This past weekend the University of Austin (UATX) held its second “First Principles Summit.” This Summit brought together professors, administrators, public intellectuals, and business-people. (I was also invited.) The purpose of the gathering was, as UATX President Pano Kanelos explained, to hold UATX’s founders accountable to their first principles.
Founding is not for the faint-hearted. Any knowledge of the American Revolution or the stories that Machiavelli collected in The Prince makes that clear. The founders of UATX—President Kanelos, Provost Jacob Howland, four academic directors, five faculty fellows, seven trustees, and 23 members of the Board of Advisors—know it too. In 16 months, they made UATX a non-profit, applied to Texas for academic authorization, secured office and classroom space, offered a successful summer of “Forbidden Courses” (with another on the way), planned a graduate symposium, organized a high school summer program that has attracted teens from around the globe (to Austin—in June!), run a year-long “Polaris Fellowship” for aspiring entrepreneurs, and established the Mill Institute to train high school and postsecondary educators to promote open inquiry. They have also explored degree partnerships with a half-dozen prominent free-thinking institutions around the world, and even have plans to cut typical tuition rates in half and outsource much of the university’s administration to a partner institution in Guatemala. And, by the way, they have raised over $150 million. These people work hard.
Founders also know that hard work is a requirement for, but not a guarantee of, success. Amid all the building, innovating, partnering, leveraging, etc. something essential—like mission or focus—might get lost. Hence the purpose of this Summit: to step back from all this doing and to reflect; to reflect on what those first principles are, how they are (or are not) embodied in UATX’s efforts, and how UATX can continue to hold fast to those first principles and not lose its way. After all, sometimes there’s nothing like success to bring about failure.
The day-long Summit included breakouts on the UATX Mission Statement and Constitution; a role-playing session exploring institutional alignment, using the scenario of a student group’s inviting the President of Iran to speak on campus; and further breakouts on promoting the “culture of conversation” in the face of hypothetical complaints from parents about ideological conformity or from students about pronouns, gender identity, race, or religion.
The discussions were no-holds-barred—conformity was not much in evidence. For example, about one-third of the group would have forbidden the would-be invitation to the President of Iran. Once invited, most (but not all) would have allowed the speech. Many (but not all) would have presented “context” or rebuttals to the Iranian president. Some (certainly not all) would have punished students who attempted to disrupt the offensive speaker’s speech. And a few would even have agreed to help the CIA bug the president’s on-campus entourage.
In the sessions there were lively debates about viewpoint diversity, about the place of research or teaching or (for that matter) gender in faculty hiring, and about how to sort for students who are ambitious risk-takers and yet also eager to study the great books.
True founding is not replication—and there is little chance that UATX will be like other universities (at least to begin with). That said, founders also know that models matter, particularly when it comes to governance. How the university makes decisions and resolves disputes will largely determine whether it stays true to its path or loses its way.
This founding’s James Madison is UATX trustee and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. He invited participants to consider as models of possible governance the University of Oxford (founded 1167), Harvard (1636), Humboldt University of Berlin (1810), the University of Virginia (1819), Stanford (1885), and the University of Chicago (1890). Most attractive to UATX appears to be the U of C, which looks to have proved least susceptible (so far) to the Leftist cloud of intellectual conformity that has settled over much of academia, and which continues to combine serious education in Western civilization with a commitment to first-class scientific research.
But when it comes to an actual governing document for UATX, the model proposed to the Summit was the U.S. Constitution, with its division of government into three branches and its famous checks and balances. This model makes sense, insofar as UATX places a high premium on “unfettered pursuit of truth … freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.” This is a government that will control the university but also control itself. Perhaps academic freedom could survive here even if woke devils, rather than freedom-loving angels, took control.
I am hopeful for UATX’s success, but I have my reservations about putting too much hope in this constitutional model by itself. A university does not have the “double” protection that Madison envisioned for the nation: the division between federal and state power, and the division of the country into various other “subordinate distributions.” A university, especially in its early years, does not have the geographic or organizational scope to militate against a determined faction taking control of its branches of government. A nation has its own standing in the world; a university, even a contrarian one, is subordinate to its political environment and faces immense, yet subtle, pressures to conform to the larger community’s governing beliefs. Especially if UATX’s growing community remains happily disputatious on core matters, it is easy to imagine the dominant Leftism taking hold. (Which raises the question of whether, with all its hipster chic, Austin is the best place to found a counter-cultural university.) Finally, despite the undoubted brilliance of the U.S. Constitution, which seems almost divinely inspired, few people would say its government remains, in practice, true to that Constitution’s original intent.
The wonderful thing about this moment in UATX’s life is that concerns like these are very much on the table. So are fundamental questions, such as criteria for admissions and hiring; or the fundamentals of the mission, which seems to strain to hold together “the wisdom of the past” and “the transformative potential of novel ideas,” while also seeking to prepare “innovators, builders, leaders, and citizens.” Its curriculum is an ongoing topic of debate. So, too, are graduation requirements, which at present would forbid imposing political litmus tests on student grading but would also require students to prove that they have become “leaders” by devising (at age 18?) and pursuing an innovative, entrepreneurial project that will better society at large. Does UATX really expect to graduate 1,000 such “leaders” each year?
Neither I nor anyone else has all the answers to these questions or the solutions to these problems. But knowing, as I do, the interest that members of the National Association of Scholars take in such matters, I would encourage readers to share their thoughts with UATX leadership here or in the comments below.
For my part, I would add to the mix one other model of governance. The U.S. Constitution may be the finest fruit of modern political philosophy, but there is also the long tradition known as classical political philosophy. Whereas modern political philosophy seeks to preserve liberty, classical political philosophy promotes virtue. While modern political philosophy trusts in institutions, classical political philosophy (without ignoring institutions) emphasizes the formation of character.
My own sense is that character-formation could be a helpful addition to UATX’s governing documents. What qualities, beyond scholarship or teaching excellence, should faculty possess? What about academic directors, provosts, or presidents? (E.g., some combination of “intellectual humility” and demonstrated moral courage?) At present the Board is dominated by successful tech innovators and investors. These are people who know the value of truth, and who are financially successful, which are both good things. But should trustees possess any other qualities or virtues? UATX wants to foster the love of truth in students. The love of truth, as love, is not only a matter of intellect—it is also a matter of character. Its cultivation requires examples—in faculty, administrators, and trustees—who not only talk the talk but also live the life, a life that UATX itself suggests is produced by liberal education. A useful question for the selection of future faculty, administrators, and trustees could be, “Is this person’s life a product of a liberal education?” If not, does it make sense to offer him or her as an exemplar in this university?
One of the most important insights of classical political philosophy is that a constitution is not (only) a document but, more deeply, a shared way of life. A successful constitution reflects, promotes, and relies upon that way of life. A stable political community is one in which the predominant power in the community—whether that’s the people or the wealthy or some other elite—wants that shared way of life to continue. While institutional forms are not unimportant, my sense is that UATX’s true success will depend on clarifying what that desired way of life looks like and building up sufficient unanimity within its community to preserve that way of life in the face of the inevitable attacks, distractions, and temptations.
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