Reimagining College: Three New Schools

Most American colleges and universities are fiercely resistant to major change. The staff, especially administrators and senior faculty, think they “own” the institutions and enjoy their dominant role. Yet enrollment data and public opinion polls show that Americans increasingly take of dim view of our colleges and universities. Some think the only way to effect real change is to build new institutions from scratch. I look at three such efforts below, schools in which I have had some personal association with prime movers.

Ave Maria University

A half hour’s drive east of Naples, Florida, is the home of Ave Maria University and a new town arising around it (also named Ave Maria). The oldest of the three institutions discussed here, Ave Maria was created by a single man, Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. Tom is concerned that American academe has lost sight of what motivated the creation of many colleges two or three centuries ago: instilling Christian virtue and integrity into young men (and now women). Universities should create virtue and strengthen character. For Monaghan, that means a Roman Catholic vision—Tom is a fiercely traditionalist Catholic.

Ave Maria was founded around 25 years ago in Michigan, but it really became a serious presence when it moved to Florida about 15 years ago. There is both a law school and a liberal arts college where students explore the mysteries of the secular world and advance their spiritual development and character. It is a work in progress and has had a few stumbles searching for good leadership. But it offers a vision often ignored by today’s relatively agnostic or even militantly atheist institutions.

Thales College

This fall Thales College, the vision of Bob Luddy, opened near Raleigh, North Carolina to a handful of students. Bob, another really good friend, owns CaptiveAire, which is probably the nation’s premier manufacturer of kitchen ventilation systems. But Bob also supports various conservative and libertarian causes as diverse as the American Spectator, the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

[Related: “Academia Needs Builders, Not Burners: What Charlie Kirk Gets Wrong About Higher Education”]

Bob’s new college is the culmination of an academic venture including marvelous academies (high schools) with a breathtakingly and refreshingly old but proven curriculum emphasizing the classics of literature and language—all students study Latin, for example. I have spoken at two of Bob’s 15 or so charter schools enrolling several thousand students, marveling at the students’ politeness, their sharpness, and their respect for worthy traditions (they often wear uniforms and face real discipline for misbehaving).

The schools feature a robust emphasis on debate. I once attended a debate amongst Bob’s students and was mightily impressed. The schools also offer a rigorous curriculum, stressing civility amidst debate—qualities often sorely missing in American education—and life. Bob shares my view of accreditation: it is mostly an invidious, anti-competitive obstacle to academic innovation, so he is not seeking it at Thales College (meaning students will not get federal financial aid). Obviously, the jury is still out on Thales, but I think there is a market for students in search of rigor and an examination of alternative perspectives of life within an atmosphere of tradition and civility rather than wokeness, ideological conformity, and turmoil.

The University of Austin

I have saved the newest and probably largest venture for last. Last November, amidst some fanfare, former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss announced the formation of a new University of Austin, with the prospects of good private funding and the support of some major names in academia, the likes of Jonathan Haidt; Deidre McCloskey; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Ali’s  historian husband, Niall Ferguson; Glenn Loury; the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen; the longest serving American university president, E. Gordon Gee; and many more. As president, the school lured Pano Kanelos, former president of the marvelously traditionalist “great books” school Saint John’s. President Kanelos is committed to scholarly excellence and “the fearless pursuit of truth” in an environment where all kinds of ideas circulate freely, with zero political correctness or institutional restrictions on intellectual diversity.

[Related: “Bucking the Trend and Starting from Scratch: The University of Austin”]

The school is in its organizational stage—getting a campus, buildings, faculty, other support personnel, etc. But this summer it offered a little sampling of things to come, a series of “Forbidden Courses” taught to 80 young persons, ranging from newly beginning students to recent college graduates. The short courses raised challenging, difficult topics and featured free-wheeling, animated but civil discussions. One New York Post interview with three participants showed great enthusiasm for Austin’s approach. One Brown University student, Sophia Sadikman, called it “the most incredible learning experience of my life.” An ex-Muslim student, Hanna Nour, a new graduate of the University of Central Florida, said of her participation, “It was like night and day compared with my previous experiences.”

Is There Hope for the Future?

Will these ventures help move traditional higher education toward reform? Possibly. Also, within traditional higher education, there are colleges and universities under strong leaders doing some innovative things, such as Mitch Daniels at Purdue, Michael Crow at Arizona State, or Paul LeBlanc at the University of Southern New Hampshire. We still have some marvelous colleges refusing to submit to the increasingly authoritarian diktats of the U.S. Department of Education, perhaps most notably Michigan’s Hillsdale College led by Larry Arnn.

Markets have difficulty efficiently allocating resources in higher education because of massive government subsidization and interference. But they are helping effect change. When California’s highly respectable Mills College became excessively woke and progressive, enrollments plunged, and it was forced into a merger with Northeastern University that will radically alter Mills.

“Creative destruction” is alive and well in higher education. The “public be damned” attitude of many schools is coming at increasingly high costs. A reversal of the debilitating trend in America’s colleges and universities is highly plausible, even likely, over the next generation. The new schools outlined above are part of that solution.


Image: mantinov, Adobe Stock

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

2 thoughts on “Reimagining College: Three New Schools

  1. Having gone through four full, and two five-year accreditation processes, I can tell you that none of the questions are about education quality. It is a useless expenditure of time. The only good it does is to find an occasional school with financial issues.

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