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Have the Founders of the University of Austin Been in a Classroom Lately?

Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, and others are creating a new university as an antidote to campus illiberalism. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Wikimedia Commons
A detail from Raphael’s “The School of Athens”

Earlier this week, a varied but like-minded group of public intellectuals and entrepreneurs announced the founding of a new university, one they consider wholly unique. Located in Texas’s booming capital—because, a FAQ tells us, “If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us”—the University of Austin should not be confused with the University of Texas at Austin (though it surely will be, not least by Google). UATX, as its founders hope we’ll call it, is fashioned as a free-thinking start-up meant to disrupt the status quo of hidebound, ideologically rigid higher education. The closer one looks at UATX’s self-important literature, however, the clearer it becomes that its founders aren’t faithfully representing what actually occurs in university classrooms like mine.

Founding president Pano Kanelos, formerly the president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, wrote in a mission statement on Monday that “illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life” and that our very Republic is at stake. “Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance,” he wrote. There’s no mention of Republican voter suppression or Trumpian authoritarianism.

UATX does not yet have a campus or accreditation or even any students. What it does have is a roster of the “world’s great thinkers but also … its great doers”: The founding trustees and advisers are a who’s who of the Intellectual Dark-cum-Substack Web: historian Niall Ferguson, former Harvard president Larry Summers, psychologist Steven Pinker, Palantir Technologies co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and journalists Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, among others. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has called for the “defeat” of Islam itself, is among its three founding faculty fellows. UATX plans to offer a “Forbidden Courses” summer program and a graduate program in “Entrepreneurship and Leadership,” and eventually an undergraduate college in 2024.

So what makes UATX different? They’re glad you asked. Three things: a “commitment to freedom of inquiry,” a “new financial model,” and an “innovative curriculum.” “Our students and faculty will confront the most vexing questions of human life and civil society,” their site declares. “We will create a community of conversation grounded in intellectual humility that respects the dignity of each individual and cultivates a passion for truth.” We’re told that in UATX’s eventual in-person classroom, “every opinion will be heard” and “every opinion must be supported by evidence.”

The university also proposes to “lower tuition by avoiding costly administrative excess and overreach”: “Student affairs, athletics, and extraneous services will be outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down.” Its academic curriculum, meanwhile, will distinguish itself through “immersive learning experiences” that bring students outside the traditional classroom, through “internships and competency-based coursework” and “research centers, which will be more akin to interdisciplinary think tanks than traditional ‘departments.’”

To those of us who work at colleges and universities, it’s clear that much of what’s meant to distinguish UATX is instead commonplace. Internships, externships, and out-of-classroom “immersive learning experiences” are already well integrated into curricula at liberal arts colleges, research universities, and community colleges. We already have interdisciplinary research centers and institutes—like the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which employs Niall Ferguson. In fact, if you type “university center for the” into a search bar and hit enter you’ll see how ubiquitous these are. Search for “entrepreneurship” or “leadership” degree programs while you’re at it and, behold, a staggering number of choices. It’s also not clear what funding model would make UATX more financially, intellectually, and politically independent than any other university, given potential conflicts of interest arising from any investment of the magnitude required to reach the desired $250 million base the founders identify as necessary to stand up a four-year university.

What, then, truly distinguishes UATX from what’s already on offer? It’s the claim that our higher education institutions are so illiberal that they’re not up to the task of educating democratic citizens. As Kanelos puts it, “So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.” That’s a bold claim, as well as a conventional one. For decades, culture warriors have obsessed over provocative stories—often blown hilariously out of proportion—from a narrow slice of mostly elite colleges. If you read the headlines but don’t have regular business on a college campus or in a college classroom, it’s easy to get the impression that higher education is “fractured”—by which, Kanelos makes clear later, he means that groupthink prevails and dissent is punished. But let’s look beyond the headlines.

It’s true that in most college classes you won’t find an emphasis on lively debate over divisive issues, because that’s largely not what class time is for. The UATX founders say they’ll hear every opinion, and every opinion must be supported by evidence, but not all opinions have evidentiary support. Knowledge comes first in the classroom. Staking out an opinion in search of evidence has the process exactly backward. Professors spend most of our class time teaching and leading discussions over technical matters, building knowledge from particulars. It’s easy to see this in the natural sciences, computer science, and mathematics—not because these fields entertain no value questions or moral controversies but because you have 75 minutes on a Tuesday to introduce shell commands in Python or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. But social science and humanities course material is also technical. Forget arguing over “deeper meaning,” just try scanning Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, covering the history of the heroic couplet, and explaining Pope’s classical references in 75 minutes just to help students looking at this kind of writing for the first time develop a solid paraphrase of what’s going on. That’s a normal class for me. Class discussions can be lively, even contentious, but proceed from technical instruction, not political commitments.

Even if you don’t buy this account of the classroom experience for all subjects, 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, or one-seventh the number awarded in homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting (57,339).

Suppose, however, you’re worried for each and every student exposed to the allegedly leftist professoriate. Roger Kimball took this stance in 1990 in Tenured Radicals, a screed against leftist illiberalism in higher education. In 2021, however, even if we accept that professors are radicals (I don’t), they’re certainly not tenured. Over 70 percent of the professoriate works off the tenure track, without the protections of academic freedom. How many of them are eager to risk student complaint—and their jobs—by foisting political ideology on their students?

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. Students themselves tend to think their professors are more moderate than the professors are in reality, which suggests professors do a pretty good job of avoiding political bias in the classroom.

None of this is to discount claims that students feel they can’t speak up about some things on campus. I’ve certainly met students who feel that way. But between a conservative media industry incessantly telling right-leaning students they’re victims and students entering college with increasingly left-leaning views, it’s not clear it’s professors or the curriculum that invite self-censorship. More likely it’s what Chad Wellmon calls “the Other University,” the “extracurricular governing apparatus—identifiable on university org charts as Student Affairs, Student Life, Dean of Students,” and distinguished from the academic curriculum “not simply by “the existence of rules … but rather the rigidity of the Other University’s rules and the fixedness of its goals.” As Wellmon writes, “instead of helping students gain clarity about their own values, the Other University reinforces the credentialing game undergraduates are already primed to play, turning questions about how to live into marketable skills and qualifications.”

We have no concrete reason to believe UATX is any less ideological than the status quo; and perhaps more importantly, there’s no reason to believe that this collection of would-be administrators, among them prominent partisan critics of higher education, would be better caretakers of free inquiry and truth than the ones we already have. Creating an environment of free and open inquiry in which all students, regardless of background and identity, feel equally part of the conversation won’t happen with on-the-cheap or outsourced support structures, any more than it does with inflated bureaucracies. UATX’s founders for years have used their various platforms to bemoan the state of higher education and propose how to fix it. They’re about to get a crash course in the real-life challenges of the job.