Something is rotten in the American university — or so say the founders of the University of Austin. Launched in early November by a group of neoconservative intellectuals including Bari Weiss and Niall Ferguson, its stated mission is to resist what its founders deem the growing censoriousness, illiberalism and groupthink of American universities, which have, as the conservative essayist Michael Anton argued in an essay celebrating the new school, “bartered truth for ‘wokeness’ and the imperatives of identity politics.”
After being announced to much fanfare, even among a handful of self-proclaimed liberals — Malcolm Gladwell claimed that, were he currently a college senior, UATX would be his first choice — the university stumbled out of the starting blocks. Within a couple weeks, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker issued terse resignations from the school’s advisory board, savvy internet sleuths discovered the university was seeking accreditation from the wrong institutional body and revelations of its extensive connections to the Koch network and other right-wing donors punctured its founders’ trumpeted claims to fierce intellectual independence.
Only time will tell whether UATX will amount to anything more than a “Potemkin university.” I certainly have my doubts. But for the time being, I think it offers useful lessons both in the anti-intellectualism of the American right and in the shortcomings of the contemporary American university.
According to UATX’s sparsely populated website, its first educational offering — a summer 2022 program of “Forbidden Courses” — will give current college students the chance to engage in spirited discussions “about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” So far, the institution has said precious little about the actual arguments one might encounter in these courses, nor why they might be “forbidden.” But a brief survey of the hobbyhorses of some of its advisors, faculty fellows and board members might offer some clues: that there are inherited IQ differences between racial groups (Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Haidt); that Islam is “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali); that trans women aren’t women (Kathleen Stock); that girls don’t play with dolls anymore (Niall Ferguson).
What unites the group of writers, academics and businessmen involved in the university is less a specific set of ideological positions — although there are some significant overlaps — than a common set of experiences. Many have faced harsh criticism for their views, and even as most still hold cushy sinecures at some of America’s most elite universities and media organizations — or have voluntarily decamped to the moneyed ranks of Substackdom — they argue that such criticism is evidence of growing “illiberalism” or “intolerance” of diverse viewpoints. This framing allows them to launder a predictable — and, in many cases, intellectually and morally indefensible — set of right-wing grievances with a sheen of free-thinking iconoclasm. If the people involved in UATX are experts in anything, it’s in dressing up intellectual narcissism and a lack of curiosity as rigorous scholarly inquiry and the dogged pursuit of truth.
Ultimately, what the University of Austin and its “Forbidden Courses” seem to value above all — the momentary thrill of the verboten, the smug self-satisfaction of slaying the left’s sacred cows — is fundamentally at odds with the demands and responsibilities of serious humanistic inquiry. As University of Paris philosopher Justin Smith wrote last summer, the radical promise of a humanities education is that it allows you to “latch onto something outside of and alien to the demotic culture that you have inherited and taken for granted in your early life, in order to have the sort of experience of radical difference that catalyses a full and deep second-person relationship to the object of your study.” The slow, plodding work of teaching, learning, reading and writing: it takes patience, humility and above all, a willingness to be enlarged, expanded and transformed in the unfolding of intellectual encounters. For the founders of UATX, the goal of education seems to be the exact opposite: to shore up a sense of embittered self-certainty. Call it the “owning the libs” or the “debate me, bro” model of scholarship.
I have to admit, however, that the UATX founders’ melodramatic criticisms of American higher education aren’t entirely unfounded. When Pano Kanelos, in a blog post explaining why he left his position as president of St. John’s College to found the new university, argues that “at our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite,” even as “blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living,” it’s hard to disagree — just look at the top employers of Yale graduates. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Political Science found that students at affluent universities like ours tend to graduate “with more economically conservative views relative to peers in other environments.” That finding is — or at least should be — a searing indictment of Yale’s hubristic claim, touted in the promotional materials of its latest capital campaign, that its “greatest contribution to humanity is the people we send out into the world.”
Moreover, outside our narrow band of cash-flush elite schools, skyrocketing tuition and student debt levels have led students to treat their educations like an investment to be milked for utilitarian value instead of an opportunity for deep reflection and contemplation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, American universities issued 50 times more bachelor’s degrees in business alone than in “area, ethnic, cultural, gender and group studies” — those perennial bugbears of the American right. Most American universities, elite and not, seem to have become ever more efficient caretakers of our punishingly unequal status quo, just as they’ve become less and less dedicated to giving students the freedom to pursue the radically transformative promise of a liberal arts education.
I don’t think Yale has to worry about any prospective students being poached by the University of Austin anytime soon, even if its leaders get their act together enough to figure out how to apply for the right accreditation. But in the meantime, I think UATX still does have something to teach us: not in its deeply compromised, uninspired vision of higher education, but in what the many problems of that vision tell us about the limits of our own.
JACK MCCORDICK is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.