Moving Forward: On Building New Institutions

I recently began a series of articles assessing the various ways out of our current academic quagmire. In the first piece—or perhaps more accurately, the zeroth piece—I urged conservative commentators to stop spending all of their time pointing out the rather obvious double standards, contradictions, and hypocrisy within the higher education establishment, and to instead direct more of their energies toward building positive solutions. At this point, anyone who wants to can spot the academic Left’s blatant malfeasance; far fewer people can work to remedy it, and those who can should get to it.

I then considered the possibility of reforming legacy higher education, that is, historic academia as we know it. I posed the simple question: is legacy higher ed a lost cause? My answer: if left to its own devices, then it almost certainly is. America’s academic establishment has a terminal illness and has done little if anything to self-medicate—in most cases, it has actually made the condition worse. As I see it, the only reform efforts that will take hold in legacy higher ed are those which come from outside the institutions. The doctor is in, and well-crafted higher education legislation is the invasive surgery our colleges and universities desperately need.

These days, however, some are less interested in reforming existing institutions and are instead intent on building new ones. I don’t think that these two approaches are mutually exclusive: there’s a lot of ground to cover, and there are enough reformers to focus both on fixing legacy higher ed and on building new schools. Ideally, the legacy institutions worth saving would be saved, and new institutions would replace those that don’t make the cut.

In order for new colleges and universities to outdo and outlast their predecessors, they need to be sound both in theory and in practice. That is, they need to have a solid foundation for truth-seeking, and they need to be financially self-sufficient. There are surely other important considerations, such as accreditation, but these two conditions are the most important to meet if one is to start a virtuous, durable institution.

In Theory: A Solid Foundation for Truth-Seeking

At the most basic level, higher education has a two-fold purpose: 1) seek the truth and 2) teach the next generation of scholars and citizens. I intentionally use the phrase “the truth” because I presuppose the existence of objective truth rather than the subjective pseudo-truth that permeates our culture—i.e., “speak your truth.” (As a musician, I hasten to add the search for objective beauty to academia’s mission, but for the sake of concision I’ll stick with truth.) It stands to reason, then, that in order to pursue objective truth, one must have a solid foundation for objective truth in the first place, as well as the means to pursue the truth. 

It’s clear as day that the postmodernists who dominate our institutions lack this foundation. Postmodernism challenges “concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” Those last two concepts are key—when we “destabilize” or “problematize” (two terms postmodernists love to use) epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning, then objectivity goes out the window. All that’s left is a relativist soup of equally valid ideas, the consequences of which we are seeing all around us. Our professors now tell us that men get pregnant, that 2+2=5, and that silence is violence. If there is no objective truth, then why not? Pursue your own interests and accrue power by any means necessary, objectivity be damned.

[Related: “Moving Forward: Is Legacy Higher Ed a Lost Cause?”]

What may be less clear, however, is that some of the new institutions on the block have no more of a foundation for objective truth-seeking than today’s postmodern crazies.

Take, for example, the much-celebrated University of Austin (UATX). Founding president Pano Kanelos states that “we are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.” The UATX website is filled with phrases such as “the fearless pursuit of truth”; “freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse”; and “fiercely independent—financially, intellectually, and politically.”

Sounds great, right? Many commentators think so, but I’m not so sure. I agree with some of the founders’ motivations, but I think that UATX is going about this in a way that will only lead to ruin. To start, let’s take a look at some of UATX’s trustees, advisors, and faculty fellows: Niall Ferguson, Peter Boghossian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jonathan Haidt, and Richard Dawkins. All of these folks are atheists, some of whom have built much of their careers on this worldview—Boghossian, lest we forget, wrote the well-known A Manual for Creating Atheists, and Dawkins is one of the so-called “four horsemen” of New Atheism. There are many more scholars involved with UATX who are not as outspoken as the aforementioned figures but who nonetheless hold to some form of naturalism.

Despite their claims to the contrary, atheists and other naturalists have no grounding whatsoever for objective truth or for the means to pursue the truth. Every piece of the foundation upon which university research lies—the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, mathematics, categories, moral absolutes, etc.—is an immaterial reality and therefore does not fit in a naturalist worldview. The fact that naturalist academics use this immaterial foundation for their work proves the absurdity of naturalism itself. (For more on these ideas, see the work of Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen, among others.) So while I expect UATX to last longer than legacy higher ed and to provide a better education in the process, it lacks the foundation to be a truly durable institution. It’s using borrowed capital from the Christian worldview that built the West while maintaining a facade of intellectual neutrality—as one writer put it, it has its feet firmly planted in mid-air.

Indeed, we ought to challenge UATX’s claim to be “fiercely independent” intellectually and politically (its claim to financial independence is admirable and necessary—more on that below). In reality, no one is truly independent in these areas. We all approach our academic work, and the rest of our lives, with ground-level presuppositions. These presuppositions stem directly from our worldview (everyone has a worldview) and determine how we perceive reality. Two people looking at the same set of facts will interpret them differently due to their presuppositions. To believe in intellectual and political independence, therefore, is to believe in the myth of neutrality, the very myth that got us into this mess in the first place. No part of academia is neutral or independent—every institution will have a stated or unstated worldview that guides its work. The one guiding UATX is a dead end, plain and simple.

A new university must be built upon a worldview capable of supporting objective truth. At this point, you can probably guess what I believe that worldview to be: Christianity. But it’s not just me—Christian colleges and universities abound in the U.S., and our oldest, finest institutions were founded by Christians. Columbia’s motto is In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen (“In your light do we see light,” Psalm 36:9), and Harvard has Psalm 8:4 (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) engraved on Emerson Hall. This is not a coincidence or merely a product of the time—these institutions and more, despite present appearances, succeeded because of their Christian foundation, not in spite of it. We ought to remember this when we look to build new colleges and universities.

[Related: “Academia’s ‘Double Standards’ Are an Illusion”]

Otherwise, these new schools will inevitably descend into relativist absurdity. We’re already seeing this with legacy higher education—the University of Austin and other institutions built upon the sinking sands of naturalism and feigned intellectual neutrality will follow soon enough. As Pastor Douglas Wilson frequently says, “it is Christ or chaos.”

I understand that I may have offended you, dear reader—this is to be expected. But it should be completely uncontroversial that I, a Christian, would see Christian institutions as the only viable way forward. I don’t write this to browbeat you or to stir controversy, but only to point to what I am convinced is the right direction for higher education. The current state of academia, both in historically Christian institutions that have long since forsaken the faith and in newer institutions that never had it in the first place, seems to prove my point.

In Practice: The Necessity of Financial Independence

Financial independence is key, but I’m spending far less time on this condition because it’s more straightforward than the first and because many more people have written about it. That said, there are many practical challenges that stand in the way of founding new institutions, even those that are sound in theory, not the least of which is the cost. Even a university of modest size will cost millions of dollars to get off the ground, not to mention the ongoing expenses of instructor salaries, building maintenance, technology, and more. This is prohibitively expensive, at least for those of us who don’t receive seven-figure checks on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, it’s imperative that any new institution refuses to take government money. As I recently wrote, government funding is like a fishhook. Once it’s in, it’s nearly impossible to take out without bringing about institutional collapse, and it comes with more and more demands each day. There are a few colleges, such as New Saint Andrews and Hillsdale, which have managed to stay afloat without it and have therefore avoided the Department of Education’s tomfoolery. It is certainly much harder to start and maintain a college without Uncle Sam, but if you can manage, it will pay off in the long run. This will require a dedicated base of donors from all economic classes. Are we ready to put our money where our mouth is and support virtuous, sustainable institutions?

I really do believe that starting new institutions is a viable avenue for reforming American higher education. But it needs to be done right—new institutions need to have a foundation for objective truth-seeking and must be financially self-sufficient. If either of these are lacking, then relativism will infect the institution and bring it crashing down, either from within or from without.


Image: Hoda Bogdan, Adobe Stock

David Acevedo

David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

2 thoughts on “Moving Forward: On Building New Institutions

  1. Rather than focusing on the “institution” perhaps it would be more productive to think about creating small communities of scholars, colleges if you will, who pursue their own areas of interest and take on students as a means of funding their enterprise (and training their successors)? In the end, it is about the faculty.

    1. This is a constructive suggestion. We already have a model in home schoolers who organize collectively. At the college level, a large part of faculty these days consists of sessional lecturers who (shamefully) are exploited financially by the institutions they work for. Hiring them might be within the reach of small groups of parents of college age children who are looking for an alternative to established institutions.

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