Pano Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, announced on Monday, November 8 the formation of the University of Austin (UATX), which he says will promulgate the liberal values and culture that legacy higher education institutions have neglected.
United by “a common dismay at the state of modern academia,” the university’s Board of Advisors assert that they can no “longer wait for the cavalry” to challenge intellectually stifling campus cultures that “chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints… lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, [and] prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth.” Instead, the group believes that they must take up the banner themselves.
Among the board’s ranks include several prominent scholars, university presidents, and journalists such as Niall Ferguson, Glenn Loury, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, and Bari Weiss. The board also includes University of Chicago affiliates—namely, former President Robert Zimmer, Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone, and Geophysical Sciences Professor Dorian Abbot.
Kanelos, who will serve as UATX’s first president, explains:
“… [I]n these top schools [such as Yale, Harvard, and Stanford], and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”
To Kanelos, the answer is a resounding “no.” In particular, he identifies a dual-faceted problem endemic to universities: instructors and administrators impose a censorious culture from the top-down, while the student body reinforces this illiberalism from the bottom-up.
Kelanos cites several surveys to support this diagnosis. For example, the Center for the Study of Partnership and Ideology recently found that large swaths of academics support ousting or discriminating against colleagues for their political opinions, and that more than a third of conservative academics and PhD students have faced threats of disciplinary action on account of their views. At the same time, nearly 70% of students endorse reporting a professor for saying something they deem offensive. As a result of this climate, Kanelos argues that students self-censor and “faculty are being treated like thought criminals.”
A Case in Point of Campus Illiberalism: Thought-Policing Professor Dorian Abbot
As an example of this “thought policing,” Kalenos points to the treatment of Professor Dorian Abbot. In September, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology disinvited Abbot from giving the honorary Carlson Lecture on climate. The announcement came just eight days after a small group of students, postdocs, and alumni mounted a Twitter campaign to cancel the event—not on account of Abbot’s scientific claims, but because he had criticized “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives in higher education in a Newsweek op-ed the month prior.
In the article, Abbot maintained that these DEI initiatives often entail “treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals” and ultimately “[give] primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.” He argued that instead, university applicants ought to be “evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” For these views, Abbot was considered persona non grata at MIT.
Kelanos argues that the censorious treatment of academics like Abbot, Peter Boghossian (formerly of Portland State University), and Kathleen Stock (formerly of the University of Sussex) illustrate that many universities no longer “create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized.” As a result, higher education institutions are not only “failing students as individuals,” but they are also “failing the nation…by producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.”
According to Kelanos, this failure by American universities is the impetus behind UATX:
“At some future point, historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass. And perhaps by then we will have reformed our colleges and universities, restoring them as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse. But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.”
Building Anew: UChicago’s Influence on UATX
As previously stated, UChicago has several close ties to the new project, with Abbot, Zimmer, and Stone sitting on UATX’s Board of Advisors. Abbot also told the Thinker that the “‘Chicago Principles’ and ‘Kalven Report’ have strongly informed the thinking that has gone into UATX.”
The “Chicago Principles” refer to the set of principles outlined in a 2015 report by UChicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which was chaired by Stone and appointed by then-President Zimmer and then-Provost Eric Iasaacs. The report underscores the importance of free inquiry in a true education and reaffirms the university’s pledge to guarantee “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn”—even though this may mean that students are confronted by ideas they find “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” The “Chicago Principles” have since been adopted by over fifty-five institutions.
Moreover, the 1967 “Kalven Report” maintains that UChicago, as an institution, ought to remain politically and socially neutral “out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”
“UATX is being founded explicitly around the ideal of the unfettered pursuit of truth,” Abbot told the Thinker. “This is codified in its founding documents and bylaws. There are a variety of oversight mechanisms built into the design to ensure that these ideals are upheld.”
Abbot anticipates that these mechanisms, coupled with the university’s explicit communication about its purpose, will select for faculty and students who truly “buy into the mission.”
Despite UChicago’s uniquely strong policy regarding free speech, many students—particularly conservatives—argue that the university frequently falls short of the ideals espoused in the “Chicago Principles” and “Kalven Report.” This leads some, such as the Thinker’s Managing Editor Evita Duffy, to question whether UATX will foster a different environment than UChicago by issuing similar, top-down commitments to open debate and free inquiry.
Duffy argued, “Not only has UChicago failed to uphold its own policies in the past, but there is also a stark disconnect between the administration’s policy and the campus culture regarding free speech.” She continued, “If UChicago is any indication, then I expect UATX will face similar challenges at some point. It will be interesting to see whether UATX will faithfully live up to its founding ideals—I am hopeful that it will.”
UATX has not yet been accredited and does not confer degrees, but it plans to launch its first Forbidden Courses summer program in 2022, in which students from other universities discuss provocative topics that are often censored on campus. It then plans to roll out a Master’s programs in Entrepreneurship & Leadership in fall of 2022, followed by programs in Politics & Applied History and Education & Public Service in 2023. By 2024, UATX intends to open its doors to undergraduates.
Update: Since the publication of this story, former President Robert Zimmer issued a statement indicating that he resigned from UATX’s Advisory Board on November 11, citing that the university made “a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from [his] own views.”