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It’s the University of Austin Against Everyone — Including Itself

The nation’s newest university isn’t 10 days old, but it’s already entering damage-control mode. The University of Austin announced Monday that high-profile advisers Steven Pinker and Robert Zimmer were leaving its board of advisers, where they briefly served as part of the brain trust shaping the college’s free-inquiry-focused mission.

When the self-styled “UATX” launched last week, its founding president Pano Kanelos said it would “restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom,” in the face of “universities [that] are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need… except intellectual grit.” It was both a mission statement and an implicit critique: the University of Austin will be “fiercely independent,” in contrast to an academic establishment hopelessly captured by censorious progressive ideologues.

The launch announcement came with a roster of name-brand thinkers to lend it intellectual luster, including the historian Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institution at Stanford (who is a founding trustee at UATX), former Treasury secretary and former Harvard president Larry Summers, and the polymathic economist Tyler Cowen.

Harvard’s Pinker has kept quiet about why he’s ending his affiliation, but the University of Chicago chancellor Zimmer made it clear: He’s all for free expression, but not the direct attack on existing higher education that attended the university’s launch, saying in his statement that “the new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.” West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, another adviser, kept his affiliation but said even more directly: “I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken.”

The discord reflects the inconvenient contradiction at the heart of an ambitious project: Despite the University of Austin’s claim to independence from the political minefield that is higher ed in 2021, it’s almost impossible to see the project as anything but political in its own right. Kanelos, a former St. John’s College president, announced its launch on the Substack of Bari Weiss, another founding fellow who is not an academic, but a journalist who specializes in lancing the liberal consensus. Co-founder and trustee Joe Lonsdale, also a co-founder of the data analytics company Palantir with Peter Thiel, defended the project in the conservative New York Post, and Ferguson wrote acidly in Bloomberg that “academic freedom dies in wokeness.”

The University of Austin’s explicitly stated ideological commitment is to a pluralistic, classically liberal freedom of expression. But as Zimmer and others have pointed out, the university’s project as constituted today rests on an inherently political critique of schools as they are. And for an intellectual vehicle so committed to diversity of thought that it can’t even exist in the current academic landscape, its affiliated thinkers comprise a near-monoculture in their own right: They’re nearly all icons of the same confrontational, non-“progressive” liberal rationalism.

In American politics, to claim the mantle of open inquiry — and a merit-based, rationalist freedom from ideological dogma — is to claim the moral high ground. But in doing just that, UATX has accidentally affirmed the criticism of the most left-leaning culture critics who loudly protest that there’s no such thing as truth or objectivity. Based on its current intellectual coterie, the university’s self-proclaimed “independence” looks a lot like an attempt to re-assert the dominance of its participants’ own values.

One doesn’t have to totally surrender to relativism to acknowledge that kind of moral high ground is more of a goal, or aspiration, than a state that one can ever actually reach. When conservative figures like Sens. Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley cry that American institutions are captured ideologically and need to return to some Edenic, pre-woke ideal — or when progressive thought leaders like Nikole Hannah-Jones claim an objective factual basis for a project that’s fundamentally ideological — they twist that ideal for their own political purposes. That’s all part of the back-and-forth of American life. But in claiming to be outside it, UATX and its boosters set an almost impossibly high bar for their project.

None of which is to say its structural or ideological critique of academia is inherently wrong — one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t a well-paid university administrator willing to say the current system is working just perfectly as it is. But the launch of UATX, and the vociferous reaction it has inspired, already serve as a cautionary tale about the notion of objectivity in modern American life — how seductive the claim to neutral ground can be, and how powerful, but perilous, a tool it’s become in the culture-war toolbox.

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Although the university’s founding advisers might be uniform in their opposition to a certain brand of progressive rhetoric, they’re something of a fractious bunch. For all the bile that Ferguson mustered in his Bloomberg op-ed, there’s the circumspectness of someone like Cowen; for the oak-paneled gravitas that a figure like Gordon Gee brings, there’s the bare-knuckled punditry of Andrew Sullivan. It includes a playwright (the Trump-supporting David Mamet) and a geophysicist (Dorian Abbot, who co-wrote an op-ed criticizing affirmative action policies and was disinvited from a prestigious MIT lecture for his troubles).

What leaves the project most vulnerable to critique in these early stages, however, is who’s not present — namely, anyone from the progressive left they believe threatens free speech in the academy. In an email, spokesperson Hillel Ofek said the school “will not hold any political or ideological test for its faculty. We believe a fundamental part of liberal education is engaging rigorously with radically alternative views and ideas, including those that challenge freedom of speech. We would certainly welcome someone who was a critic of freedom of speech from the left or the right, as long as they abided by our university operating principles of open inquiry and civil discourse.”

So what, then, explains the center-right lean of the school’s initial roster of advisers? For critics, the most charitable view might be that the university’s founding trustees fear progressive censoriousness as too much of a threat or hindrance to include (see: Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance”). But to deploy Occam’s Razor, it’s much easier to imagine that no one on the left — especially in the cutthroat world of higher education, where reputation is currency — might have been willing to sign on to a project that their peers would inevitably write off as a reactionary sop to anti-political-correctness dinosaurs.

“It seems to me that for somebody who, for lack of a better terminology, is progressive, I doubt that they would welcome the opportunity to serve on the board of advisers,” said Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and a former president of the ACLU who believes robust free speech protections are paramount to not just the flourishing of liberalism, but racial justice in its own right. Strossen, a UATX advisor, said she’s “had many long conversations with [university president] Pano [Kanelos], and I have absolutely no doubt that he would welcome advice from somebody who would speak out and be critical of everything, including the fundamental mission.”

As it happens, they do in fact have someone willing to criticize the fundamental mission of free inquiry. But it’s not a critic from the left: it is Sohrab Ahmari, the arch-conservative Catholic and self-described “post-liberal.” In an essay for The American Conservative, Ahmari wrote that “they welcomed the prospect of a traditionalist internal dissident with a seat at the table… I think it’s just about time that we orthodox believers returned the favor to liberal institutions — and to treat our presence within them as a test of their liberality, according to their own principles.”

An endorsement from someone like Ahmari — an admirer of Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” who once famously wrote that conservative Christians “should seek to use [the values of civility and decency] to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral” — is pretty stark proof of the school’s claim that no idea is too dangerous to go un-explored in the classroom. But in the absence of any theoretical counterpart on the left, it also paints an easy target on the university as simply a vehicle for grievances against so-called “wokeness,” the only otherwise plausible affinity Ahmari might have with its mission.

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In 2018, the historian David Greenberg wrote in this magazine of “the end of neutrality,” arguing that “without trust in the government and other neutral bodies to provide reliable information and to adjudicate fairly among viewpoints, we risk losing one of our democracy’s greatest virtues: the ability to wage our debates freely and contentiously while knowing that ultimately most of us will accept the resolutions as legitimate.”

Even in the absence, or weakness, of these traditionally neutral institutions — maybe because of it — the claim to openness and fairness remains a powerful one, often conflated with objectivity itself. A rhetorical claim of what any reasonable person would say, or what any fair interpretation of events would conclude, such as are bandied about in political discourse, includes assumptions about neutrality that its speaker might not be aware of. Even critics who claim to be savvy enough to realize that true neutrality is most likely impossible still invoke it, almost like a Freudian slip.

For some people, like the architects of the University of Austin, the mere stickiness of that idea in our intellectual life isn’t enough. So they attempt to re-construct the type of institutions that Greenberg described — in their own image, to be sure, with all the inherent biases they carry, but a stated commitment to combat them. And that, ultimately, is why the project arouses such ire: In a world where everyone claims the rational and moral high ground in service of their ideological commitments, taking the mantle of a referee isn’t just overly hubristic. It’s threatening.

Which is also why it’s somewhat understandable that the left finds the project so much more of an affront than the right does. Everybody loves free speech until their own personal line is crossed, and absent any leftist secure in their reputation who might agree in the future to be the University of Austin’s resident “woke” button-pusher, the accusation of an intra-right-centrist lovefest carries a semblance of truth.

For now, however, the University of Austin exists mostly as an idea. At some point, its commitment to its core mission will be tested — just as it has been at every other university — and it’s impossible to predict if its leaders will handle it with the fairness and intellectual equanimity its founders claim. In practice, the rational-minded independence it champions might be less a reachable condition than just that: a practice, and an aspirational one at that.

If it fails in that practice more often than not, every flavor of ideologue or critic who cares enough to notice will circle their wagons in the exact same manner they did at its announcement last week. If they succeed, and by doing so prove those critics wrong, they’ll have achieved something authentically new in American intellectual life — and retroactively justified not just the sound and fury surrounding a mere Substack post, but the place of rhetorical leverage its stated values hold in politics and culture today.

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