The University of Austin Pursues ‘Truth,’ Stirs Controversy

Can a new school with a retro model and conservative bent succeed in today's competitive higher education environment?

November 17, 2021 · Updated on November 18, 2021

The University of Austin Pursues ‘Truth,’ Stirs Controversy
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Peter Tsai Photography - www.petertsaiphotography.com / Moment / Getty Images

  • The new University of Austin aims to counter what its founders call "illiberalism" on America's campuses.
  • It will offer an on-ground, residential undergraduate experience and various graduate programs.
  • The rhetoric of the university's trustees and advisory board members has spurred critical responses.

What do you do if you're fed up with the current state of American higher education? You start your own university, of course.

"We can't wait for universities to fix themselves," the University of Austin founding president Pano Kanelos said in an announcement. "So we're starting a new one."

Who is behind this startup, and what is their plan? Will it work?

Combatting Illiberalism, Instilling Intellectual Grit

The University of Austin (UATX) was announced Nov. 8 in a manifesto of sorts published in former New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss's Substack newsletter.

Kanelos, who wrote the announcement, is the former president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., an institution known for its "Great Books" curriculum immersing students in Western civilization's classic works. He said in the announcement that he accepted the position at UATX to "build a university in Austin dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth."

"There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education," Kanelos wrote. "[C]an 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?"

Kanelos said universities practice "illiberalism" when they "chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints" — particularly faculty with conservative leanings. Scholars, he says, avoid controversial topics out of fear or retribution. Meanwhile, institutions prioritize students' emotional comfort.

"On our quads," Kanelos wrote, "faculty are being treated like thought criminals."

Joe Lonsdale, tech venture capitalist and a UATX trustee, wrote in a New York Post opinion piece that he wants to "take power back from the ideologues."

"Robust debate on important topics is increasingly rare, and uniformity of viewpoint is increasingly demanded," Lonsdale wrote. "Universities have been captured by new ideologies of intolerance that order subservience and quash those who think differently."

In his announcement-cum-manifesto, Kanelos said much is "broken" in the U.S. but, "higher education might be the most fractured institution of all."

Graduation rates hover around 40% nationally, he wrote. Tuition costs have soared. Student debt has spiraled out of control. Universities spend too much on bloated administrations, "trivial entertainment," and "luxury amenities," and too little on instruction.

"[U]niversities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need," Kanelos concludes. "Everything, that is, except intellectual grit."

An On-Campus Experience Grounded in the Liberal Arts

At this point, the University of Austin isn't much more than an idea. According to its website, UATX has secured seed funding and is in the process of raising $250 million to become a full university.

The university is fiscally sponsored by Cicero Research and, according to its FAQ, does not plan to accept public funding. UATX is considering the effects this decision will have on students and research grants, but in all likelihood it means students will be ineligible to receive federal financial aid. At the same time, taking that tack would maintain the university's independence and free it from some regulatory obligations, thereby reducing administrative costs.

Why Austin, Texas? According to the FAQ, "If it's good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it's good enough for us." The university also calls the city "a hub for builders, mavericks and creators" — the kind of people it aims to attract.

While the rest of higher education is investing in online capacity, UATX is going old school with a brick-and-mortar campus. Its classes will be almost exclusively in person, with some online instruction to supplement coursework. The university will also offer free digital content to the public.

"We believe human beings think and learn better when they gather in dedicated locations," Kanelos noted.

The university is seeking accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission and authorization from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Meanwhile, it's moving ahead with plans to launch academic programs and recruit students.

Beginning next summer, UATX will offer "The Forbidden Courses." The program promises a "spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities." That fall, UATX aims to debut a master's degree in entrepreneurship and leaders.

Future programs include graduate degrees in politics and applied history; education and public service; and technology, engineering and mathematics. A law school also looms on the horizon.

The university's undergraduate program will take the form of a residential liberal arts college. After two years of liberal arts courses, juniors join one of four "academic centers." These centers combine "research institutes, think tanks, and innovation incubators, dedicated to addressing the most pressing questions posed by society."

Students shouldn't expect a fancy campus — no lazy rivers and climbing walls to drive up tuition costs. Instead, UATX will focus its resources "intensively on academics, rather than amenities," according to its website. (Presumably, that means no football team, though the school a bit down the road features a pretty decent one.)

Conservative Orientation Sparks Controversy

It's not every day that a new university appears on the scene, especially one created in response to some hot-button issues on America's campuses. Not surprisingly, the announcement of UATX has stirred debate.

The university's rhetoric has a decidedly conservative bent, as do many of the individuals associated with it. Trustee Bari Weiss, the writer in whose newsletter Kanelos's manifesto appears, resigned from the Times last year following her accusations that colleagues bullied her for her conservative views. Another trustee, Niall Ferguson, is a senior fellow at Stanford's right-leaning Hoover Institution. His Bloomberg opinion piece on UATX contends that "academic freedom dies in wokeness."

It's no wonder New York Magazine's Sarah Jones compares UATX to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, calling the new university a "Bible college for libertarians."

"Those disturbed by progress will find shelter on campus," Jones wrote. "Pledging freedom from wokeness, the University of Austin actually seeks freedom from free exchange."

And yet UATX's board of advisors, a group separate from the trustees, includes university leaders not necessarily known for their political inclinations. Such advisors include former Harvard president Larry Summers and Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University. Gee took some heat at West Virginia for affiliating with Austin and issued a public statement confirming his commitment to WVU.

"Serving in an advisory capacity," Gee wrote of his role with UATX, "does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share."

University of Chicago chancellor Robert Zimmer was originally on the advisory board but resigned on Nov. 11, noting that UATX "made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views."

Additional advisors include author Andrew Sullivan, playwright David Mamet, and former American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker was initially on the board but, like Zimmer, promptly resigned.

Kanelos dismisses claims that UATX exists to advance a conservative agenda.

"We have no interest in creating a conservative university," he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "What we need now is a university that can unify people across the political spectrum."

Can the University of Austin Succeed?

Time will tell if the University of Austin even gets off the ground, let alone becomes a viable institution. At the very least, there's no shortage of potential faculty members. Kanelos told The Chronicle more than 500 professors from around the country have reached out to him expressing interest.

As with all such ventures, success will depend on money. One estimate suggests launching a new university takes hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. Granted, UATX doesn't envision an elaborate campus filled with modern amenities. Still, new construction isn't cheap, and neither are infrastructure costs, salaries, marketing and recruitment efforts, and scholarships.

Then there's the matter of not accepting government funding, which includes federal scholarship aid.

"Who knows if they'll be able to pull that off," Jonathan Zimmerman, history of education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Higher Ed Dive. "The federal dollars are the mother's milk of all of this. I know they are raising a ton of money and they say they want to keep tuition low. How do you do that without federal dollars?"

Imagine being charged with student recruitment for UATX. You tell prospective students they don't have access to federal loans, though there is some scholarship money thanks to donor gifts. UATX doesn't have accreditation yet, and it could take up to seven years to attain it. The school has spartan campus amenities, no sports or other such social activities, no alumni network, and a liberal arts curriculum that ignores a nation of students swarming to STEM majors and high-demand tech careers. Why would a talented student turn down offers from traditional colleges to accept yours?

"Would you send your kids there?" journalist Julia Ioffe asked. "If it was between, say, Harvard and University of Austin, what would you choose?"

Unless UATX presents some value proposition yet unveiled, it's hard to believe the school would lure many top students away from mainstream options.

One encouraging example might be Olin College of Engineering, which enrolled its first students in 2001 and has succeeded in attracting talented learners who could have attended more established schools. But Olin's financial model is different from the University of Austin's, including the acceptance of federal funds and a wealthy foundation that established a hefty endowment.

If the University of Austin materializes as a manifestation of Kanelos's vision, the school will have defied the odds and proven there's always room for one more institution despite its divisiveness — or perhaps because of it.