The University of Austin has a good hook. Now for the hard part.

Nov 9, 2021

They went ahead and did it. After years of criticizing colleges for intellectual inertia, political bias, and administrative bloat, Bari Weiss, Niall Ferguson, and other writers and dissident scholars announced plans for a new educational institution. According to the website, the enterprise will be dedicated to "the fearless pursuit of truth."

The phrase is an implicit but pointed contrast to the groveling avoidance of risk that characterizes much of the 21st century academy. The main link between the founders seems to be rejection of "cancel culture," self-censorship, and the way moral and political concerns are edging out inquiry as a focus of campus life. That's a good start but not enough. The project needs substantive goals that will attract committed students and faculty, as well as attention on Twitter. 

Setting up a postsecondary school is a risky enterprise at a time when many other counter-cultural or small institutions are in dire straits. The very name of the project reflects the challenges. They're calling it the University of Austin, a brand that seems intended to trick search engines fulfilling queries about a world-class neighbor with a very similar name. This isn't the kind of innocent confusion that sometimes leads people to introduce me as a professor at one of my local rivals, Georgetown or George Mason (I teach at George Washington University). The comparison between the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Austin is more like the one between Harvard and Harvard Upstairs Medical College. 


Get the latest news from The Week

Sign up for our free newsletter

Whatever its name, "UATX" also isn't a university, at least not yet. Its initial offerings include a noncredit summer program on "forbidden" ideas, to be followed by a graduate course in "Entrepreneurship and Leadership," and finally by undergraduate instruction in 2024. At present, the organization has no campus, no accreditation, and just a fraction of the $250 million that it hopes to raise to acquire these things. 

Most important, it's not clear whether there's real demand for what UATX promises to offer. The centerpiece of the undergraduate program is to be a rigorous two-year humanities sequence, after which students will affiliate with professionally-themed "academic centers." It looks like a hybrid of the great books approach offered by St. John's College, where UATX leader Pano Kanelos previously served as president, and more conventional instruction. 

In principle, there's a case for this model. A strong core curriculum helps students develop a shared academic background before proceeding to specialized courses. That makes it easier for them to recognize blindspots in fields of concentration as well as remedies in other subjects. But compromises can be less satisfactory than more consistent alternatives. Great Books schools like St. Johns and religious colleges are inspired by distinctive and demanding visions of moral and intellectual development that offset reduced opportunities for pre-professional and scientific study. We'll find out whether the same is true for a somewhat old-fashioned but essentially secular and modern conception of the liberal arts. 

The appeal to faculty is also questionable. The website includes some prominent scholars on its board of advisors. So far, though, none have announced plans to quit their jobs at locations including Harvard, Brown, Princeton, or NYU, and move down to Austin. It's not surprising people holding enviable positions at famous institutions are reluctant to give them up, even at this early stage. Still, that lack of personal commitment casts doubt on the value of their support. 

There are reasons for skepticism that the reality can match the hype, then. But much of the criticism is also over the top. 

It's true the public relations push has relied on vague endorsements by social media celebrities and popularizers, encouraging suspicion the courses will be glorified podcasts. Yet the formal materials emphasize UATX's commitment to in-person instruction (even though they don't explain who's going to provide that instruction or how they will be paid). There's also no evidence the organizers are looking to fleece unsuspecting rubes, unlike Trump University.

The strongest objection is that there's a disconnect between traditional liberal education and vague associations with the tech industry aroused by the involvement of investor Joe Lonsdale, proposed graduate course in entrepreneurship, and tribute to Elon Musk on the website. Starting with offerings that are marketable to students and appealing to donors makes a certain intuitive sense, like opening a food truck before attempting a full-service restaurant. But the relation between rigorous undergraduate education and professional masters' degrees might be more like the connection between selling artisanal tacos and selling TV dinners. In other words, they're superficially similar businesses that actually meet very different needs for very different customers. 

Even here, though, existing universities and their defenders are hardly in a position to criticize. Some of the most famous names in higher education proudly offer graduate degrees that are both hugely profitable and deeply exploitative. Nor are they above selling career tips from dubious celebrities as a major part of their educational offerings. It's not exactly rare for the administration and faculty to have clear political inclinations, either. If such practices are unworthy of a genuine academic community, incumbent institutions might start by reforming themselves. 

The truth is, the history of such initiatives suggests there's less distance than meets the eye between alternative institutions like the University of Austin and the existing academy. The clearest precedent is the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London, which was founded in 2010 for similar reasons and by some of the same people who have lent their names UATX. Denounced by critics, NCH managed to hang on for nearly a decade until it was purchased by Boston-based Northeastern University, which will both offer independent degrees and use the college as a base for its study-abroad operations in the UK. If UATX survives, its reward may be reintegration into the higher education system it was founded to oppose. 

Related Posts