November 16, 2021

University of Austin

“A group of public figures, many of whom are vocal critics of higher education in the U.S., are creating a new university in Austin, Texas. Their goal for The University of Austin is to address ‘a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education,’ Pano Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis wrote in an announcement on Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter

“The board of advisers for the new endeavor includes co-founder of Palantir Technologies Inc., Joe Lonsdale, former Harvard University President Larry Summers, former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright David Mamet and historian Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University… the university plans to launch its summer program in 2021, start a graduate program in 2022, expand the graduate program in 2023 and establish the undergraduate college in 2024.” Bloomberg

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From the Left

The left criticizes the new university, arguing that concerns about academia are overblown.

It’s hard to believe the typical college classroom is stifling and hyperpoliticized if we examine this question at scale. Of the roughly two million bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2018–19, according to the latest data in the National Center for Education Statistics 2021 digest, the most popular fields are business (390,564 degrees), health professions (251,355 degrees), social sciences and history (160,628 degrees), engineering (126,827 degrees), and biological and biomedical sciences (121,191 degrees)…

“The intensity with which pundits target area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies as an illiberal force in higher education is out of step with the sheer number of students in those courses: 7,724 degrees were awarded in the field in 2018–19…

“Contrary to popular belief, research consistently shows not only that professors don’t indoctrinate their students but that college actually tends to have a moderating effect on student politics, for both left-leaning and right-leaning students. Clever researchers have also compared college graduates with their non-college-graduate siblings and found that the college graduates came out with the same politics as their siblings who didn’t go to college.”
Aaron R. Hanlon, New Republic

“Despite the wider critique of higher education’s obsession with identity politics, the University of Austin appears to be more invested in these questions than any college or university I can think of—even Oberlin. Two of its three founding faculty members, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Kathleen Stock, have been criticized for Islamophobia and transphobia, respectively…

“Far from being an institution freed from the concerns of identity politics, it’s far more likely that the University of Austin will relentlessly burrow into issues of identity—the nail these hammer-wielders already see everywhere…

“This, coupled with the nod to [Elon] Musk and [Joe] Rogan, suggests that, rather than free inquiry and debate, what you will get at the University of Austin is a student body intent on nothing more than owning the libs—and making bombastic and likely offensive claims about issues of race and gender… For all the big talk about censorship and free inquiry, the entire project is thin soup, intellectually speaking.”
Alex Shephard, New Republic

“The history of American higher education is littered with attempts to break away from the restrictions of traditional elite colleges… They have prospered when they have focused on students’ desires, but they have failed—often spectacularly—when they relied instead on celebrity endorsements and the desires of frustrated conservative professors. The burden of administration, it turns out, is something you can’t escape…

“At Bryan University, for example, attracting rich and famous celebrity support was the easy part. The hard part was getting all those celebrities to agree on what exactly the new university would teach… Does the fledgling University of Austin have what it takes? Without accreditation, classes, or degree options, all of which the founders say are forthcoming, the answer may be no. It takes more than accusing mainstream colleges of being ‘broken’ to create something that will actually work.”
Adam Laats, Slate

From the Right

The right praises the new university, arguing that it is necessary given the state of academia.

The right praises the new university, arguing that it is necessary given the state of academia.

“In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented them from saying things they believed, up from 55% in 2019, while 41% were reluctant to discuss politics in a classroom, up from 32% in 2019. Some 60% of students said they were reluctant to speak up in class because they were concerned other students would criticize their views as being offensive…

Such anxieties are far from groundless. According to a nationwide survey of a thousand undergraduates by the Challey Institute for Global Innovation, 85% of self-described liberal students would report a professor to the university if the professor said something that they found offensive, while 76% would report another student…

“The American system today is broken in ways that pose a profound threat to the future strength and stability of the U.S. It is time to start fixing it. But the opportunity to do so in the classic American way — by creating something new, actually building rather than ‘building back’ — is an inspiring and exciting one.”
Niall Ferguson, Bloomberg

“The left, too, which has its own litany of complaints about the corporate university, should see advantages in establishing novel institutions. Forgiving yesterday’s student debt is well and good, but I suspect that if you took the billions of dollars of higher-ed money being pondered in the Build Back Better plan and set up a group of national public universities aimed at offering low-cost educations to low-income Americans, you would do more good than sluicing it through the system that saddled all those kids with debt in the first place…

“And for that matter, if you’re the kind of progressive donor or foundation that’s given generously to the initiatives and ideas that the University of Austin’s would-be founders regard as threatening to academic freedom, wouldn’t you want to see your own vision of the university realized with full integrity somewhere, instead of being compromised by its association with historically tainted institutions?…

“I probably would not send my children to Ibram X. Kendi College, but I would consider it a healthier expression of antiracist ideology than a bunch of diversity programs layered throughout the corporate-university bureaucracy.”
Ross Douthat, New York Times

“The university is a joint project of a host of luminaries from across the political spectrum who have in common a commitment to open debate and civil dialogue. It will be headed by Pano Kanelos, recently the president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, famed for its ‘Great Books’ curriculum. Others on its 31-person board of advisers are so varied and distinguished that it’s hard to choose whom to highlight…

“Among them, though, are conservatives such as Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the Hoover Institution, and Hillsdale College historian Wilfred McClay, along with liberals Larry Summers (former president of Harvard), former New York Times editor Bari Weiss, and Nadine Strossen, who for 18 years was president of the American Civil Liberties Union… [This is] The best news in academia in a long, long time.”
Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner

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