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Why I Joined the University of Austin’s Advisory Board

An institution committed to the free pursuit of truth is better than one that is openly hostile to Truth.

The new University of Austin went public last week, and ever since, it has attracted national and global attention. And acted as a lightning rod for criticism, much of it weighted with stupidity, if not downright malice (“So a ‘woke university’ is one that is accredited, offers degrees [and] has a campus. . . . I’ll take it,” snarked the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, knowing full well that a startup institution will need some time to reach these milestones).

One of the most common charges is that UATX, as it’s known to friends, is somehow a right-wing project. Wrong: The institution stands confidently in the liberal tradition. In his launch statement, UATX President Pano Kanelos decried the “illiberalism” besetting much of academia these days. The answer, he argued, is greater “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.” That such rhetoric codes as “right-wing” doesn’t make Kanelos any less of a liberal—it only reinforces his lament for the modern university and the elite culture it has bred.

The ideological composition of the founding members and advisory board is also telling. There are neoliberals (Larry Summers, Bari Weiss), conservative liberals (Arthur Brooks, Bill McClay, Leon Kass, Niall Ferguson), libertarians and classical liberals (Tyler Cowen, Deirdre McCloskey), progressive liberals (Kathleen Stock), and others who best fit in the various interstices of these categories (Peter Boghossian, Caitlin Flanagan, Glenn Loury).

Then there is me, the only member who can be described as fully and unapologetically a non-liberal, even an anti-liberal. Why did I join UATX’s advisory board?

I’m a political Catholic, whose most recent book includes a chapter titled, “Should You Think for Yourself?” In it, I draw on the work of Saint John Henry Newman—the Oxford luminary turned Catholic critic of Victorian liberalism—to argue that liberal “freedom of conscience” is nonsensical, since it divorces mental freedom from the claims of moral authority and the universal moral law inscribed in our nature.

Insofar as conscience reflects the dictates of the law, Newman would give it the widest freedom. But as I write in The Unbroken Thread, he would reject the thoroughly subjectivized, and thoroughly modern, account of conscience according to which one conscience may approve of abortion (infanticide) and another conscience disapprove, and “no can say for sure which of the two consciences is in the right.”

Newman, moreover, viewed the liberal promise of absolute freedom of conscience—and, by extension, absolute freedom of speech and inquiry—as illusory and unrealistic. Some orthodoxy or other would always prevail in society. That was true in Newman’s Victorian England, notwithstanding the absolutist claims of the era’s liberals. And it’s also true of our society—and our universities. The quest for knowledge will always be carried out within some substantive moral framework, and it can’t be abstracted from what we believe about man’s origins, nature, and ultimate destiny.

These Newman-inspired lines of thought animate my approach to UATX. As I tweeted on launch day, “I don’t, in fact, believe that the university can or should enshrine mere free speech or free inquiry as its highest ideal.” That, of course, doesn’t mean that free speech and inquiry are unimportant, or that they shouldn’t have a place on campus. What it does mean is that these things should be treated as a means to an end—namely, truth.

Some quests for truth and some branches of knowledge are especially well-served by free speech and inquiry. This is the case with natural sciences—though even there, other, presuppositional truths impose limits. Experiments on human subjects, for example, are supposed to be limited by ethical maxims that are more received (from tradition, from nonscientific disciplines, from revelation) than they are discovered.

In humanistic fields, meanwhile, the proper task of the university is transmission, since human nature is unchanging and unchangeable. As Newman wrote in The Idea of the University, these fields have as their concern a set of truths that “never changes, but cautiously advances.” The natural law is the natural law, for example. A student might apply it to new problems, but he can’t alter its fundamental precepts without violating its integrity as natural law.

As for the claim that there is no escaping the limits of some orthodoxy or other, well, who can observe the modern college campus and insist that it’s otherwise? It is precisely this fact that inspired the founders of the University of Austin to start a new institution, to escape today’s prevailing orthodoxies—into the “fearless pursuit of truth,” as Kanelos put it in his statement, made possible by free inquiry. But then again, truth itself may sometimes demand limits on speech and inquiry: The founders of UATX surely don’t want to see a Department of Holocaust Revisionism spring up, or to see a philosophy professor making a passionate case for slavery.

I suspect there is no permanent return to the Free Speech U that emerged postwar: during the brief interlude between the traditional, morally authoritative university defended by Newman (and William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale) and the rise of the Politically Correct University beginning in the 1980s and ’90s. Free Speech U contained within itself all the conditions that made possible and necessary PCU. Indeed, it was often the same campus free-speech radicals of the 1960s who by the ’90s were operating the censorious, therapeutic machinery of the new university.

So why would someone with my views about the university join the experiment launched by Kanelos and his team?

When they asked me to join, I laid out precisely this critique of their project and made clear that I would be a dissident voice. They didn’t mind. Indeed, they welcomed the prospect of a traditionalist internal dissident with a seat at the table. This was admirable to me. There is much else in their project, too, that I find attractive, not least the emphasis on in-person learning over and against the current drive toward neo-gnostic e-learning, a phenomenon totally alien to the classical tradition.

But there is another reason. In his Idea of the University, Newman notes how, in the medieval age, various heretical tendencies found ways to disseminate their views within the orthodox Catholic university, be it through secret societies or by transmuting their heresies into seemingly sound religious doctrine, which it took the likes of Aquinas enormous effort to unmask and combat. Well, I think it’s just about time that we orthodox believers returned the favor to liberal institutions—and to treat our presence within them as a test of their liberality, according to their own principles.