future leaders best prepared to address humanity’s challenges.
Pano Kanelos was the president of St. John’s College. He left to help found this new university. I cannot express strongly enough how thrilled I am by this! Please, if you are a donor to a college that has gone woke, redirect your donations to the University of Austin.
At the NatCon event last week, there was some talk in the hallways about how we all know what we are against — wokeness — but what are we for? The University of Austin is a concrete answer. More power to them!