A planned university “dedicated to the truth” will welcome the “witches who refuse to burn”
A few blocks from the University of Texas at Austin, planning for a new “University of Austin” is underway, supported by academics and intellectuals who say they have been rejected because of their beliefs. The university, they promise, will be “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of the truth” and will be home to “witches who refuse to burn.”
Monday’s announcement referred to images of cavalry fighting police brigades of thought one would expect to find in “oppressive regimes in distant lands.”
It will be led by Pano Kanelos, who resigned in June as president of St. John’s College Annapolis. He made the announcement in a newsletter published Monday by Bari Weiss, a writer and editor who resigned last year of The New York Times after accusing his colleagues of constantly intimidating him because of his more conservative views. Weiss, who is helping start the planned college, posted the tweet about welcoming witches who refuse to burn.
The modern university, Kanelos wrote, no longer protects freedom of inquiry and civil discourse, instead punishing people for their old-fashioned views.
“What unites us is a common dismay at the state of modern academia and the recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry,” Kanelos wrote. “And so we must be the cavalry.”
The university’s planners, who are working to secure land for a physical campus, have attracted big names to its advisory board, including E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, and Lawrence H. Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard University.
Skeptics have pointed out the difficulty and cost of starting a new college and the risks to students who enroll. In 2007, College of founders, a for-profit institution in rural South Boston, Virginia, was established as a sort of Great Books College for Ayn Rand devotees. The state of Virginia authorized him to issue degrees at a time when he had no formal faculty, facilities, and precarious finances. The college was never accredited and closed in 2008.
The University of Austin will seek accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accreditation body, once it is operational, Kanelos said. It would probably take about four or five years to become fully accredited, he said. A spokesperson for the accreditor said she received a request from the planned university.
This summer, a “Forbidden Courses” program will offer “a lively discussion on the most provocative issues that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities”.
By next fall, the planned university hopes to have a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and leadership, Kanelos said, with more master’s degrees to come, and undergraduate programming offered by 2024.
In an interview on Monday, Kanelos dismissed comparisons some on Twitter were making between the University of Austin and for-profit universities accused of depriving students of money.
“We are a traditional, in-person, non-profit institution with about 30 people associated with all ends of the political spectrum and from all walks of life,” he said.
University planners have reached their original goal of raising $ 10 million in two months, mostly from individual donations, Kanelos said. He said more than 500 faculty members from other institutions reached out within hours of the announcement.
“On our quads, teachers are treated like criminals of conscience,” Kanelos wrote in the ad. He cited as an example the decision of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to de-invite Dorian S. Abbot, a University of Chicago scientist whose scheduled lecture on the potential for life on other planets was canceled due to Abbot’s perspective on college diversity programs. Abbot is among the supporters of the planned university.
The founding faculty members include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, activist and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Peter Boghossian, professor of philosophy who resigned from Portland State University in September after what he called for years of harassment from teachers and administrators. The third fellow is Kathleen Stock, who resigned her post as professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex in England last month after saying she was threatened for her research on sex and gender. Critics accused her of being transphobic, which she denies.
Monday, Stock said on twitter that she was “thrilled” to accept an offer as a founding faculty member at the University of Austin, working part-time from Britain. Boghossian said he received dozens of “advocacy emails” of professors eager to join him at the planned university.
“We believed that such censorship was only possible under oppressive regimes in distant lands,” Kanelos wrote of their experiences in academia. “But it turns out that fear can become endemic in a free society. It may become more acute in the one place – the university – which is supposed to defend “the open investigation of controversial ideas.”
The planned university, which garnered its fair share of skepticism on social media, was also causing some consternation at the University of West Virginia, where President Gee responded on Monday with a statement defending his decision to serve as an adviser to Kanelos. Gee called his commitment to West Virginia “unwavering and unequivocal.”
“Serving in an advisory capacity doesn’t mean that I believe or agree with anything other advisers may share,” he wrote. “I don’t agree that other universities are no longer looking for the truth and I don’t feel that higher education is irreparably shattered. I don’t think that’s the case at the University of West Virginia. However, he added, academia needs more “difficult conversations” that reflect a range of stimulating ideas and concepts. He said he hopes his involvement with the University of Austin will help develop strategies that will benefit all of higher education.
In an interview on Monday, Summers said he was advising the university “because in general I think innovation is a good thing.”
“I do not approve of everyone involved in the project, and I am sure they will make many decisions that I will disagree with,” he said. But he agrees with the position of the founders that “the implicit and explicit restrictions on what can be discussed and how it can be discussed are very problematic.”
Other members of the proposed institution’s advisory board include Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright; Deirdre McCloskey, economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Joe Lonsdale, a venture capitalist and founder of Palantir Technologies Inc., is also on the board of directors.
Contrary to popular perception, Kanelos said The Chronicle, “We have no interest in creating a conservative university. What we need now is a university that can unify people from all political walks of life. “
Even as competition for students has intensified amid changing demographics and growing skepticism about the value of a college degree, Kanelos said he’s confident the university will occupy an attractive niche.
“We hope to attract students who are looking for a college experience that is extremely tolerant and open to multiple perspectives,” he said. “Our students will be free thinkers and nonconformists. “