About a week ago, former Wall Street Journal book editor Bari Weiss unveiled a new college: the University of Austin. The pitch for this new university was that it would promote freedom of expression and academic exploration, which have long been hallmarks of American liberal education but which have been, in the eyes of Austin supporters, under attack by “cancel culture“.
The New Republic called the University of Austin “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” noting that a lot of its revolutionary ideas about education are already common in American colleges. Experiential education – like internships and on-campus work opportunities – are standard. Its first ever offering will be a graduate program in “Entrepreneurship and Leadership,” which is not exactly a hard-to-find subject elsewhere (and elsewhere it can be found as a degree, not just a ‘program’). The only thing that makes the University of Austin stand apart is it’s decidedly anti-cancel culture stance.
In her unveiling, former St. John’s College president Pano Kanelos, now president of the University of Austin, wrote that “many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized.” This begs the question: was St. John’s College one of those institutions? Apparently not, as Kanelos praised the school back in July, calling it “a community that is still resistant to the general forces that are impeding the fundamental freedoms behind liberal education.” But presumably, Kanelos has more leeway at a brand new university (backed by tons of sweet software company money) to craft a truly anti-woke society.
Yet, in a way reminiscent of how President Trump would rail against elites while trying to cultivate their favor, the advisors to the new University of Austin included a number of folks from other universities and academic organizations. Having Robert J. Zimmer, the chancellor of the University of Chicago, on their advisory board gave this new university academic credibility. So did Steven Pinker, a well-known Harvard University professor.
Anyway, they both quit on Monday.
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.Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University
In a brief statement published by the University of Chicago, Zimmer explained that he liked the idea of a university whose commitment to academic expression was part of its founding ideology. However, Zimmer, explained, he disagreed with the claim that other institutions – like his – did not cultivate academic expression or bent to the whims of woke Twitter mobs. “While the new organization’s commitment to a liberal arts education and free expression reflects topics that are very important to me,” he wrote, “I resigned from the Advisory Board on November 11, noting 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.”
Pinker likewise appeared to disagree with the new university’s stated views on other institutions – again, like his – and departed to focus more on his own works. In its statement on their departures, the University of Austin acknowledged that it had misled the public into thinking that Zimmer and Pinker endorsed its views on cancel culture.
Writing in Politico, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth said about the University of Austin, “New schools can still have great value, even if they’re plowing existing ground… 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.”
This approach is not uncommon on the American right, where tribalism is essential to maintaining political relevance. Such tribalism is a constant, unending spiral; as academics abandon the University of Austin, it will only reinforce the notion that they “fear” its anti-woke rhetoric. Yet, it will also ensure that the school – if it ever really happens – will never have a diverse student body. Even less confrontational conservatives will likely shun the school for the less controversial waves of longtime conservative academic waters like Liberty University, a pretty devoutly anti-woke college that already exists, leaving Austin as a pool of only the most combative, holier-than-thou right-wing agitators. As one redditor explained, “some of those authors are very insightful and have fascinating perspectives to share. But to me the entire enterprise sounds separatist (that is, defined by its own opposition to an enemy) and prone to succumb to the tyranny of small differences.”