A group of intellectuals who have faced hostility for expressing their ideas are building their own institution of higher education in Austin, Texas, saying they can no longer wait for legacy universities to address pervasive intolerance on campuses.
“We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew,” Pano Kanelos wrote in a newsletter announcing the establishment of the University of Austin (UATX). Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, will serve as the founding president of the new school.
The goal of this educational initiative is to build a university “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” a promise Kanelos said appears in mottos of many prestigious institutions but is hardly honored in practice.
“There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education,” Kanelos wrote, pointing to recent incidents in which faculty were “treated like thought criminals” because of their viewpoints.
Last month, University of Chicago scientist Dorian Abbot was disinvited by MIT from delivering a prominent public lecture after he expressed doubts about diversity hiring. Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, quit in September following “years of harassment by faculty and administrators.” Kathleen Stock, a professor at the University of Sussex, England, was forced to resign after facing death threats from extreme transgender activists over her research on sex and gender.
Many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where “intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized,” according to Kanelos. Instead, for many of the most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to “function as finishing school for the national and global elite.”
Kanelos said he set up UATX to renew the purpose of higher education. His project is joined by journalists, scholars, business leaders, and public intellectuals including Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, and Arthur Brooks. Peter Boghossian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Kathleen Stock are the first three announced founding faculty fellows, who are tasked to design a curriculum and offer lectures and courses that “exemplify the pursuit of excellence in the service of truth-seeking.”
UATX won’t accept undergraduates until 2024, but it plans to launch at least three graduate programs and will roll out summer programs as early as 2022.
The first summer program, according to UATX’s website, will be called “The Forbidden Courses.” It will invite students to discuss “the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” The goal of the course is to make students “proficient and comfortable with productive disagreement.”
The opening of an undergraduate college is planned for fall 2024. The first two years of the four-year program will consist of “an intensive liberal arts curriculum, including the study of philosophy, literature, history, politics, economics, mathematics, the sciences, and the fine arts.” There has yet to be any news about tuition or scholarships.
In a call to action, Kanelos encouraged those who share the feeling that “something fundamental is broken” in higher education to join the effort.
“We welcome all who share our mission to pursue a truly liberating education—and hope that other founders follow our example,” he said.