It’s good to start a new school — whether your goal is teaching children to read or helping advanced students realize their greatest potential. So why all the controversy about the founding of the University of Austin?
When UATX announced its arrival this week, it was greeted with acclaim by some (especially donors, it seems) and with mockery by others. Former New York Times columnist and now Substack star Bari Weiss led off by turning her newsletter over to the founding president of UATX, Pano Kanelos. Although recently the proud president of a school devoted to the Western canon’s great books, Kanelos lamented the sorry state of American higher education. As the head of this new institution, he promises a commitment to three principles: the unfettered pursuit of truth; freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience and civil discourse; and being “fiercely independent.” (The school is in Texas, after all!) Students aren’t mentioned in the articulation of these principles, which is probably why teaching isn’t referred to, either.
Of course, if you’re going to start in a new school in a nation which already has many, it’s appropriate to say why. You don’t want folks wondering whether the resources involved might be better spent elsewhere. Right now, many schools are being closed for financial reasons — from neighborhood schools without enough youngsters to fill classes to colleges too small to be sustainable. Pundits predicted that the pandemic would result in hundreds of colleges having to close, and although that hasn’t come to pass, there are scores that are struggling, or looking to be bought up by larger institutions.
So what need is it filling, exactly? In a year or so UATX will offer its first credential, and despite all the rhetoric about the novelty of its principles, it’s one that many a new educational venture targets: a business certificate in “Entrepreneurship and Leadership.” (For those who can’t wait until the summer of 2023 for this essential service, there are at least 100 other programs in this area offered by universities from coast to coast.)
New schools can still have great value, even if they’re plowing existing ground. One of the great things about the system of American higher education is that it is not a system at all. Students who want to specialize in engineering may choose a large university — or the more experimental Olin College of Engineering, a young Massachusetts school that has smartly rethought what young people really need out of a college. Someone who wants an intensive studio experience of designing new spaces and objects might choose a multi-disciplinary art school like the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, or prefer a small liberal arts school with a strong studio program. This diversity can be confusing, but it is also immensely enriching to the landscape of American education, and to students who are exploring what they might love to do, get better at it and then learn how to find work in relation to their skills after graduation. UATX can add to this diversity.
The University of Austin makes space for itself in this ecosystem, however, not with a bold new idea but by attacking the other species already out there. Its own justification for launching is that other institutions suffer from not being adequately devoted to truth, from a lack of civility, from a failure to protect free speech and from being too tied to the elite liberal consensus that has been branded lately as “wokeness.” We’ve heard such complaints again and again from moderate and conservative critics at odds with students and faculty devoted to such things as rooting out racism, treating less conventional people with respect and eradicating gender-based violence and discrimination. Most of the critics are themselves in favor of these things in principle, but they fear that through a combination of self-righteousness, hypocrisy and group think, campus cultures have gone too far.
For at least the last 50 years, this has been the complaint about young people and the institutions that serve them: they go too far, and thus create new problems through their single-minded devotion to principles.
The founding salvos of UATX — its single-minded devotion to three principles — may be good marketing for donors, but as a serious critique of American higher education, they miss the mark. It’s true that elite colleges have an issue with groupthink. But the American higher education system is already immense, and once you look past those elite colleges, you’ll see a huge range of philosophies and politics.
Over the last few years, I have worked with about 400 partner institutions, including the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, for the purpose of helping students prepare to participate in the public sphere. Some of these partners are community colleges where the students often have full-time jobs and families and whose education can include learning a trade. Others are schools with religious faith at their core, and the education they offer is in the service of religious as well as secular goals. Some bring rich and poor people together in ways that rarely happen elsewhere in American society.
At The University of South Carolina, philosopher Jennifer Frey advocates powerfully for a virtue ethics grounded in the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas; in the spirit of open dialogue she recently hosted on her podcast noted progressive Cornel West — and not because they agree about politics. Large Purdue University, under the leadership of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, is promoting civic engagement among all undergraduates, as is small Davidson College in North Carolina, under the leadership of Carol Quillen, who studied (and argued) with the conservative cultural critic Allan Bloom. Wesleyan University, where I’ve been president since 2007, is a small liberal arts school with a reputation for progressive politics, and intellectual diversity has been a topic of campus discussion for several years. More than five years ago, we began reaching out to recruit military veterans on the faculty and in the student body. In the courses I teach, undergraduates engage with classics by thinkers like Aristotle and Rousseau, as well as with icons of contemporary progressive thought like Maggie Nelson and Saidiya Hartman.
UATX and its supporters are not wrong about some of the ills that currently plague American academia. There is indeed political prejudice in many departments, and hiring committees do tend to reproduce the biases of their members. As I’ve pointed this out to my colleagues, they often fall back on the same meritocratic platitudes of those who want to protect the status quo: “we only want to hire the best!” However, in bringing their biases into the light, we expand their notions of what “the best” might be. As we point out that in the humanities and interpretive social sciences we offer only a narrow range of political perspectives, the seeds of change are planted. At Wesleyan, we are seeing this bear fruit — not through inviting right-wing provocateurs to campus to prove our free speech bona fides, but by calling attention to conventional academic prejudices and by hiring and inviting to campus serious scholars of conservative, libertarian and faith-based traditions.
This is analogous to how we have made change in regard to race- and gender-based bias: by raising awareness of the problem, we have made progress in countering it. Administrators and faculty need to work much harder at intellectual diversity in the humanities and social sciences, and we need to maintain a commitment to free expression even as we remain wary of those who would use the commitment as a cover for the exercise of power and intimidation. Furthermore, universities must remain places where enduring questions from a variety of traditions are explored. In my experience, the power of this exploration does not lie in showing us that now we know the truth; it lies in creating opportunities to discover that the things we now believe might be wrong. As a teacher, it’s a great joy to see a student’s prejudices dissolve through conversation, inquiry and the study of powerful works, and it’s an even greater thrill when this happens to oneself while teaching!
I realize that the University of Austin is trying to raise money from donors whose wallets will open more quickly when they hear complaints about woke warriors or pronoun police. But you shouldn’t misleadingly disparage higher education in general in order to make a place for yourself — especially when declaring one’s devotion to truth. These complaints about other schools are really reflections of American political culture. So many seem to think that those with whom they disagree have just gone too far, be that in regard to environmental regulation, public health, or changing language to become more inclusive. Those accused of exceeding some border of civility or failing to protect free speech often return the favor and caricature their accusers as enemies of justice. The rounds of mutual recrimination only further erode the basic trust that a healthy political culture requires — that a healthy campus culture requires.
It’s good to start a new school. The ecology of higher education can have a niche for the University of Austin. If it turns out to thrive, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the work being done at other colleges and universities across the country.