Bucking the Trend and Starting from Scratch: The University of Austin

As Minding the Campus readers are all too aware, these are dark times in higher education. Political correctness and an enforced far-left ideology (complete with loyalty oaths, departmental diversity commissars, Red Guard-style cancel culture mobs, and cowardly administrators and regents) have created an environment where intellectual rigor and academic freedom are dismissed as the products of white patriarchy, rather than revered as the bedrock of academe’s central mission: the disinterested pursuit of truth. Even when faculty and alumni have tried to stem this tide (such as with the endowment of a “First Amendment Center” at the University of Texas Law School and efforts to open a privately-endowed “Liberty institute” at UT), university administrators have repeatedly shown that while they will piously pay lip service to the principles of liberal education, they are ultimately either unwilling to stand up for such principles or were never actually in favor of them in the first place.

This situation has led many of us to simply cut ties with our alma maters, considering them to be “too far gone” for any meaningful chance for reform. But for those of us who received a classic liberal education—grounded in multi-disciplinary coursework emphasizing reasoning and intellectual rigor—ceding the battle completely is unthinkable. But what can be done?

One answer comes from Dr. Pano Kanelos, who yesterday nailed a thesis to the virtual doors of universities across the country:

We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.

Dr. Kanelos left his position as president of St. John’s College, Annapolis to move to Austin, Texas, and with a host of other scholars, academics, and philanthropists has announced the founding of the University of Austin (UATX), a new university devoted to “the fearless pursuit of truth.” In a tour de force manifesto published yesterday on Bari Weiss’s Substack blog (read the whole thing!), he laid out the all-too-common examples of how higher education has become completely unmoored from its foundations, ultimately concluding:

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.”

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. Amidst the brick and ivy, these students entertain ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living.

Dr. Kanelos is actually doing something in response, and he is not alone in this venture. UATX’s Board of Advisors includes a dizzying array of academic superstars such as Larry Summers, Niall Ferguson, Arthur Brooks, and Glenn Loury; scientists like Steven Pinker, Dorian Abbot, and Lex Fridman; and luminaries such as John Lonsdale, Bari Weiss, Nadine Strossen, Andrew Sullivan, and David Mamet. (No word yet if Elon Musk is joining the party . . . but given his recent comments, his relocation to Texas, and his insistence on results over appearances, I would not be surprised if he does.) The university’s Founding Faculty Fellows are philosophers Peter Boghossian and Kathleen Stock, and humanitarian activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali—all of whom have had first-hand experience with the illiberalism of today’s campuses.

Bucking the trend of massive online courses, UATX will offer in-person instruction that returns to the classic university tradition. As Dr. Kanelos writes:

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.

Initially, UATX will offer a summer 2022 program for top students from other universities. This program, The Forbidden Courses, will focus on discussions of the most provocative questions of the day, especially those that usually lead to censorship or cancellation on “woke” campuses. This will be followed by master’s programs in Entrepreneurship and Leadership (fall 2022), Politics and Applied History (fall 2023), Education and Public Service (fall 2023), and Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (TBD). The four-year undergraduate program is slated to begin in fall 2024, with the first two years of study structured as an intensive liberal arts curriculum and the last two years as “junior fellowships” in one of four Academic Centers.

This will be, without question, a huge undertaking. However, the founders are girded for the struggle:

We expect to face significant resistance to this project. 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.

To the rest—to those of you who share our sense that something fundamental is broken—we ask that you join us in our effort to renew higher education. We welcome all who share our mission to pursue a truly liberating education—and hope that other founders follow our example.

For this alumnus of another university in Austin, I would much rather support those brave enough to return higher ed to its classical roots, as opposed to those who meekly surrender to DEI pseudoscholarship and populate the faculty with those who prize ideology over the pursuit of truth (who may well be worthy candidates for future Lysenko Awards).

I’m in. Who’s with me?


Image: Mitchell Kmetz, Public Domain

Louis K. Bonham

Louis K. Bonham is an intellectual property litigator. He is a graduate of the University of Texas (BA ’83, JD ’86), was an Articles Editor on the Texas Law Review, and served as a law clerk to the Hon. Edith H. Jones of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

15 thoughts on “Bucking the Trend and Starting from Scratch: The University of Austin

  1. I have 2 degrees from UT, BA 65 and BSPhr ‘66. For years I would proudly state I was a UT grad; however, for a number of years, too many to count, I have become so disenchanted with both academia and athletics I get nauseous just thinking of how our once Great University has become a muddled mess of Woke Bull. Both UT and Austin are unrecognizable and depressing to visit. I stay as far away as possible.
    OWO

  2. As a graduate of the Business School in 1971, I was given an education taught by real experts from the field of business. Dr. Witt, Dr. Alpert, Dr. Cocanaur and others taught from real world experience. And your scores were earned on learning real world realities to be effective in business. That is why so many businesses were founded by UT Grads of that period. So much time wasted on worthless indoctrination now. Requiring merit, hard work and love of UT was the way it was done. Professors so good Harvard and Stanford stole two by offering them the title of Dean at their school. But UT could have refilled the spots with others from the world real business. What a great education we had back then. We expected to be ranked #1 in future years but the goal was subverted by resorting to filling posts with teachers not professionals from the world of business. Teaching from a book rather than real world experience means you are always 4 years behind current trends.

  3. I hope they do some online courses, as I’m not planning to visit Texas any time soon.

    I’d like to do “The Forbidden Courses” next summer. But this article says it’s open to “top students from other universities”. I’m not sure I could get in.

    1. I share your hope, and further, would love to see it open to old, retired professors who have holes in their own education. I would love to participate as a student.

  4. It is a tall order. Good luck and stay with your initial mission because everyone, friend and foe alike, will be demanding something of your curriculum and concessions will need to be made. To my knowledge, no college in the US has been successfully founded by faculty, so the overriding question will be who, mainly, will provide the shelter as faculty grope around? Similarly, beware of granting too much power to the learners — this is one of the great problems with schooling today. Next, there are those pesky accrediting bodies, all set to trample your plans.

    1. Amherst College was founded by Harvard Faculty in 1820, Hampshire College mostly by faculty at the 4 other colleges in 1968. There may be others.

      But this was all before the days of accreditation as it exists today.

  5. I wonder how they will deal with the accreditation issue. For example, their MEd in Ed Leadership — badly needed — will do no good without both NCATE accreditations and placements for required internships.

  6. I wish them well, we need something. I hope they don’t become just another “Great Books” program. I wonder what they will do with science. They seem to have a (rather dubious?) critique of U.S. academic science, but I am skeptical that they will be able to do much. A “Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” master’s program? Sounds like what you can get at a thousand other places, mabe after a bit of scratching. Are they going to solve the mysteries of quantum gravity or spooky action at a distance or the origin of life? I will not be holding my breath.

    1. It’s not that as nuch as what are its grbduates going to do with their degrees? Most will need a state-issued engineering license. Even those going into teaching will need a state-issued teaching license.

      The Texas legislature could order these licensing authorities issue licenses to U-A grads, but that would also be problematic.

    1. No kidding. It is shocking and disgusting when you see how much the PC/DEI hysteria has now infected the hard sciences and business schools at UT (the soft science and humanities departments have been lost causes for years).

      And when some intrepid faculty have had the temerity to point out that UT’s DEI plan (drafted by hardcore CRT advocate Ted Gordon) actually *mandates* illegal discrimination, UT President Jay Hartzell just smirkingly dismisses them and continues to refuse to answer basic questions about it. (If you have a strong stomach, watch the video of UT’s last Faculty Council meeting.) Hartzell exemplifies the cowardly university administrator, and why even longtime UT professors have told me that the situation on campus is beyond saving.

      I’m a graduate (‘83) of UT’s Plan II (liberal arts honors) program, which has a traditional model very similar to what UATX is proposing for their undergrad curriculum. But today’s Plan II program, like so much of UT, is now “DEI uber alies,” as opposed to its storied history of admitting only the most qualified students and then pushing them to their limits and beyond.

      I’d been a volunteer guest lecturer at UT for over a decade in the business, architecture, and fine arts colleges (brought in to teach intellectual property law modules as part of various classes). The situation at UT is so bad I quit doing it in disgust, just as many others have similarly done. (OK, I recently made an exception at the request of my old professor John Sibley Butler . . . but that was as a personal favor to him, not UT.)

      1. If the DEI stuff is so bad — I can believe it is — why does the Texas legislature not do something? Why not Governor Abbott? Is he too busy scoring points with covid?

      2. Jonathan:

        Former UT regent Wallace Hall is reported to have stated that Gov. Abbott is the biggest impediment to reforming UT.

        Gov. Abbott has appointed every member of the UT Board of Regents, but they are unwilling to do anything. Abbott’s staff gave me a comment for an NAS piece a few months ago — that legislation addressing CRT in higher ed *would* be added to the special session call . . . but then the call did not include it, and they have ignored my efforts to get an explanation.

        Why is UT able to get away with it in such a deep red state? It is hard to say, but UT has a lot of lobbying power with the State Legislature. Much of this is no doubt due to the reflexive pro-UT slant of most alumni, most of which have no clue what is happening at UT.

        With CRT becoming a winning political issue, one would hope that the Texas GOP would crack the whip on UT. But part of Texas law and politics is that by design (post-Reconstruction constitution), it is really, really hard for the Legislature to pass anything, and a determined minority (which there would be for any efforts to reform UT) usually can block all but the most determined efforts.

      3. Perhaps Gov. Allen West could do better.

        But in fairness, large universities are SO complicated that unless you have a background in higher ed yourself, the institution will run circles around you — and those with a background in higher ed are the problem….

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